Q. My son is 14 years old. He wants to run a marathon this summer. He has participated in many races ranging from 5k to 5 miles in the past. Is long distance running safe for children? -Mark
A. Thanks, Mark, for this great question! The topic of children running extreme distances from marathons to ultra-marathons is still debatable (as is strength training in younger children). In general, the science and research supporting adolescent runners is inconclusive and continues to evolve. Children’s physical, mental, and emotional development varies widely and isn’t necessarily correlated to chronological age. When choosing which type of activity and exercise is appropriate for a child, his/her physical, mental, and emotional development need to be considered.
I believe that children are capable of running longer distances even at an early age although most will not want to. The real question is: Should they? Running and activity should be encouraged in whatever form the child prefers. There has been very little research on the effects of long distance mileage on younger children. Physiological considerations include:
- Growth Plates. The epiphyseal plate (growth plate), which is a cartilaginous plate at each end of a long bone, in children typically closes between 18-25 years old. It is most active when the child is younger. Excessive stress (either in the form of overload such as weight lifting very heavy loads with poor technique or repetitive loading such as running long distances) could cause damage to these growth plates, which affects the child’s ability to properly grow.
- Muscle Strength. A child’s muscle development is not the same as that of an adult. This means that the repetitive strain of long distance running (particularly on hard surfaces) could again increase the risk of repetitive motion injuries. A child’s musculature may not be mature enough to handle the repetitive load.
- Energy Metabolism. Children typically have a very high metabolism. They require more carbohydrates than adults as well as additional fat consumption to insure adequate cholesterol to promote normal brain development. A child’s ability to store carbohydrates is less than that of an adult due to a smaller body mass size. Issues with fueling during longer runs could have more consequences for younger runners.
A child’s ability to tolerate longer distances will widely vary based on his/her physical, mental, and emotional development. If a younger child desires to run a long distance race, then he/she will require supervision. A healthy eating plan that is high in fat and protein is critical. A proper fueling plan for carbohydrate intake will insure that the child acquires additional nutrients for the activity and for normal growth and development.
Typically, younger kids and teens will not be as proficient of runners compared to most adults because children’s lungs and VO2 max don’t peak until the 20s. However, they can run surprisingly fast! A younger child’s body is more adept at handling shorter distance intervals or bursts of running than longer distances.
Consider the following when determining if long distance running is appropriate for your child:
- Assess your child’s physical, mental, and emotional development. Could he/she handle long distance running in these three crucial areas?
- What kind of surface will the majority of the running take place on? I highly advise grass, trail or dirt path versus concrete and sidewalks. Definitely avoid long runs on hard surfaces. Keep to softer surfaces, such as dirt or grass, when possible. This decreases the strain on a child’s growth plates and body in general.
- What is the anticipated training volume? How many actual miles of running? I would advise a lower mileage program.
- A proper fueling and rehydrating plan must be addressed. This needs to be closely monitored by a parent (and not only by the child involved).
- Consider tackling a shorter distance such as the half marathon. Increase the mileage as the child ages and matures.
A new runner (of any age) should spend more time initially working on an adequate running base and proper running form. Encourage your child to develop good habits and proper technique now, so that running can be a lifelong pursuit.
I’m a supporter of children who participate in cross country programs at school. It provides an opportunity to run 3-5 mile distances regularly on softer surfaces while developing a wonderful base (and comradery as well). I also highly encourage children to participate in a school track program. Run different distances, such as the 800 or 1200 meter distance, in order to develop proper running form and technique. It also helps to develop the child’s ability to run faster, not just longer.
Encourage your child to be active and participate in various activities. If he/she desires to engage in long distance running, progress slowly and closely monitor for any symptoms of pain or injury. If you suspect a developing problem, consult your pediatric physician about your concerns. I would also caution you that many pediatric physicians may not be too keen on the idea of long distance running in pre-teen children. Seek a physician who is open to the idea and can work with you and your child to insure optimal health.
Pre-teens and teens are best suited for shorter distance running, but with proper training they could safely run longer distances (ranging from the 10k to the half marathon). Most children’s physical, mental, and emotional development is not suitable for running distances such as the marathon and especially, ultra-marathons. I typically don’t recommend those distances until at least mid to late teens. If attempted, special care should be taken to avoid over taxing their young bodies.
Thanks, Mark, for the question. I wish you and your son all the best in his future running endeavors!
Do you have a child or know of one who has participated in long distance racing? Please share your thoughts below.
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