Should children run marathons? - partial transcript from Audio for Week of September 9/13
The topic of whether youngsters should run long distance road races has been a common topic of discussion ever since the running boom began in the 70’s and, as recently as July of this year, Runners’ World had an article entitled “Can Kids Safely Run a 10K ?” in the Ask the Sports Doc column written by Dr. William O. Roberts MD.
In his reply to the question, the Doc concluded, and I quote, “Running with your kids can be fun for all and create strong bonds within the family. I think it is a safe activity as long as the children enjoy the activity, are advancing in all domains of life, and the running is injury-free and aimed at fun and fitness.”
Doc Roberts was a good person to field this question since, in 2007, he wrote a paper that was published in the peer reviewed journal Sports Medicine with the title “Can children and Adolescents Run Marathons? I’ll read a part of the conclusion:
“Indeed, there are no data to prove marathon participation is any more risky than the sports that are promoted for today's youth. There are no published child marathon-related cardiac or heat stroke deaths, neck fractures, concussions, knee anterior cruciate ligament disruptions with the known risk of future osteoarthritis or other severe injuries...”
“Children who choose of their own accord to participate in marathon training should be allowed to do so, as long as their social, academic, psychological and physiological development is not disrupted and ideally they should have medical supervision, nutritional guidance and coaching by individuals with appropriate expertise.
Well there’s no question kids can run a marathon…here’s some trivia - if you go to the Association of Road Racing Statisticians website…it’s www.arrs.net and click on Single Age records you’ll see that times for kids as young as 5 year olds have been posted…A 5 year old boy named Bucky Cox ran 5:25:09 in 1978. But, hey girls, 3 years earlier, in 1975, a 5 year old lass ran quite a bit faster going 4:56:36…..
No, the important question is should our youngsters even run a marathon.
Obviously, many feel it’s not appropriate for youngsters to race marathons For example, the Toronto Waterfront marathon has a minimum age of 18 years for the marathon, and they even have additional minimums of 16 years for the Half marathon and 12 years for the 5 km.
On the other hand, the Los Angeles Marathon has no age restrictions.
Now, I’ve been spurred to talk about this because a couple of weeks ago I was asked for my opinion by a Canadian marathon race director who had been contacted by a father asking if the race would accept an entry for his 11 year old son who apparently has already run 3 marathons. I should mention that the marathon’s website had no stated policy regarding minimum age.
So I wrote back to the Race Director and here’s an excerpt:
“Certainly, if you allow one so young, you open a gate and set a precedent for other youngsters who might happen to have parents who might be too cavalier in registering kids that aren't so well-prepared to run a full marathon.
And then there's the question of whether you want to be perceived as condoning or encouraging youngsters running that far, as I would say it's generally not in their best interest in terms of long term development.”
That’s what I wrote. And the Race Director subsequently declined to accept the youngster’s entry.
So my main reason or argument for supporting the age minimum’s such as the Waterfront marathon’s is I believe the kind of extensive time and effort putting in the miles on the roads that’s needed just to go the distance safely would be better spent doing other physical activities that establish a superior all-round athletic base, and ultimately increase their potentials in whatever they end up doing.
In fact, if I were thinking of increasing the odds of producing a champion runner, I would strongly recommend soccer, where the training includes an all-round conditioning, plus participation in the elementary school cross country races, and maybe the occasional 5 km. road race… just like double Olympic and World Championship gold medalist Mo Farah...Farah’s favorite sport as a child, was soccer but when hos coach watched Farah play he noticed the dude could run and he tempted Farah to run track by letting him play 30 minutes of soccer first, before he began running for the day.
I would also argue that youngsters can enjoy the psychological benefits to self-esteem, concentration, resilience, self-confidence, and self-discipline by running the occasional 5 km. as by running 10 km. races and longer. And they can do these more often than marathons.
BTW for those parents out there that are thinking about the long possibilities (e.g., scholarships) , I don’t know of anyone who ran a marathon under the age of 14 who went on to become a world class athlete……if someone knows of any, please let me know.