How Young is Too Young to Run Long Distance?

July 2, 2013 Leave your thoughts



I started running when I was a little kid. I have a photo from a Junior Jaycees track meet, wearing a tiny pair of running shorts and tube socks pulled up to my knees. I look about 7 years old. I know I did the 440 and the long jump. I probably ran a mile by age 8 or 9 at the latest.


In 6th grade I joined the Lakeview Junior High cross country team and my life changed forever. I discovered that I loved running. I remember my dad would come home from work and go for a run around the neighborhood. Sometimes I would join him. In the winter, he made me wear a reflective vest over my winter coat. The air was so cold my nose hairs would freeze, but it didn’t hurt. Those are actually very fond memories. I still have nostalgia for the sounds, smells and feelings I experienced in my very early running years.


I think I ran my first 5k in 8th grade and probably didn’t run 10 miles straight until halfway through high school. I ran my first marathon at age 28. I’ve experienced injuries and the occasional burnout. But through it all, I still love running.


I have a healthy relationship with running. It’s an important part of my life. I have a profound appreciation for what I get from running, both emotionally and physically. I’m grateful that I found running as a young girl and I’m grateful that my parents both encouraged and supported my running.


That’s my story. Now, what do you think about this story?


There’s a young girl, age 7, who goes for a few runs with her mom and realizes that running is fun. She has so much fun that she asks her mom to register her for a 5 mile run. Her mom agrees with the expectation that they will do the race together and walk as needed. On race day, the girl sees that there is a 10 mile run and begs her mom to do that race instead. Her mom isn’t sure what to do, so she agrees to the 10 miler, again assuming that they will take their time with frequent walks.


You guessed it. Not only did she run the entire 10 miles; she finished in 1 hour 45 minutes!


Her mom was shocked and not quite sure what to do. Should she try to slow her daughter down? Not allow her to run long distance? Would too much running at a young age cause physical harm? Would she experience bone or joint damage? Would she burn out on running before she even got to high school? I could feel her mom’s insecurity as we discussed her wonderful daughter. I didn’t know what to tell her.


This is such a tough one. I was a swim coach in my 20s, and I have to admit that one of the most wonderful yet scary things I experienced was when I witnessed that rare combination of extraordinary talent and innate drive in very young children. I always felt like that was a huge burden to bear. What if I pushed too hard? Would it hurt them? What if I didn’t push hard enough? Would we always wonder what could have been?


The truth is that there are theories that running long distances at a young age can have detrimental effects on bone growth. Burnout is a common result of too much too quickly. In many cases of talented young runners, the parents are easy targets, generally criticized for allowing their kids to run too much.


So here’s the question: What is too much? When is a certain distance acceptable?


If you have a few minutes, read this article about phenom sisters, Kaytlynn and Heather Welsch, 12 and 10, who are frequently seen winning races and drawing loads of both encouragement and skepticism.


Now, imagine you are the parent of a young phenom who is BEGGING you to run long distance instead of hanging out in her bedroom playing video games and worse.


What would you do?

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