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Out There: Young Runners

Can kids run marathons? Should they?

Can kids run marathons? Should they?

I have a friend who is currently training for a marathon with his daughter. For the last six months, they’ve had a shared routine: On Tuesday nights, they do track workouts. On Thursdays, they fartlek their way through an hour-long game of Tag. Sunday is a day for long runs and even longer strategy sessions over chocolate chip pancakes. The marathon they’ve chosen to race together will fall on her birthday.

She will be 11 years old.

This isn’t the first case of a child running a marathon. Children as young as 5 years old have recorded marathon finishes in the United States (with some pretty impressive times to boot). Programs like Students Run L.A. and Kids Run Miami have thousands of young runners successfully tackle 26.2 miles each year. We have enough evidence that kids certainly can run marathons.

But should they? No. And yes. Maybe. It depends on who you ask, really.

One set of experts calls marathon training “an inappropriate activity for children and adolescents,” while another says marathon training is probably just fine for youth, so long as “the athlete enjoys the activity and is asymptomatic [for injuries].” Take the question to Facebook or Twitter, and you’ll find a few self-proclaimed experts more than willing to share their thoughts on the matter. So who’s right?

“How much running is too much? We don’t really know,” says Dr. Joseph Chorley of Texas Children’s Hospital Sports Medicine Program. Simply put, there hasn’t been enough research to definitively laud or condemn long-distance running for children.

RELATED: Generation Next: America’s Fastest Young Runners

For every young runner who proudly dons a finisher’s medal, there’s another who becomes injured before toeing the start line. Just like adults, long-distance training can lead to overuse injuries in young runners. Unlike adults, however, kids aren’t fully formed. Chorley says a child’s skeletal immaturity can mean long-term complications from common running injuries that would only temporarily sideline an adult runner. Cautious and gradual mileage increases are important for all runners in training, but even more so for those who are still growing.

Young runners also have a lot of growing to do between the ears, too.

“Children are not mini-adults, “says Dr. Karl Erickson of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports. “They have different needs and different capacities, both physically and psychologically. During childhood, running—and even racing—needs to be fun, not just something they do because an adult told them to. Turning running into work, especially before adolescence, is a recipe for burnout and early dropout of the sport. To me, the critical question is not ‘How much should a child run?’ but rather ‘Why are they running?’

“There can be many risks—social, emotional and physical—that can negatively impact a child during marathon training,” says Eric Spears, Senior Coordinator of Students Run L.A., which helps approximately 3,000 youth successfully train for and race the Los Angeles Marathon. “Overtraining through too many miles or too quick a pace can potentially cause physical issues. Forcing a child to compete if that is not to their liking can lead to a rejection of future physical activity altogether.”

But when done correctly—that is, with a gradual progression, appropriate support from knowledgeable adults, and an emphasis on fun—Spears says marathon training at an early age can create happy and healthy runners for life:

“Students internalize the self empowerment that occurs when one builds upon increasingly difficult short-term goals (5K, 10K, 15K, half-marathon, and 30K) to accomplish the once impossible goal of completing a full marathon. Our finishers prove to themselves and their families that they can do anything if they plan and put in the hard work it takes to complete that goal,” Spears said. “We are still seeing ‘kids’ from our program showing up at races and even marathons 27 years later, who all say they still run because of the great experiences they had as kids.”

“Running can be an amazing and positive experience for young people. However, the way we as adults, as coaches and parents, support and structure children’s participation in running is vital in determining whether running acts as a benefit or detriment for children,” says Erickson. “When we encourage a love of running, when we help children participate on their own terms, it can be an incredibly positive developmental experience, with opportunities for learning all sorts of life lessons.”

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About The Author:

Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman Triathlons and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). Susan lives and trains in Salt Lake City, Utah with three animals: A labrador, a cattle dog, and a freakishly tall triathlete husband. She claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke.