How Young is Too Young to Run a Marathon?
When it comes to youth sports, the biggest concern is, of course, kids' and teens' health and safety. It's why we don't allow young children to whip curve balls from the mound or tackle headfirst into other players on the football field. In endurance sports, however, the boundaries are less clear when it comes to protecting children against overuse injuries as well as mental burnout. And, with the quickly growing number of marathoning parents and the widespread availability of events all over the country, the question of how young is too young to complete the marathon distance is becoming more and more relevant.
While there have been stories of kids running marathons since the 1970s, the topic first gained major media attention in 2006 when 3-year-old Budhia Singh began running the 26.2-mile distance. Born in 2002 in a city slum to a poor Indian family, he was sold to a local judo coach who ran an orphanage. Using running as a form of punishment, the coach discovered the toddler could run for hours. After completing various races, including a 42-mile event, the government stepped in to order the boy to stop. Not long after, Indian police arrested the coach under suspicion of torturing the child.
But if 3 years old is clearly far too young for a child to run long distances, what is a good threshold for most kids, or teens? Unfortunately there's no consensus among experts as to the age it's believed to be safe for a child to run 26.2 miles. The International Marathon Medical Directors Association says marathoning is not appropriate for children and advises waiting until the age of 18 to complete a marathon. Their advice: "While it is conceivable that given proper biomechanics and anatomy, a quality progressive training program, and appropriate maturity and cognitive level, a long distance runner can have a positive experience from participating in marathons prior to eighteen years of age...this special individual would be the exception and not the rule." The organization identifies potential risks, such as stress fractures and heat-related illnesses since young bodies don't cool as effectively as adults.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the leading U.S. organization for children's health, doesn't suggest that children be banned from running marathons, but it does call for caution in training. The AAP also emphasizes the importance of giving children breaks from training throughout the year in order to avoid physical and psychological burnout. And all organizations agree on one thing: At any distance, the motivation to train should originate with and be driven by the child.
In an attempt to shed light on the rarely studied phenomenon of child marathoners, Dr. William Roberts, the medical director for the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon pulled together information on finishers ages 7 to 17 from 1982-2007. Of those 310 kids, only four visited the medical tent, which was half the rate of adult finishers. While Roberts still plans to follow up with these runners to see if they have experienced problems as adults, he says, "the runners I know in my age group who ran marathons as kids are doing fine. I, on the other hand, have never run a marathon and now have two new joints — one hip and one knee."
Another recent study, published in Clinical Pediatrics, looked at emergency room visits from 1994 to 2007 and collected data on adolescents who became injured while running for exercise. The research revealed a rise in running-related injuries, and concluded that about one-third were of the teens' injuries were a result of falling and the majority were sprains and strains. "The repetitive motion of running can put strain on multiple parts of the lower extremities, including knees, shins, ankles, and feet," explains one of the study's authors, Lara Mckenzie. "Cumulative trauma to joints of the lower extremities may lead to overuse injuries, which are common in adolescent athletes." With that said, there are yet to be any studies that look at the long-term consequences, leaving doctors, coaches, and researchers to simply speculate.
Roberts suggests using a common sense approach to the issue. "I would not discourage a child who initiated the idea and whose parents understand the process, as long as the child is doing well in all life areas — academic, social, psychological, family, medical, and athletic — and isn't injured. I would, however, discourage a child whose parents are pushing the issue."
Mckenzie emphasizes checking in with a doctor first and following the same basic training principles as adults — warm up, cool down, take breaks when needed, drink water, and wear supportive shoes. "Let the child gauge their own limitations and don't let them work past the point of exhaustion or pain. Run only as far as a child is comfortable."
While the verdict is still out in terms of hard data, the majority of children won't have the desire to pursue such a goal in the first place. For most youngsters, a game that allows for plenty of variety and action will trump a long run out pounding the pavement any day.
How old do you think a child should be before attempting a marathon? What distance — if any — do you think is safe for a pre-teen?
—Mackenzie Lobby, Running Reporter
Mackenzie Lobby is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and photographer with a master's in kinesiology from the University of Minnesota. She has run 10 marathons and is a USATF-certified coach and a self-certified local food hound. When not writing, she's running around the city lakes or picking produce at her local farmer's market. For more about Mackenzie go to mackenzielobby.com.