Their bodies are growing and developing, but is that a good reason to limit their mileage?By: Warren Greene, Scott Douglas
Yes. There’s no evidence that it's harmful.
By Scott Douglas
The biggest reason given for keeping kids from marathoning is that doing so will harm their health. But there’s no evidence that occurs in well-trained young runners. The journal Pediatrics concluded a study on overuse injuries in young athletes with the statement, “Ultimately, there is no reason to disallow participation of a young athlete in a properly run marathon as long as the athlete enjoys the activity and is asymptomatic.” Similarly, William Roberts, M.D., medical director of the Twin Cities Marathon and Runner’s World Ask The Sports Doc columnist, told Running Timesin 2011, “Kids and mileage basically makes us nervous, but from all I've found, there is no harm being done; they are not getting hurt. If it is their choice, keep doing it.”
The caveats above—“enjoys the activity,” “asymptomatic,” “their choice”—are important. Of course nobody wants a teen dragging herself through 26.2 miles to please her parents. But the desirability of teens being self-motivated is true for any pursuit; why single out marathoning?
Anecdotally, people worry about burnout. Again, this concern is no more or less valid for marathoning than for other activities. And if others are allowed to argue from anecdote, then I am too: I ran the 1981 Baltimore Marathon in 2:49:55 while a high school senior. In my 35 years of running, I’ve had one injury that’s required more than two weeks off at a time. Or consider Running Times editor-in-chief Jonathan Beverly, who, like me, was born in 1964, ran a marathon in high school, and is as healthily enamored of running in 2014 as ever. We are but two of many who were fortunate enough to find our lifelong activity of choice while young.
Now, if we want to debate whether overweight adults who’ve been sedentary their whole lives should run a marathon six months after their first walk/jog around the block, that’s another matter.
By Warren Greene
Should kids run? Absolutely. Should kids run marathons? No.
Long-distance running is a long-term proposition. Over the course of a runner’s life – with smart training, the right mindset, and a bit of good luck – he or she may log tens of thousands of miles, reaping the rewards every step of the way.
So why rush into something as brutal as a marathon at age 15, 16, 17? Where’s the urgency?
Simply put, there is none. There’s no good reason to tackle a marathon at an early age. Why risk injury – possibly even permanent damage – to a developing body?
Dr. Stephen Rice, in a 2003 article in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, made this very case, suggesting that the repetitive trauma of running 26.2 miles increases the risk of injury in children undergoing periods of rapid growth. Not only that, but Rice says, "a child with shorter stride length subjects himself to more repetitions of impact to cover the same distance as an adult."
Not every doctor agrees. But when you’re talking about a child’s well-being, which side of that debate would you err on?
Runners under 18 cannot run the Boston Marathon, or New York City or London. Chicago allows runners as young as 16 but requires parental permission. These restrictions are typical, and they exist for a reason.
Running a marathon requires tons of time and energy, and lots and lots of hard miles. If a child shows promise as a runner, let her develop that potential as a high school athlete. Let her hone her skill under the guidance of a coach, and enjoy the camaraderie of running with a team. Let’s not burden her, and others like her, with the demands of a 26.2-mile race.
After all, the marathon isn’t going anywhere. It will be there, waiting, when the time comes.
Sometimes, discipline means being able to delay gratification. To recognize the value in having a long-term goal and in doing the work to get there, even if that work takes years rather than months. To keep an eye on the horizon. To be patient.
Isn’t that what marathon running is all about?
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