How Young Is Too Young to Run a Marathon? – Lifehacker

How Young Is Too Young to Run a Marathon?  Lifehacker


Photo: mooinblack (Shutterstock)

Recently a family in Kentucky has found itself in the center of controversy for allowing their 6-year-old son to participate in the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati last Saturday. Many were put off by the idea of a child that young running a distance that long, questioning if it was safe for his health. Before we jump to any conclusions, let’s see what the science says.

To find answers, I first consulted the Physical Activities Guidelines for Americans released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. According to that guidance, running as an activity is recommended for children ages 6 and up. Not only does the activity help children create an aerobic base, it also serves as a bone-strengthening measure. They recommend an hour per day of exercise for children and adolescents, which can also include a muscle-strengthening activity. Running isn’t the only activity HHS recommends. Other aerobic base activities include jumping rope, swimming, or bicycling. For muscle-strengthening activities, they recommend unstructured activities, such as playing on playground equipment or climbing trees. For bone-strengthening activities, they recommend basketball, tennis, and hopscotch.

OK, so yes, children obviously can run. But should be running such long distances? That depends on the child. Dr. William O’Roberts of the University of Minnesota Phalen Village Clinic explains distance-running for children is permissible so long as they “follow an acceptable supervised training program with emphasis on fun and participation, not records and fast times.” He goes on to note it shouldn’t be a problem so long as “they have no injury or pain during training.” The truth of that matter is, as O’Roberts notes, there’s not much data available on youth marathon runners.

While some in the field believe youth marathon runners are at a higher risk for injury, there’s no evidence to back up that claim. In fact, O’Roberts writes, “There have been many thousands of finished <18 years old at the Los Angeles Marathon in an organized program for youth running and nearly 300 finishers at the Twin Cities Marathon. The youngest child in these data sets was 7 years old. There has not been any significant medical injury at these events.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics echoes a similar sentiment, explaining, “children and adolescents must be properly trained to avoid hypothermia or hyperthermia, overtraining, overuse injuries, and burnout.” Marathons require a carefully cultivated plan of safely increasing total weekly mileage, but so long as that’s taken into account, your child is likely to avoid injury. The AAP says, “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.”

In short, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” answer for if your child should be running a particular distance. It depends on the child’s age, their motivation, and their training regiment, making it impossible to make a blanket statement of, “This is totally wrong,” or, “This is fine, actually.” What we do know is that children are encouraged to be running, particularly if they want to run. So just make sure to monitor them if you’re worried about how far they’re going or whether they’re doing it safely.