Help your children become lifelong runners by ensuring they don’t overdo it when they’re young.
I heard it on the playground. One seven-year-old asked another if she was going to run the 4.2k kids run at that weekend’s marathon. Her answer: “Yeah. My dad’s making me run it.” I cringed.
I’ll be honest. I’m a runner. I want my kids to run. Most of us who run want our kids to experience the same positives and find the same joy that we have in the sport. And with school track clubs and youth-focussed events at road races and trail runs, there are more opportunities than ever for kids to get involved. But it’s complicated. When you see young children running a road race, or even a marathon, it’s hard not to wonder: Are they doing it for the right reasons? Are they having fun? And how much is too much?
The biggest fear for many parents is that too much running will injure their kids. Will the repetitive pounding of running damage their vulnerable growth plates or harm susceptible muscles, bones and joints? There’s not much research on kids and running injuries, especially long term. One study did find that running injuries had increased by 34 per cent between 1994 and 2007 in runners between the ages of six and 18 – but that’s likely a result of increased participation and better access to sports medicine, says Dr. Michelle McTimoney, a Halifax-based pediatrician and sports medicine specialist.
Still, many marathons have set age limits in recent years. You have to be 19 years old to run the full distance in Ottawa (they have separate youth events), and at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, you have to be 18 to tackle the marathon and 16 for the half-marathon. In most kids, McTimoney notes, growth plates have closed by the time they’re 15; after that, their injury patterns tend to be the same as adults.
Even among kids who do tackle marathons, there’s no evidence that their bodies can’t handle it. One recent study by Dr. William Roberts of the University of Minnesota looked at 310 runners aged seven to 17 who ran the Twin Cities Marathon over nearly three decades. Only four of those runners needed any sort of medical help during or after the race, all for minor problems that required nothing more than rest to fix – a better record than the adult runners in the same race.
One area where kids are at a disadvantage is in dealing with hot conditions. “Kids don’t deal with heat as well as adults do,” McTimoney cautions. “They can’t cool as effectively, and can dehydrate faster.” That’s a good reason to be
Burn Bright, Flame Out?
A more subtle question is whether too much running at a young age will lead to burnout, and less interest in participating later on. It used to be that kids who were interested in running would get involved with a local track and field club which would steer them toward shorter distances and a greater variety of events. “[Track and field] used to be more prominent,” says Cliff Matthews, a Halifax-based running coach. “Only a few kids ran roads. These days, you have some young kids running too long, too soon.”
Matthews favours a more balanced training approach. Even his long-distance runners include sprints and hurdle drills in their training. The same is true for Norm Tinkham, a former member of the national cross-country team and now a parent and youth coach in Vancouver. As well as hurdle drills, they play running games and do mini-relays in training. “It helps them develop in different areas,” Tinkham says, “and it’s fun.”
Of course, some kids really want to run long distances. Tinkham himself started running in Grade 7, and was racking up significant mileage by the time he hit Grade 10 – a training strategy that didn’t develop his neuromuscular strength, he now believes. When his own 13-year-old daughter wanted to run an 8k, he and his wife told her, “You can do this, and it’s an accomplishment – but you’re not doing a bunch of them.” In the end, Tinkham says, “the drive has to come from the kid, but the parent has to police it.”
That approach – holding back rather than pushing forward – is not always how the sports-parent dynamic plays out. Both Tinkham and Matthews have dealt with many fantastic parents, but they’ve also encountered the same all-too-familiar scenario. A new kid joins the club, and turns out to have some talent and enthusiasm. The kid has some initial success – and then the parent steps in and starts pushing, pitting the kid against older competitors, getting him or her to race more frequently, and in subtle ways that may be almost invisible to the parent, ratcheting up the pressure. “So they stop enjoying,” Matthews says, “and you don’t see those kids running in older age groups.” He recalls one runner with beautiful running form, whose parents started having her do extra workouts beyond the club’s training. As the load increased beyond what she could handle, her form deteriorated. “It becomes too much, and they lose heart,” he says.”
The most important question may be not whether a kid is doing too much running, but whether he or she is doing too little of other activities. Up to the age of 12 or 13, children should be encouraged to sample different sports (and different hobbies of all kinds). Even within running, don’t pigeonhole too early. “Experiment and find out what kind of running he likes best,” says Dr. Nick Holt, the director of the Child and Adolescent Sport and Activity Lab at the University of Alberta (and a marathon and ultramarathon runner). “Does she like running roads? Or trails?” That approach can help reduce injury risk, McTimoney notes. “When kids have to choose one sport to focus on year round, they tend to get more overuse injuries. They’re not getting the protective effect of cross-training.”
Just as important, you’ll also increase the chances that they’ll still be running 20, 30, or even 70 years down the road. Some kids may be eager to enter races and compete, while others may simply enjoy getting outside for runs. “Let’s be realistic: very few kids who start running are going to become elite athletes,” Holt says. “Fire up their excitement for running by being a good role model, then give them opportunities if they want to try it out.” So, just how far should kids run? As far as they want to. Just make sure you’re really listening to them.