Children running too hard?
How much should my child train?
It is very easy as parents to live vicariously through our children’s performances. It is tempting to think that it is a reflection on our parenting. The reality is that kids will often do the best in the long term if we get out of their way and just support them with whatever they accomplish. By exerting overt or subtle pressure on them we can spoil their love of running and drive them away from reaching for their potential.
However short-term results are often what we are excited about as athletes and parents. It takes patience and planning to be the best we can be at the right time. The journey towards excellence passes by the early developers and burnt out over trainers.
Is winning at an early age a good thing in the long term?
Developmental ages for children vary extensively. In general girls mature earlier than boys but within a gender the variance can be many years. Early developers gain a confidence boost by easily beating late developers early on. However in the long run there is some evidence that it is physically better to develop as late as possible.
For psychological reasons it can be better to excel when older. Kids who are winning nationals in grade 4 when they first compete often are not participating by grade 12. Early success can sometimes cause complacency and then frustration when later developers start to catch up. Late developers have to initially struggle and deal with losing which builds resilience and persistence. Tactical skills are honed with tough races rather than easy wins.
In my experience over many decades as a running coach I believe that hard training at a young age is not beneficial to children’s long term development as a distance runner. However I can accept that hard training in upper primary school may be of value if a child is trying to attain a sporting scholarship for high school. This will be at the possible cost of their long term success but could save parents many thousands of dollars. That is a value judgement that the parent and child must make.
Can running physically damage my child?
Parents often worry about damaging growth plates in children with too much running. While active kids are more likely to have growth related injuries like Osgood’s of the knee and Sever’s at the heel the only evidence for growth plate damage is with maximum power resistance training. Children may have less capacity to train in the heat than some adults due to surface to volume ratios. Because they have less experience they are unlikely to be able to train long distances as it can take years to safely progress total weekly mileage. Like with adults overtraining can lead to injury, illness or burnout.
What does hard training involve?
To achieve early success requires frequent intense speed sessions. Total training load or distance covered has a reduced cost benefit especially for pre-pubescent children. That is the more kilometres they run the lower the quality of their race performances will be. So if your goal is for your primary school child to race at their best at a young age then the focus should be on speed sessions rather than mileage. I always tell my athletes that they should aspire to be running at their best in grade 11 and 12 and to be patient when they hear their peers are doing long intense speed sessions. While they may not be as competitive in primary school and early high school in the long term they will be better off.
What are the guidelines?
The Australian Sports Medicine Federation’s Children in Sport Committee (ASMF) recommends conservative guidelines “in the absence of evidence of the detrimental effects on children training for distance running”. These guidelines recommend maximum race distances of no more than 8km at age 12 to 14 and half marathons at age 15 to 16. They recommend weekly maximum training distances of three times their competitive distances. Interestingly there is no recommendation about the amount of intensity that is appropriate at different ages even though that is the more likely cause of training burnout and a child leaving the sport.
For a girl racing cross country at age 14 over 4km that is only 12km. Even if you used their 8km maximum race recommendation that would be only 24km a week. Even at a slow 6 minutes per kilometre that would only be just over 2 hours a week. In comparison with other sports like gymnastics and swimming this is not even the amount an elite junior would train daily at age 14.
Should a child run long and slow?
Long slow running benefits children in the same way it does adults: by Improving heart stroke volume and aerobic efficiency (to transport oxygen to muscle); by increasing the capillary network (that delivers the oxygen); and by increasing myoglobin concentration and the number and size of mitochondria so that muscle fibres can use the oxygen when needed. The result is a higher MaxVO2 and better lactate clearance rates. Children who run long and slow will not learn to push for long at their maximum speed but they will feel much easier at close to their maximum compared to their intensity focused peers.
Haile Gebrselassie reported that he ran 10km to school every day carrying his books. His daily running distance was more than the suggested weekly maximum guidelines by the ASMF. I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that no Australian child runs as much as he did. We are so worried about children training too much that I wonder if
our conservative guidelines are preventing our children from achieving their maximum potential as adults.
Children vs adults
Ever since legendary coach Arthur Lydiard started the running boom in the 60’s, distance running training principles for adults have started with base training of easy running followed by the gradual introduction of specific intensity. Why don’t we let our children follow the same proven pathway to performance success? I believe that part of it is the climate of overprotectiveness in society. Children can not be left home alone if they are under 14. Very few kids make their own way to school by walking, running or cycling. This then expresses itself by always following the short term conservative approach to childhood risk. The result is skyrocketing obesity rates in children and they may be the first generation that does not live as long as their parents.
Who do the guidelines target?
Athletics officials are concentrated on the success of elite athletes and their transition from talented children to medal winning adults than they are of the health of society. But very few children will ever achieve elite success as an adult.
The great benefit of running to the vast majority of people is improved health and longevity. Long easy running develops a lifelong love of running while intense speed sessions often create a hatred of hard training as evidenced by the number of previously elite young adults who quit exercise as soon as they finish school.
My recommendation for children’s training loads
My recommendation “in the absence of any evidence of the detrimental effects on children training for distance running” is to drop the current guidelines around maximum distances of racing and training. Instead research should be conducted on safe levels of intensity involving number of intense sessions a week, the total volume of intensity and the proximity to maximum effort in training.
An easy run is like a meditation session. You get into a rhythm and enter a zone of peace and clarity. Before you know it your run is over and the physical and mental benefits are obvious in the afterglow. This is what creates a love of running and a lifetime habit of health and exercise. This is what should be the focus of running as a child. If they do go on to become an elite athlete then this love of running will be a great base to launch their career. Even if they don’t become elite the benefits of learning a love of running early on will continue for the rest of their lives.
If you think your child may be over-reaching and may be heading towards burnout, make an appointment for a FREE 15 minute consultation with one of our experienced running coaches who can help nurture and guide your child to long term success and ultimately enjoyment of running. Click the button below.
About Steve Manning
Steve has been coaching children for 35 years since he was 18. He has coached multiple national champions in cross country, athletics and the triathlon. His favourite achievement as a coach is when three of his athletes swept the places in the 3000M national schools championship.
He coaches an elite junior squad on Thursday mornings and is available for individual coaching programs through the intraining Running Injury Clinic. Steve is a podiatrist and sessional academic for fourth year podiatry in sports medicine and paediatrics at QUT. Steve is the current chairman of the Sports Medicine Australia Queensland Council and is a past chairman of the board.