How young is too young?

By Aaron Mabry | Jan 29, 2013

Growing up, I was always trying different sports. And my parents, God love them for all the shoes and support they provided, had two rules. 1) Playing sports were a reward for good grades. 2) I could only play one sport at a time. That said, as many parents know, my focus would change based on the season. In the spring and summer time, I’d play baseball.
In the winter, basketball reigned supreme. And in the fall, football practices and Saturday afternoon games were what I lived for. Suffice to say; from the time I was in kindergarten, I was always involved in some kind of organized sport. And as it turns out, as long as swimming (I sink like a rock) and kicking wasn’t involved (I made one failed attempt at soccer in third grade), I was normally pretty good at just about anything I tried.
So as soon as the sixth grade rolled around, my football coach, who was also the schools track coach, asked me to try my hand at running track. Not knowing anything about it, I was obviously skeptical. After all, track was in the spring and would interfere with baseball. So, given my parents’ rule, I had a choice to make.  
And being the hyper centric child that I was, I decided to give it a try. The next day, we had our first practice, and all I remember was my Mom picking me up and asking me how it went. Elated at what I had just accomplished, I exclaimed, “We ran six miles today!” My Mom, flabbergasted at both the distance, as well as my excitement for doing such a thing, only asked me if I was okay. After all, I was only 10 years old and had never run further than the length of a football field.
So despite my own feel good story, it begs the question, how young is too young to begin running long distances? At what point have muscles developed to the extent that can support runs upward of three, five, ten miles? And what’s the best way to get your children involved in age appropriate, organized running?
As far as racing goes, start your kids at fun distances that don’t require any more training that what their time on the playground promotes. Junior Olympics, for instance, is a great way to get your kids involved as early as seven years old in races ranging from 60 meters to the one-mile run. And based on my own experience, it introduces the sport in an educational atmosphere that’s both fun and motivating.
As for most road races, race coordinators vary regarding minimum age ranges, but normally ask parents to use discretion in allowing their children to compete for the sake of both the child and the other runners. However, marathons are an entirely different story. As a general rule of thumb, it’s not recommended that children under 18 run marathon distances, as many doctors recommend avoiding extreme distance running for kids and young teens because the repetitive trauma may cause damage to bones and muscles that are still growing.
Now, that’s not to assume that your child couldn’t. It’s just frowned upon, based on the rigorous regimen it takes to train for such a distance that could affect school, friends, and other extracurricular activities.
Scientifically speaking, Dr. William Roberts, a professor of family medicine and community health at the University of Minnesota and medical director for the annual Twin Cities Marathon, performed a study involving youth running from 1982 through 2007. In that time, 310 youth runners age 7 to 17 completed the 26.2 miles (marathon distance). More important, only 4 of the 310 young people throughout the entire 26 years visited the race’s medical tent, and none required interventions beyond a brief rest. Beyond that, the young runners’ “medical encounter rate,” the study concluded, “was half that of the adults” who finished the marathon during those years.
More interestingly, a Nationwide Children’s Hospital report from 2007 tells a story that focuses on the types of injuries sustained by young runners. Teenagers typically twisted ankles, while runners younger than 12 scraped their wrists, elbows and even scalps because, more often than not, they tripped themselves. Close to half of the running-related injuries and most of the head trauma among elementary-school runners was because of falls.
At any rate, as with many facets in a young child’s life, it really is up the parents to use their best discretion in allowing them to run long distances. The possibility for injury is always there, regardless of the sport.
But a good diet and a consistent exercise regimen are paramount in the positive growth of every child. And as long as they’re having fun, then how harmful could it really be?

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