Distance Running and Children: How much is too much?

gotr_vermontChildren love to run. For a toddler, there is nothing more freeing than the realization that one can move about independently and with great speed. As children reach grade school they continue to get faster and stronger. To be a child, is to be a runner. Consider the sprint from the classroom to the playground during recess or the number of times we remind children to walk, not run each day.

In a culture that is increasingly dominated by screen time, it is imperative that we encourage our children to follow their instincts and be active. Organized sports, free play, and outside activities are all important contributors to a child’s physical, social, and emotional well-being. Let them run.

According to the Center for Disease Control, more than one-third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese. (CDC)

Running has never been more popular. The number of runners participating in U.S. road races has more than tripled since 1990. In 2012, more than 15.5 million people competed in races. (Running USA) Many of these runners are children.

In the News

In 2013, some of our youngest runners have been breaking new ground and pushing the boundaries:

Colby Wentlandt
Colby Wentlandt
  • Anthony Evan Russo ran the Trenton Half Marathon in 2:22:25, becoming the second 5-year old to finish the distance and besting the previous mark by over 40 minutes.
  • Rosey Dunham, age 6, finished her half-marathon in 2:35:23 at the Dayton River Corridor Classic
  • Colby Wentlandt, age 12, conquered the Ride the Wind 100-miler. The 7th grader from Warner, California is believed to be the youngest finisher ever to complete a race of that distance.
  • Winter Vinecki, 14, became the youngest person to run a marathon on every continent when she completed the Athens Classic Marathon earlier this month. Winter founded the nonprofit organization Team Winter to raise awareness and funds for prostate cancer research.

Is it Safe?

As runners, we know how our bodies feel during the long hours spent training and the effort it takes to run long distances. So, it is natural to not only appreciate and marvel at the accomplishments of these young runners, but to wonder if it is safe for them to run so far at such a young age. There has been very little research conducted in this area, and experts are split on the subject.

“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.” –Pediatrics, June 2007

“I’m comfortable with children running distances up to 5-K and 10-K, if they’re properly trained. I’m not a believer in kids under 18 running marathons, and those under 14 should probably stay on the down side of 13 miles.” – Dr. Metzl

The basis of our concern is deeply rooted in our own running experiences. We know that running is difficult. Training can sometimes lead to overuse injuries. We don’t want our children to suffer like we have. That makes perfect sense.

As a parent, or coach, of a young runner it is very important to closely monitor their physical and emotional state. If the running becomes a chore, it is time to back off. If the running causes any pain or lasting discomfort, it is time to back off. The potential for burnout or loss of interest is very high. Be a better listener than you are a talker.


Experts may have differing opinions on what is safe in terms of mileage, but all seem to agree that the positive aspects of running far outweigh the negative risks. Parents should inspire their children to take up running and other forms of exercise by living active lifestyles and leading by example.

Check out Girls on the Run, a program which inspires girls to be joyful, healthy and confident using a fun, experience-based running curriculum. Or, see if your school has an elementary track and field or cross-country running team. A team environment provides children with a safe and structured environment led by trained coaches.

For more information on competitive running and children:

SaltmarshRunning.com – Run For Your Life!

One thought on “Distance Running and Children: How much is too much?

  1. I am a kid runner at age 12 and I think running is really cool!!!

What do you think? Let us know in the Comments below.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: