A Personal View (Kids and Running)
My intent in writing this column over the past few years has solely been to educate, not to preach or editorialize. I suspect what follows will fail to meet that goal.
My opinions, which I grant will be strongly expressed, are directed toward no one in particular other than the parties involved; certainly no one should misinterpret the intent here which is, as always, to help runners better understand how to prevent injury. It’s just that in this case, the stakes seem so much higher.
One month ago I was a spectator (and support crew) at the Empire State Games Marathon in Brockport. As the thirty or so competitors lined up at the start to receive instructions regarding the course, one of the runners caught my eye, for he clearly stood apart from the rest in one unmistakable way.
Wearing an official number was a boy somewhere between 9-11 years old, by most observers’ estimate. I was stunned! First, I could not believe race officials would allow someone so young to enter a full marathon, in the middle of the summer (starting time temperature approx. 70° with a cloudless sky), and with minimal (no electrolyte drinks available) support on the course. And second, I had to wonder what this boy’s parents could be thinking!
After some thought, I calmed down, realizing this was a 6-loop course, so of course the boy was only going to run part of the race. And certainly, to watch him actually run, with a strong, even stride, one had to be somewhat impressed with his apparent natural ability.
But he wasn’t running only part-way, and after 4 laps (17+ miles) his stride was no longer strong and no longer so even. With temperatures now in the upper 70s he was now into what many marathoners know as the “survivor shuffle.” He had clearly hit “The Wall” and to my eye was suffering not so much from glycogen depletion, but rather from dehydration. Yet no official said a word to either the boy or the man ( who I assume was his father) running a few steps behind him as they passed on each lap.
As they passed, starting the 5th lap, I caught his father’s eye, and I believe from the look that passed between us that he knew what I was thinking. He called ahead to his son, asking him if he wanted to continue. The boy just nodded and plodded on. To my mind, he shouldn’t have been given the choice. By anyone.
Make no mistake: I think running is a great activity for children if it’s something they choose. I also think Little League Baseball is wonderful, as are soccer leagues and Pop Warner football. I’m sure most of you feel the same way. But how would you react to having a youngster pitch 27 innings in a row, or play 16 quarters of football non-stop?
A 5k is fine for a 9-11 year-old trained runner. Some probably could go further without deleterious effects on the child’s body. But there are enough questions still being researched by health and fitness experts regarding the effects of extreme endurance exercise on children’s muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones — especially the growth-plates — to warrant extreme caution in this area. Ultimately, the issue becomes one of deciding whether the benefits outweigh the risks.
In my opinion, this decision is a no-brainer. Don’t push your kids to run! If they choose to, don’t let them hurt themselves!