As many of you know, I am a huge advocate of youth running. I actively coach 3rd to 5th grade girls to run 5ks in the Girls on the Run program, and I whole-heartedly encourage my own two boys to train and race. I think you should too.
But how far is too far when it comes to youth endurance running?
My kids run and train for short races. But some kids run a lot farther and at a much more intense level. Is it safe or are we pushing them too far too soon? This hot debate reaches the headlines every now and then and stirs a lot of mixed feelings. The most recent spotlight was on Heather and Kaytlyn Welsch. These girls are 10 and 12 years old, respectively, and competitively race hard trail half marathons in addition to shorter races and triathlons (Kaytlyn has even competed in two full road marathons). The girls are fast and are tough competitors. But they are very young and are seemingly pushed incredibly hard by their parents. Some applaud these young runners and their amazing efforts. Others claim that running so hard and so far at such a young age is physically harmful, and that their father is setting them up for failure by pushing them way too far psychologically at this young age.
I am no doctor, so I can’t advise on the physical aspects of training at this level at a young age. However, I do know that kids can and do successfully train and race at a young age. I also know every kid is different. How far they can/should safely run is a big unknown and no doubt very individual. I personally would not let my boys run at that level at that age, but I am very in tune with what they can and want to do.
Complicating things further, doctors seem to have pretty conflicting opinions (just read the Welsch article) on what kids can/should do. Frankly no one really knows what is or is not safe. And let’s be honest: doctors change their opinions all the time. I never ran when I was pregnant because I was told it was bad for the baby to raise my heart rate over a pedestrian level. Over time, that theory has been debunked (just look at our amazing Salty!).
My guess is that kids can run pretty far and pretty hard so long as they train properly and are monitored closely by their parents and coaches. Just look at Winter Vinecki, who has been running since she was 5. By age 13, she has competed in numerous half Ironman triathlons and marathons. She seems to be running strong and completely healthy. (She has an amazing story I encourage you to check out if you haven’t already.)
And what about Alana Hadley, a very impressive 15 year-old endurance runner? She too has been running with her parents since she was very young and has some incredible PRs to boast about (1:16:41 half marathon; 34:59 10k; 16:51 5k!). She is coached closely by her father and appears to genuinely love running. She is showing no outward signs of physical or emotional problems caused by her early competitive running, so it is hard to say she shouldn’t be doing it.
I am also not one to judge another’s parenting style unless it is clearly warranted. Most parents I know try their best and want the best for their kids. I admit I cringed at a couple of the photos and comments in the Welsch article, but I don’t think one father’s over-aggressiveness warrants the conclusion that youth endurance running is unequivocally bad. There are great benefits in not only getting kids to run, but also encouraging them to push themselves out of their comfort zone and doing the best they can. At the same time, I know parents can easily get out of hand. Since I don’t know any of these people individually, I will not devote time on this post to judge anyone.
What I will add are my recommendations for allowing / encouraging kids to run:
1. Always remember he is just a child.
2. Make it fun.
3. Be sure she is running/racing for the right reasons. Does she truly love to run and compete or is she doing it to gain your affection and approval? If the former, encourage her as best you can! If the latter, you need to really evaluate what is going on and back off.
4. Make him train properly. Sure, most athletic kids can make their way through a 5k on a soccer season alone, but it is haphazard to allow kids to go further or push themselves too hard without proper training.
5. Don’t push your child to run when injured or in pain. Running shouldn’t hurt. Take any pains your child mentions seriously. Make sure she is in the right shoes and encourage rest when necessary. Pushing your child through pain (or ignoring it) could be both mentally and physically harmful.
6. Don’t push too hard. Sure, you want her to develop that animal instinct. But don’t do it in a way that completely undercuts her self-esteem. Everyone develops at a different rate. You want to encourage, accept and promote your kids’ interests in a positive way. The rest will follow if she is interested. If you set her expectations higher than she can exceed or are incredibly hard on her, she will feel like failure. Don’t ever do that to your child.
7. Promote the joy of running not just the glory of the win. Help your child appreciate all the benefits of running so she not only loves to race, but also runs to clear her mind, have quality time, and be healthy. That way, she will still enjoy it even if a race goes awry.
8. Always express your pride at their efforts, no matter the outcome. Whether your child is fast, slow or a middle-packer, whether he is highly motivated or just goes to spend time with you, understand and appreciate him. You’ll both be glad you did.
What do you think about youth running? Do you have any tips for success?