Marathons May Be for Kids, Too

girls at start of race

It sounds crazy, but children may be able to run marathons as early on as first or second grade.

Several weeks ago, The New York Times ran “Phys Ed: Should Children Run Marathons?” on their website. The author, Gretchen Reynolds, reported on two different studies: one about running injuries in children and the other about how early children can run the hallowed 26.2 miles involved in marathons.

The first study indicated that as many as 12 million children ran for exercise in 2007 and that the number is increasing. Along with the increase in child runners, though, there has been an increase of running injuries in children. But those injuries aren’t typical overuse injuries like stress fractures or tendonitis. Instead, the commonly reported injuries seemed to be caused by a lack of coordination and falling, things like twisted ankles, scraped wrists and bruised knees.

The second study analyzed data on the 310 children between the ages of 7 and 17 who ran and finished the Twin Cities Marathon in Minnesota between 1982 and 2007. What it revealed was that only 4 of the 310 (a whopping 1.3 percent) ever visited the race’s medical tent and that none of them required anything beyond a brief test. The author of the study concluded that running long distances like marathons isn’t inherently unsafe for certain children as long as they have proper supervision and training.

Dr. Shane Miller

Dr. Shane Miller

That sounded a little wacky to me. I was always told that children aren’t supposed to lift weights before puberty (although thoughts on that have changed in the past several years, too). I assumed the same principal applied to distance running.

Moreover, my vet told me not to run my golden retriever before she was 18 months old. Ifigured human bones would be much more sensitive and fragile than dog bones.

So, in my confusion, I sent an email with those thoughts to the pediatric sports medicine expert at Children’s, Dr. Shane Miller. This was his response:

Foster,

The reason your vet recommends not running with a golden retriever at that age is because as a breed goldens are at increased risk for hip dysplasia. The theory is that around 18-24 months of age, the growth plates in the dog’s hips are closing and are at less risk of damage (which is why they can do X rays at 2 years of age to eval for hip dysplasia). A golden retriever is very obedient and will continue to run through pain to keep up with its master, but will limit itself if playing with other dogs. Growth plates in kids close in the teens (boys usually later by about 2 years than girls).

The answer really should be individualized to the athlete. For example, it is generally accepted that an 8-10 year old could do a 5k race, but I ran my first 10k (6.2 miles) race at age 6 without any difficulty. It really should be more dependent on the athlete, their maturity, etc. This also assumes a gradual increase in training intensity and duration. A rule of thumb is one should not increase by more than 10% per week.

As with all kids that age, we have to be cautious with heat illness and dehydration as their surface area to volume ratio is less than adults, and they are not as good at thermoregulation. Falls, sprains, strains, overuse injuries, heat illness, and dehydration are all potential injuries in running at all ages.

Running can be safe for kids when supervised and the emphasis is on having fun. Just like with your golden retriever, allowing the kid to set the pace will give them the best chance of staying free of injuries and should not cause any long-term damage to growth plates or otherwise.

One recommendation for younger kids that want to do a “marathon” is to have them complete 26.2 miles over multiple sessions. At the end, they can have the pride of saying they completed a “marathon” with the added benefits of learning the importance of physical fitness. One example is marathonKids (www.marathonkids.org)

Health and Wellness for Athletes

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One Response to Marathons May Be for Kids, Too

  1. Janet April 8, 2011 at 10:27 am #

    >Fascinating information on marathon running for children and pets! Thanks for sharing this information.

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