Is Running Good for Children?
We all would love to see our kids as Olympic Champions–but is training them now a wise idea?
By Hal Higdon
Steven Poskus remembers with pride the day his son Daniel, age four, asked him, “Can I be a runner too?” Poskus happily obliged. He signed his son up for the Monster Mash Dash, a short-distance event for children connected with a Trick or Treat 5-K on the Chicago lakefront one October.
Daniel trained for several weeks, running with his grandmother. On race day, his parents pinned Daniel’s number on the front of his shirt. “He stretched and drank water before the race, just like adult runners do,” recalls Poskus. When the announcer called the runners to the start, Daniel was the first one on the line–and he was the first one crossing the line 50 yards later!
“I have never seen him more excited than the moment he knew he had won,” beams Poskus. “Just the look on his face was priceless. I was very, very proud. My only dilemma is that now he wants to race all the time.”
A future Olympic champion? Or is Daniel only going through a phase, soon to pass on to soccer, Nintendo, even girls?
Fat rather than fitter children
Hopefully Daniel Poskus will maintain his interest in running and/or other forms of exercise through a long and healthy life, but the sad fact is that too many of our children are getting fatter, rather than fitter. Jordan Metzl, M.D., medical director of the Sports Medicine Institute for Young Athletes at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, says sadly that in the last 25 years, obesity in children has more than doubled. “We’re becoming a nation of couch potatoes,” admits Dr. Metzl.
Senior Writer John Brant ably documented this problem in the September 2000 issue of Runner’s World: “To a potentially catastrophic degree, our kids have stopped moving. One quarter of Americans under age 19 are overweight. Worse, approximately 5.3 million kids, or 12 percent of all youths aged 6 to 17, are seriously overweight.”
Blame television and video games and car-pooling kids to school instead of having them walk, but our school systems also have failed abysmally in providing exercise opportunities during the admittedly crowded school day. Because of budget crunches, physical education programs have been all but eliminated (along with art and music) in many school systems. At Alimacani Elementary School in Jacksonville, Florida, Jan Tipton is the single physical education teacher supervising 1,250 children. “I see each class once every 10 days,” admits Tipton. “I like to think I make an impact, because of the support from many classroom teachers, who are good at motivating their students to run during recess. But until schools start providing physical education at least three days a week, we’ll have a hard time meeting our exercise goals.”
Fitness can be fun
Yet ironically, children’s running is on the rise. A growing minority of running parents and their children have discovered that fitness can be fun. More and more road races have begun to add side events for youngsters. In Huntsville, Alabama each fall, a thousand children participate in a program where they ran a total of 25 miles in school over a period of several months, then ran a final 1.2 miles at The Rocket City Marathon to complete the classic 26.2-mile distance. The Gate River Run in Jacksonville had 2,600 kids participate in the Adidas Junior River Run, four separate mile races for different age groups in March. The Dominick’s Youth Run, held the day before the Chicago Marathon, attracted 1,400 sons and daughters of those who would be running 26.2 miles the next day.
“Increasingly, organizers of road races from 5-K to the marathon have begun to add short-distance events for children to their mix of weekend activities,” says Linda Honikman of the USATF Road Running Information Center. “They do it to please the running parents–or because they are running parents themselves.” While participation of junior (19 and under) runners in marathons has diminished in the last two decades from 5 percent to less than 2 percent, participation in 5-K races is on the rise for those in that category.
These aren’t young age-group runners, but rather children who show up at a road race with their running parents and participate on their own level. But age-group cross-country meets also have shown an increase in numbers with several national championships to lure the fittest of the fit.
Boom in children’s running
Running currently is undergoing a second boom, but if there is to be a third boom, it may be fueled by youngsters. The first running boom began in the mid 1970s, mainly middle-aged Baby-Boomers, men who were looking to lose a few pounds and get in shape by running 10-K races. The second running boom started in the late 1990s, continuing today, fueled by young women, seemingly the daughters of those Baby-Boomers. Their goals were the same as their fathers–weight control, good health–although they focused more on finishing marathons rather than running fast. The next running boom may feature kids, the grandchildren of those Baby-Boomers. If so, the parents and grandparents will need to supply both motivation and opportunities.
But is running good for children? Can running while young stunt growth or cause injuries? And even if there is no physical damage, what about psychological damage? Will children forced to train by overeager running (i.e., “Little League”) parents lose interest in the sport by the time they reach the age when it might do them the most good?
Running has profited from increased participation in soccer in the United States. Soccer Moms often convert to Running Moms if there is a 5-K or a race with a children’s component on the weekend. Soccer is a sport that features near continuous running, so it is easy to shift from that sport to pure running. While soccer programs sometimes drain participants away from track and cross-country at the high school level, experts agree that kids chasing after a ball, or after each other, promote health habits that can endure after they become adults. You can’t say that about mainstream sports such as football or baseball.
Positive conditioning vs. negative punishment
Coaches in mainstream sports, as well as physical education teachers, also finally have begun to recognize the benefits of running as a form of positive conditioning as opposed to negative punishment. In the past, team athletes who missed a tackle or a free throw often would be told to “run two laps.” That has faded somewhat with at least the more progressive coaches preaching the positive benefits of aerobic exercises, but unfortunately not all physicians give running their active endorsement.
For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics worried about the dangers of children running long distances in a policy statement, published in 1990 and reaffirmed in 1994. The Academy warned against “epiphyseal plate injuries, stress fractures, patellofemoral syndrome and chronic tendonitis” and suggested the incidence of such injuries relates to the volume of training. Children apparently are less efficient at regulating their temperature while running, which can be a problem if running much further than two or three miles on a warm or cold day.
The AAP also worried about psychic damage when children (or their parents) set unrealistic goals and fail to meet them. Admittedly, not every child has the potential to become the Olympic marathon champion, but not every student basketball or football player has the talent to succeed in the NBA. or NFL. And while incidence of injuries (shin splints, sore knees, turned ankles) may be higher among runners than athletes in other sports (girl cross-country runners are near the top of the “most injured” list), those injuries inevitably are significantly less than those suffered by a running back nailed by a linebacker or a batter hit by a pitched ball. Concussions cause more long-term damage than shin splints.
Unfortunately, the American Academy of Pediatrics, while alerting doctors of the “dangers” of high-volume training, failed to set any limit on miles run either in training or in racing. The Academy also seemed to have an unrealistic idea as to how many miles children were running or what races they were entering. The Academy began its Policy Statement with the comment: “It is not unusual for an aspiring prepubescent athlete to run 10 to 15 miles daily and to participate in distance races, including marathons.” But despite what the Academy believes, it is very unusual for boys or girls age 14 or less to run anywhere near that much. A few high school cross-country teams run at that level, but very few. And while young children sometimes do 5-K races, they rarely run marathons these days.
“The number of (prepubescent) youngsters in marathons is tiny,” states Honikman of the USATF Road Running Information Center. Honikman recalls meeting a 12-year-old at the Carlsbad 5-K this year who had completed the City of Los Angeles Marathon the month before, but adds: “That kind of long distance participation is very isolated to just a few events and a few regions.” Many major marathons refuse to accept entries from athletes of high school age. Boston sets its limit at age 18; Chicago at age 16. And there seems to be little pressure among responsible running parents to break those barriers. As for whether or not young runners train 10 to 15 miles daily, if that was the case, running kids would be seen everywhere, and they are not.
Young marathon phenoms
Kids running marathons was more a phenomenon at the beginning of the first running boom, rather than today. Beginning in the early 1970s, there was a rash of youngsters setting age-group records that slowed, if not stopped, soon after publications such as Runner’s World stopped publicizing such efforts. Wesley Paul ran his first marathon with his father at age seven and ran 2:38 in 1977 at age 14. Mary Etta Boitano ran in her first marathon at age five 1968, failing to finish, but did 3:01 at age 10. Neither ever made an Olympic team, but a quarter century later both Paul and Boitano (now Blanchard) still enjoy running and hope to inspire their children to follow their footsteps. So much for psychic damage!
“My father and I simply went out and ran 60 or 90 minutes a day,” says Paul of his training. “When race day came along, I just got caught in the flow. I don’t compete now, but it’s hard for me to imagine my life without my daily running regimen.” Blanchard scoffs at the idea that running high mileage might set children up for later-life injuries or stunt their growth. “If you’re talking ‘injuries,’ what about heart disease, because you’re overweight or fail to exercise?” she asks. “As for growth, I’m 5 feet 5 inches tall. My brother Mike probably trained harder than me and is 6 feet 3 inches.” Wesley Paul is 6 feet 2 inches, six inches taller than his father and the same size as his brother who doesn’t run.
Yet children–like adults–differ in their ability to absorb training. Some genetically gifted youngsters seem to have the ability to float across the ground and run forever. Others may need closer parental supervision. Dr. Metzl (who has run 13 marathons, Boston seven times) says this is particularly true at puberty: between 8 and 12 for girls and 10 and 14 for boys. “There is some risk that excessive running can damage the growth plates,” he admits. “As to what is ‘excessive,’ there’s no research that would provide us with an exact number. I’m comfortable with children running distances up to 5-K and 10-K, if they’re properly trained. I’m not a believer in kids under 18 running marathons, and those under 14 should probably stay on the down side of 13 miles.”
Positives outweigh negatives
Nevertheless, Dr. Metzl agrees that the positive aspects of running so outweigh the negative risks that running parents should do everything possible to inspire their children to take up running and other forms of exercise. The link between obesity and other illnesses is strong; cardiovascular disease has been diagnosed even in teenagers. A child training for a 5-K is probably going to be less tempted to experiment with cigarettes or drugs or to hang around with “friends” who climb into a car after downing a six-pack of beer. Kenneth H. Cooper, M.D. suggests that a healthy lifestyle that includes appropriate amounts of exercise can add six to nine years to your life and contribute greatly to the quality of that life.
When it comes to converting children into runners–competitive or recreational–your example, the running lifestyle you lead, may work better than lectures on fitness. Michael Farrell, an educator from Fort Smith, Arkansas, brought his family with him to the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon and watched proudly as his son James, age nine, prowled the aisles collecting autographs from celebrities such as Bill Rodgers, Joe Henderson and, yes, Hal Higdon. James had only done a little previous running to get ready for a 5-K, but was in good shape from playing soccer and roller hockey. The next day, James jumped into the marathon at 21 miles to run the last 5 miles with his father, who was en route to his first marathon finish in 4:33.
James crossed the finish line and turned to his father, “Hey, Dad, when you run the Marine Corps Marathon next fall, can I run the last 5 miles with you again?”
Guess his father’s reply.