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Too Young To Run?

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If there’s a controversial topic found in the world of running, it could be the idea of children running in situations that extend beyond playing in the backyard or running the bases at a T-Ball game. A child might embrace a love of running at a very young age, and as a parent, it would make sense to try and encourage that love since doing so could lead to the child falling more in love with the routine and being a health-conscious adult. At the surface level then, children running in these scenarios might seem great. Maybe Mom would love to run with her child, or perhaps Dad wants to make running a family thing. If the child’s interested, why not make that family run happen?

But is it safe to encourage serious running in younger children?

More specifically, how young is too young to safely run? There are guidelines that have been given for this curiosity, but enough is at stake to merit a bit of investigation on the matter to uncover the best method for safely dealing with a young child who loves to run.

Though there are examples of runners who have done impressive things in early years, there’s evidence that running too young can lead to physical problems. While one source slams the idea that growth can be stunted through heavy running, that doesn’t negate every possible ramification of putting your body through such a high-impact practice at a young age. Bone health, for instance, is something that needs to be considered, and that idea makes sense if you look at the basic development of bones. Keep that detail in mind across the board—that knowing how your body functions can create a safer, healthier run.

In regard to your bones, you aren’t born with the solid skeletal system that a twenty-five-year-old has. Rather, your skeletal system is mostly cartilage at birth, and all of your bones aren’t linked as they eventually will be. By that, I don’t mean your hip bone isn’t connected to your knee bone! I mean that what will in the future be one bone might have a separation or two within it. Don’t believe me? Consider this: Adult humans, in general, have only 206 bones. Babies have about 300 and they will fuse together as they grow, but at first are separate and joined by membranes.

Bones will grow, fuse, and become less cartilage-based as the years roll on, but you don’t hit what’s known as “skeletal maturity” until closer to adulthood—sometime around the 18 to 25 age range. Logically, at any point prior to that maturity, your bones could be more fragile and prone to injury. Worse, if a bone fracture happens and extends into the growth plate, this could possible cause permanent damage.

What does all of this add up to? The obvious response would be an argument in favor of there being an age that’s too young to run. If bones are fragile and underdeveloped, it would make sense to protect them until they’re solid enough to take the impact of running with less possibility for damage.

But, if you think about it, exercise can help to strengthen bones, even in childhood. In fact, one source says that regular exercise can build more cells and thus, make bones more dense. With that logic applied, running at a young age would encourage bones to grow stronger, which is something worth considering as bones change from their early state to their full maturity. In addition, running has been linked to helping children who have been diagnosed as autistic. That’s a hard pair of benefits to overlook!

It seems a fair assessment then to conclude that a child can run—maybe should run—but that lines need to be drawn as to how far, how long, and how seriously the child is pursuing the process. This isn’t just because of bone health. Children also regulate heat at a different pace than adults, and there are psychological details to think about as well—like how much time a child is spending running as opposed to how much social interaction he or she is experiencing with peers. Being fit is a fine idea, but stunting social growth and causing health issues from temperature disadvantages aren’t good trade-offs!

So rather than “how young is too young to run,” maybe “how can my child safely run at his or her current age” is the better question!

Assuming your child is in good enough health to handle running (check with your pediatrician!), there’s no harm in encouraging his or her interest on the matter as long as you’re making sure it’s done in a reasonable manner. As children regulate heat differently, make sure your child isn’t running outside during the sun’s brightest hour in July! Consult the guidelines about children in sunlight, and match the child’s running habits with what’s considered healthy and safe.

Another general tip to keeping children safe while they run is to only allow them to run in less tedious areas. Running a mountain trail might be quite the workout for an adult, but it could be too much for children—particularly since the terrain could be cumbersome enough to threaten their developing bones.

It’s also important to regulate how long your child runs to prevent him or her from overdoing things during the process. A guideline is to not let a child exercise more hours in the week than the years they’ve been alive. A reason for that rule is because children who spent more time over their age playing a sport were 70% more likely to have injuries, especially overuse injuries in the back, shoulders and elbow.  As has been said earlier in this post, the idea isn’t to damage a child’s health by allowing him or her to run, so be sure to keep time spent on running trails to a reasonable amount in good weather conditions, and with adequate hydration.

Perhaps by now you’re thinking, “But what age is okay?” Truthfully, there’s no rule in the matter, so your best strategy is to consider all of the above factors and depend on your pediatrician to let you know what your child is and is not capable of handling. Encourage your child within those parameters without pushing him or her to the point where running is no longer fun, and keep a close eye on that child to gauge how well he or she is doing at the current level. With the right thought and observation, you and the child’s doctor can make the right decision of when it’s time to take away a certain regulation or to let the child explore running in a different way.

Don’t be surprised though if something as strenuous as a marathon doesn’t happen before adulthood! Little runners are still growing, after all!