Kids and Distance Running: How Young Is Too Young to Get Involved?
The global childhood obesity rate is currently at an all-time high. With an estimated 41 million children aged 5 and under classified as overweight or obese in 2016, a figure that has nearly doubled since 2000, it is clear that we’re headed for trouble.
But that’s not all. In addition to these overweight pre-schoolers, more than 340 million children and adolescents worldwide between the ages of 5 and 19 were classified as overweight or obese in 2016. That’s a whopping 18% of the world’s population in this age group – a vast increase from 4% back in 1975.
A Complex Issue with Many Unanswered Questions
So what are we to do? While the issue is no doubt a complex and multifaceted one, the role of inactivity in this rising epidemic cannot be ignored. We no doubt need to encourage our kids to get off the couch and get moving (in addition to making informed adjustments to family diets, including moving away from processed foodstuffs and back to nutritious wholefoods, among other things).
And while the solution seems obvious to many, this newfound focus on physical activity for youngsters brings with it a flood questions. How much movement is enough? Is a few weekly jaunts to the playground adequate? Or should kids be pushed into more formal forms of exercise, like distance running? If so, is distance running safe for kids? And at what age can they safely start doing 5K, 10K and half marathon events?
Here’s what a few experts have to say.
Should Children Be Encouraged to Participate in Distance Running?
According to Dr William O. Roberts, MD, an important determining factor in introducing children to distance running is this: Who is initiating the activity? If it is the child, and the child shows excitement and enthusiasm to get involved, Roberts feels that it’s probably okay to proceed. He adds, however, that the focus should always be on participation and fun, not PBs and records. In addition, Roberts lists the following important criteria for self-motivated kids participating in events from the 5K to the half marathon (minimum age race rules permitting, of course):
- The child should have a training program and base to support the race distance of choice
- During training, there should be no injury or injury-related pain
- The child’s normal growth (in height and weight) should be maintained throughout training
- The child should maintain good nutritional intake during the training period
- Good sleep patterns should be maintained throughout the training period
- The child should be able to maintain good social interaction, as well as academic performance throughout the training period
- Adolescent girls should maintain normal menstrual function throughout the training period
How Young Is Too Young to Get Involved in Distance Running?
So when is a child ready to start participating in distance running? While the answer is not set in stone, Dr Mark Halstead, pediatric sports medicine specialist at Washington University, feels that children are generally ready to start tackling longer distances, like 5K events, between the ages of 8 and 10. He agrees with Dr Roberts, though, that a child’s own desire to run matters much more than reaching any particular age.
Charles Kuntzleman, Ed.D., head of the Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan Fitness for Youth Program, feels that children are generally able to run a half marathon at about the age of 12. Once again keep in mind that this is a very broad generalization, and that every child’s development (and desire to run!) is different. Kuntzleman also warns that a child’s body was not built to keep up an even pace over long distances. As a result, children generally find it both physiologically and mentally harder to compete in distance running when compared to adults.
Some Extra Precautions
So if your child does show a keen interest in running and would like to start going longer than your annual family turkey trot, be sure to always keep Dr Roberts’ criteria in mind. In addition, be sure to adhere to the following recommendations by Charles Kuntzleman and Dr Roberts:
- Buy your child proper running shoes that fit well and is suited to their feet.
- Never let your child increase their mileage more than 5 to 10% per week.
- Never let your child train or race through pain. A child should also always be given the choice of dropping out of a race if they do not feel well.
- Let your child train on soft, even surfaces where possible.
- Children should always participate in a race alongside an adult for safety reasons.
- Smaller races, where it’s harder to “get lost on the crowd” may be more suited to children and adolescents than big city races with tens of thousands of participants.
It’s Not About You
However exciting it may be for you as a running parent that your child is showing a keen interest in running, always remember to keep it fun and relaxed. Go at their pace, not your own, and cover the distance that they feel ready to conquer. Do not force them to participate and do not make it all about performance.
Remember: This is the perfect opportunity for you to spend some quality time with your child, make memories together and build a base that might just blossom into a life-long, positive relationship with running. So step back, keep setting a good, active example, but check your own running ambitions at the door. Don’t push too hard and fan the excitement in those young hearts.
Who knows? Before you know it, they might just be beating you to the finish line!
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