Having been an unnaturally idle child, with her nose mainly stuck in a book for the first twenty-odd years of life, perhaps Verne Maree shouldn’t be allowed to comment on the subject of children and running. There was no stopping her, however.
Running, either as part of free play or in organised games, is obviously good for children. For one thing, it’s accepted as being key to building strong bones. Luckily, most youngsters love to run around.
But what about that hot, miserable, whining seven-year-old in purple Nikes being chivvied along the field by a probably well-meaning parent? Should a child that young be pushed to run more than he or she wants to? On the other hand, should a keen 13-year-old be allowed to run a full marathon? How far is enough? How far is too far?
Former elite triathlete Ben Pulham of Journey Fitness Company is strongly in favour of children running. “Growing up as a runner laid a really great aerobic foundation for my career as a triathlete,” he says, “as well as an appreciation for living a healthy lifestyle.”
He feels that children who are keen should be encouraged to run formal distances. “Short cross-country races and athletics are a great starting point for youngsters with a passion to run. It worked for me, and it has worked for many of my friends.”
Distances should be age-appropriate, though, says Ben, whose running career started when he was six, doing athletics at the local club. “The longest race at that age was about 400m,” he remembers “From there I went to 800m, 1500m, 3,000m and then to cross-country. When I was back in NZ in January this year, I found a certificate from when I was 10. I ran a 10K fun run in 44 minutes.”
Would he encourage his own children to run?
“Absolutely,” says Ben. “I’m so looking forward to the day that I can head out for a run with my kids.”
Sensibly, he adds that youngsters should enjoy their sport, whatever it is, and advises parents not to focus on results. Instead, the focus should be on participation, and on learning the skills of the sport. By developing a solid skill level at a young age, he believes, they will have less risk of injury as they age and are likely to be faster and better athletes in the long term.
According to the American Medical Athletic Association, there’s no scientific evidence “that kids will tear up ligaments, destroy cartilage or damage growth plates with high mileage”. Therefore, American experts conclude that there is no reason to disallow the participation of a young athlete even in a marathon, “as long as the athlete enjoys the activity and is asymptomatic”.
In his Lore of Running, South African sport scientist Dr Tim Noakes agrees that there is no evidence for any lasting physiological harm caused by pre-pubertal children training intensively. In his opinion, talented young runners, even under the age of 10, who choose to run distances of 10K or longer, “are at no greater risk of an unfavourable outcome or injury than are adults completing the same distances under the same environmental conditions”.
The (Maybe) Nays
After all that, is it right and fair to deny a well-trained, uninjured and self-motivated youngster entry to long distance endurance races? In line with the rest of the world, the Singapore Marathon, for example, requires 42.2K runners to be 18 years old on the day, and they must be 17 to run the half.
Opinion is by no means unanimous on this point. Physiotherapist Simon Raftery of Orthomed sounds a note of caution by reminding us that children are not small adults – they are built quite differently, he says.
“The first major anatomical difference between children and adults is that their bones are significantly softer, making them more likely to produce stress fractures in weight-bearing bones.” A common example of this is shin splints, which occur through the lower part of the leg bone just above the ankle.
“They’re also more likely to develop overuse injuries where the tendons insert into the bones: this is the weak point in children,” Simon tells me. For example, children in the age range 8 to 17 often develop heel pain due to Sever’s syndrome, a painful inflammation of the heel’s growth plate that’s associated with sports and activities that involve running and jumping.
Aren’t there plenty of alternative competitive running opportunities over shorter distances, up to and including the 10K, to develop the talent of a youngster who shows promise? What’s more, as any endurance runner will know, solid marathon training – at whatever age – takes up huge amounts of time and energy. How much is left over for the many other physical, academic, social and other activities that a balanced youngster should ideally be exploring?
Everything in moderation, they say. But moderation can be a tough lesson for children who are truly passionate about sport, as my Aussie colleague Katie Roberts can confirm. Her nine-year-old son, Joe, is an ardent rugby player, who also loves running and is keen on both duathlons and triathlons. Dad Sean coaches the rugby team and teaches the importance of rest and recovery; nevertheless, young Joe has picked up a painful heel injury that requires treatment.
No doubt that painful heel will mend given time and, possibly, rest, depending on the doctor’s advice. Most sensible parents – and that includes Katie – would far rather help their children get over the bumps, bruises, strains and sprains of an active and sporty childhood than see their glassy-eyed, pasty-faced sons and daughters glued to various electronic devices, day in and day out.
Or perennially buried in a book, like I was.
This story first appeared in Expat Living Singapore’s May 2015 issue.