Half and Full Marathons for Kids? How Far is Too Far?

The Welsh SistersAs 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.

Mint’s boys running the local Mud Run in police costumes!

But how far is too far when it comes to youth endurance running?  

The Welsh Sisters (via NY Times)
Kaytlyn (12) and Heather (10) Welsch (via NY Times)

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.

Winter Vinecki

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.

The family that runs together . . .

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.

Mint’s awesome boys

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?

Mindi is a serial marathoner. She is a private practice attorney, wife and mom of two awesome (and super fast) boys, ages 12 and 14. She coaches Girls on the Run and is a big advocate of youth running.

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  1. Great advice. I handle my kids very similarly to you. Right now my son (11 yrs old) doesn’t even want to run, and that’s perfectly fine with me. I am never going to push it on either kid. We have a local youth coach who has been at it for years and his rule of thumb is that kids shouldn’t ever race more miles than the grade they are in. So for a 6th grader, a 10k is a good fit. I think that’s a pretty great guideline, in general.

    1. Thanks! That sounds like a really good guideline – I’d never heard that before. Although it is funny because I always told my oldest son he had to be 8 to run a 5k. Shortly after he turned 8, we ran one. Less than a month later, his 6 year old brother ran one (that he was supposed to be walking). He had no trouble with it and ran several 5ks before he ever turned 8. So while guidelines are good, they may get thrown out the window depending on the kid. Especially with a little sibling rivalry! 🙂

  2. Admittedly, I know nothing about children training for endurance or any type of running. To gain a sense of scope for comparison:
    What kind of mileage do kids on middle school cross country accumulate weekly?
    Or what is a workout like for a GOTR practice?

    Loved the NY Times piece on the Welsh girls. It gave me a lot of food for thought.

    1. The interesting thing with training is it will no doubt vary widely – just as it does for adults who train and race. For Girls on the Run, the girls train to run 2 5ks. They run 2x a week in the program (some also run with their parents on the weekends) for 10-12 weeks. The amount they get in during practice depends on how fast they run and how much they run (as opposed to taking breaks). Some girls will run the whole time and get 4 miles in. Others will walk a lot and get in only 1. It’s all okay as long as they are moving and having fun.

      When I trained with my son to run a 10k, we trained for 6 weeks. We ran 3-4 times a week with several shorter runs (2-3 miles) and one longer run. He maxed out at 7 miles for his long run.

      I would think kids that train for the longer distances need to train as much as any adult would to cover the distance. I know if my kids expressed genuine and high level passion in training/racing and wanted in running a half or a full, I would make sure they were following a comprehensive training plan that would allow them to safely cover the distance without getting hurt. The more talented the kid (and more motivated), the more aggressive training I would think they would want to follow.

      1. Thanks for the clarification! I guess my thoughts mostly center around the evidence available, There isn’t much in in the way of definitive longitudinal evidence for physical consequences of endurance running in children. There is some evidence regarding the effects of weight training floating about, but I can’t remember much of it off hand. However, their is plenty of evidence regarding negative consequences that stress and pressure from parents and coaches can cause. The relaxed attitude as presented by you and misszippy seems completely reasonable and unlikely to cause undue strain on a child’s body or psyche.

          1. Haha.

            I agree on the psychological consequences and I personally try to be really, really careful with that with my own kids. Sometimes it is appropriate to push them, but you have to tread lightly. I don’t want to project my own goals onto my children and I am cognizant that because I am a devout runner, I implicitly place pressure on them whether I want to or not.

            Physical: it is hard because there simply is not much evidence available on the long-term effects of marathons for kids or adults. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me running marathons is terrible for me but there really is no evidence of that and I have never felt healthier in my life than when I am in marathon training. The key issue to add for kids is potential harm to growth/development, but again, there really is not much science touching on it.

  3. I wish my daughter was into running. I’ve still got plenty of time to hope. She’s only 6. I do know that her & my other three kids are very proud of me. My daughter always wants to know if I placed or how well I did if I am in a race. My 2 1/2 year old twins are the cutest too…”Mommy is going running, Mommy is fast, Mommy just went running” whenever I have even one piece of clothing on the resembles a runner. I do know that I am at least installing good habits of health & exercise with my children. That’s what should count:)!