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Starting younger doesn’t make you a better runner, study finds

The takeaway? High school runners should focus on keeping it fun

It takes several years to develop as a strong runner, so logically one could assume that starting younger and gaining experience would ultimately make someone better. While this is true in some sports, and even works for certain runners, a new study shows that starting young doesn’t necessarily lead to better long-term performance.

OFSAA 2019. Photo: Maxine Gravina

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The European Journal of Sports Science looked at the workout programmes of elite distance runners during their first seven years of training. Researchers found no evidence that starting a structured training programme at a younger age was beneficial. For example, they found that world-class Kenyan runners began what they referred to as deliberate practice (DP) at age 18, the international-class Europeans started at 16 and the national-class European runners at 13. Deliberate practice in the context of this study meant the weekly inclusion of high-intensity training sessions. In their study, the runners who start deliberate practice later in their careers achieved the stronger results.

Mohammed Ahmed is a Canadian record-holder in the 5,000m and 10,000m and he got his first taste of success running on the Ontario high school circuit. He told Canadian Running a few weeks ago that one of his biggest messages for aspiring high school runners is to focus on having fun.

Have fun

Ahmed says that when you’re in high school, having fun is the most important part of the process. “Enjoy the sport. If there’s one regret I have, I wish I wasn’t as serious as I was. Keep being goofy. Keep enjoying yourself.”

Photo: Canadian Running

Have balance

Ahmed also says that balance is key. While specializing later in life is all right for a runner, when you’re in high school, Ahmed encourages the young runner to try lots of stuff and have multiple interests. “Have a balanced life. Be a student, but also be an athlete, and make sure you have time for both.”

The takeaway for a lot of young runners? Keep running fun while you’re in high school–there’s lots of time during your university and post-university years to get down to business.