Running comes naturally to children. The great New Zealand running coach Arthur Lydiard trained numerous world-class distance runners using coaching techniques he developed by watching the natural, fluid running biomechanics of children at play.
Occasionally, I’m asked what I think about children participating in distance road races…is it safe? Is it healthy? How wonderful it must be to have a child showing sincere interest in running with dad and/or mom in a local 5K or 10K race. The last thing any parent wants to do is discourage his or her children from participating in an activity so widely accepted as healthy and positive.
The respected publication, The Physician and Sports Medicine, released the following guidelines for parents of children participating in sports. I think the guidelines make great sense and apply to the sport of long-distance running. These guidelines address the physical, as well as, emotional well-being of children when it comes to sports participation:
- Make sure your children know that – win or lose – you love them and are not disappointed with their performance.
- Be realistic about your child’s physical ability.
- Help your child set realistic goals.
- Emphasize improved performance, not winning. Positively reinforce improved skills.
- Don’t relive your own athletic past through your child.
- Provide a safe environment for training and competition.
- Control your emotions at games and events. Don’t yell at other players/runners, coaches, or officials.
- Be a cheerleader for your child and the other children participating.
- Respect your child’s coaches. Communicate openly with them. If you disagree with their approach, discuss it with them.
- Be a positive role model. Enjoy sports yourself. Set your own goals. Live a healthy lifestyle.
Specific to the sport of distance running, there isn’t much information on the physical ramifications for children, good or bad. One study did indicate a slight rise in the number of running-related injuries in children, from 1994 – 2007. Most of these injuries resulted from falling while running – lacerations, sprains, broken bones that required a trip to the emergency room. There’s very little data regarding overuse injuries experienced by children training for long-distance running events.
One thing to keep in mind is the fact that young children are more susceptible to heat injuries. Their systems have not fully developed the ability to regulate body heat. Be very careful when it comes to your child running longer distances in hot, humid conditions.
When I talk to parents of athletically gifted children interested in distance running, I like to tell them the story of the great Portuguese runner Carlos Lopes, marathon gold medal winner at the 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles. As a young boy growing up in Portugal, Carlos showed great running ability. He received excellent guidance from his parents and coaches along the way. He first started as a 400 meter runner, moved up to the 800 meter distance, then 1,500 meters, and so on.
Carlos completed his first marathon at the age of 36, clocking a 2:08.39 in Rotterdam. The following year he won the Olympic gold medal in just his second marathon. Carlos was a champion during every phase of his career – youth track & field, cross-country, road racing, and he finished his competitive career winning the Olympic marathon. The speed he developed running shorter races as young boy paid huge dividends when he moved up to longer distance racing as an adult.
I recommend gently guiding your running kids towards shorter races and track & field. They’ll have plenty of time for long distance road racing when they reach adulthood and they’ll enjoy camaraderie of being on a track team and learning life lessons in process – winning and losing as a team, working with a coach, etc.
Children seem to enjoy fun activities. Sports and fitness should be no different.