Triathlons, Track and 5Ks – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly for Our Kids

5Ks are a long way to go

Let it be known that I have been running competitively since the age of 6 years old. At 7, I ran a 2:48 in the 880-yard run. At 8, I ran a 12:19 2-mile and a 21:11 5K on the road. At 9, I ran a 6:02 mile. At 10, I ran a 5:35 mile.

I tell you this not to gloat, but to let you know that I have an appreciation for middle distance and distance running, as well as other endurance sports for younger and older kids, but I still think we sometimes want to rush our little ones to longer events before they are adept at shorter more manageable distances.

Is you child wanting to run long?

I was a pretty fast kid growing up. I was the fastest in my class and my grade when I was in pre-school and kindergarten. I had so much energy as a youngster that my mom was going crazy and found a track club for me. So here I am at age 6 running 100-yard and 220-yard dashes (yes, I started running before the US went metric on the track) in practice and in meets. Then I started running the 440 yard dash. My coach saw that while I was a pretty fast kid, I never really got tired and was ready and willing (an important piece) to run longer, so he then moved me up to the 880 yard dash. By the time the following fall came around (now 7 years old) I was doing age-group cross-country (3/4 mile to 1-1/2 mile races), and by the ages of 8-9 I had started to run 1-1/2 mile cross-country races and 1-mile track races more regularly.

Although I remember training, I wasn’t putting in crazy mileage or running everyday. I luckily had a natural ability to run a sustainable fast pace and so distance running was an appropriate fit for me. But I can’t tell you how many parents I meet who want to rush their young kids into these endurance sports because the kid supposedly wants to or because he isn’t that fast so parents think that longer distances would be good for him.

Build up the endurance over time – speed first

I find it hard to believe in this day and age when more kids are obese than ever in our history, that their are throngs of Janes and Johnnys who want to go out and ride, swim or run for 30-60 minutes without breaks by their own volition. Heck, when I was a kid, all my friends were good athletes, but most of them hated to run more than a couple of 100-yard sprints – I was the odd-ball who didn’t mind running 2-4 miles at a time!

While there are always going outliers – those young kids (5-10) who have a natural ability to run, swim or bike long distances at a good clip, the majority of young children aren’t physically or mentally wired this way. Just because a 10-year-old CAN physically finish a half marathon (13.1 miles), doesn’t mean he SHOULD run a half marathon; yet, I witness parents trying to rush the endurance process with their young ones and have them compete in longer endurance events before they are mentally and physically ready.

How is it that young African kids can run so far then?

Why is it then that young African kids can run for miles upon miles without getting tired? Simple, they have been building up endurance from a young age because they literally run/walk to school, which may be as far as 3-5 miles each way. Imagine your 4, 5 or 6-year-old walked to and from school everyday instead of getting the bus or being dropped off; don’t you think his endurance base would be greater and that running a couple of miles wouldn’t be much of a big deal? But most U.S. kids aren’t raised this way; so to think we should have young kids running 5Ks and Sprint Distance triathlons (not to mention Olympic distances and further) is a bit silly, if you ask me.

But my kid loves going far?

Does that mean that your kid who enjoys running or cycling with you and wants to run a 5K or do your next sprint triathlon with you shouldn’t be allowed to? NO, I’m not saying that at all. I think it’s always good to bond with your kids – especially in a healthy and constructive manner. And if you think he/she can handle the distance without injury then go for it. But my worry is that we are having some young kids continually training for longer endurance events when really they should be focusing on shorter distances.

If you don’t believe me see what Justin Trolle, USAT’s Athlete Development Manager, says about getting our youth into longer triathlons.

Personally, this is how I would go about introducing young kids into endurance sports:

Track & Field – I would introduce them to the 100 meters and then move them up slowly to the 200, 400 and beyond after a season or two, only if they were willing to do the work and could maintain a fast enough pace to be competitive in the longer events (To be candid, if a kid at any age can’t run at least a 7-minute mile or 3:30 in the 800 meters, then he/she isn’t ready to run these events yet. Understand, these are just average times for these events – even for kids 8 and younger). Also in USA Track & Field (USATF), the governing body of track in this country, they don’t even allow kids to run the 3000 meters (nearly 2 miles) in track meets until the age of 11.

Triatlons – Again, would go by what Justin Trolle states on his page about youth triathletes:

Age limits – while there are no labeled age limits for athletes doing endurance events, try to use this as a guide when picking age appropriate races for your athletes:

7-10 years old – 50-100m Swim / 2-3km bike / 100m-1km run
11-12 years old – 200m Swim / 5-7km bike / 2km run
12-15 years old – Super Sprint ≤ 500m Swim / 10km bike / 3km run
15-18 years old – Sprint Distance ≤ 750m Swim / 20km bike / 5km run
18-23 years old – Olympic Distance ≤ 1500m Swim / 40km bike /10km run

5Ks – Wait until your kid is at least 12-13 before you take training for these seriously. I would say, no need to run a kid in this long of a race, in a competitive nature, unless he/she can clip off 7-8 minute miles.

But Dave! (as you’re yelling at your computer screen) I can’t even run a 9-minute mile for a 5K, so are you telling me I shouldn’t run that far either! 

No, you are an adult. Your body is fully mature and you have stopped growing. And maybe you came to running later in life and you simply enjoy running 5Ks, 10Ks and even longer races at a pace that is far slower than 8-minutes per mile. You are running for recreational and fitness purposes, as well as personal satisfaction, most likely. But if you really wanted to improve you marathon time, you would work on your speed more than most adults do.

Kids bodies are changing

And with kids, because their bodies are changing and developing constantly, it’s not good to throw them into longer races simply because they are not naturally fast. You first want to work on increasing their speed, not to mention their mental fortitude, and then have them enter into the longer distances when they can be at least “in the mix” of a race. But having them sloth through 5K after 5K, just so they can say they did it, may be an accomplishment of finishing what they started, but, in my opinion, they would be better served learning how to pace properly, work on their endurance little-by-little, learn how to run more efficiently and then enter an endurance race with a plan in mind that they know they can achieve.

No need to rush, the miles will always be there; and your kids have decades to work up to these longer endurance events.

Have fun out there!

Athlinks Staff
Posts by the Athlinks Staff are authored by our in-house group of athletes and subject matter experts in the fields of performance sports, nutrition, race organization, and training.

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  1. My daughter has an 18:05 5K PR at age 10. Her mile time at age 10 was 5:23 and her 2 mile was 11:32. Telling her she should be running 100’s or 200’s would be ridiculous and assumes you don’t understand slow twitch or fast twitch muscle fiber. You can’t just tell someone to sprint that isn’t physically made up to do so. She started running at age 3 and she did 100’s and 200’s up to about age 6. She then was doing 400’s and 800’s. For her, running a 400 now, at age 11, is torture and she greatly risks injury doing so. She’s not built that way and the 5K is much easier than the 400 or 800. You suggest kids wait; but for her to run a 5K at a 7 pace is a tempo run. She can’t even run at 8 pace because she get’s frustrated, believe me, that’s my pace and she hates it.

    Not all kids are the same, some can handle it and others can’t. You should not make blanket statements like that because there are some very talented kids out there that will open your eyes to “the new normal.” I have no idea about what is appropriate for triathlons, I personally think they are nuts, but as far as 9, 10 or 11 year olds running 5Ks regularly, you may be surprised at what they can do. (PS, yes she LOVES, LOVES, LOVES running) From Athlinks:

    • Gregg:

      Obviously, you have an extraordinary daughter. Those times are very impressive. In this article I am talking about the typical American kid and not someone like your daughter, who is definitely an outlier on this bell curve. Your daughter seems to be trained more like an African kid, where she has been building her base miles up since the age of 3. If this is the case, then it may be quite appropriate for her to race 5Ks at her present age of 11.

      Just understand that more is not always better, especially as the child is developing physically. I’m glad that she loves running – as did I at age 11 and still do now (at age 45). The point of the article was not for parents to immediately go from 0 to 60 in their kids training.

      In terms of speed work, I will argue with you that all runners need speed work – no matter what their distance. As a woman runner, if you can’t run at least 58-second 400 you’ll probably never be a world or Olympic champion. Top marathon men can go from running 4:50 and drop to a 4:20 in the middle of a race. Speed is always important. Is it more important than getting in mileage for a 5K or 10K? No, but if you only train at goal race pace for these races, then you’re leaving a lot of seconds on the track because you haven’t focused on basic speed.

      I don’t think you really are going to get an argument from me about what your daughter has been doing, just make sure that she is enjoying the running.

  2. From your description, any child who isn’t naturally athletic, or naturally motivated to train for speed, should not be doing races.
    My son is 9.5, and over the last 15 months has run about 12 races between 2 miles and 4 miles in length with me. None of them faster than a 9:30 pace – in fact, most around 11. He isn’t running to win. He is running because he enjoys the social aspects of the sport (I have a large group of running partners and friends that he has enjoyed meeting). He is running because he likes the challenge or the fun involved in non-competitive fun runs (nighttime through a corn maze, color runs) and the scenery in trail races.
    Because really, the average American kid is going to become the average American adult. And the average American adult isn’t going to be winning medals or athletic scholarships or shoe sponsorships.
    But the average American adult can still enjoy the mental, physical and social benefits of running and racing. Regardless of pace. And that’s what I want my son to enjoy.

    • I think that’s wonderful that you son likes running far just for fun and for the social aspect of it. The point here is that some parents (doesn’t sound like you) look to rush their kids into longer races when they really aren’t ready physically or mentally for them.

      My point I was trying to relay in this post is kids who aren’t naturally fast should not automatically be thrown into longer events, which I see many parents and coaches do. I’ve seen many a kid get lapped in a 1 and 2 mile race and wonder what the coach was thinking. Why not have the kid work up to that longer distance by racing shorter races to help with his or her speed. Getting beat by 1-2 seconds in the 100 or 200 is a large margin, but I think it stings a bit more when an entire field is lapping you in a 2 mile or 1 mile race, which does happen if you’re not ready for that distance.

      Overall, I think there are many kids and adults who run for fun and fitness, which I stated in this post and said that was great.

      Running for fun vs. running to be competitive are two different camps, and this post was focused more on making sure we don’t rush kids into longer distances too early if they are trying to be competitive in the sport.

      Thanks for your comments.

  3. Firstly, parents should have their kids checked out thoroughly by their physicians before any
    of these endeavors. Running ability has nothing to do with it. As we read year after year, there are many incidents of heart stoppages with young athletes. After that my main concern would be with Triathlons. Small children swimming with very large adults in open water is a scary proposition. I would encourage race managers to keep children in separate age groups in triathlons same as they attempt to do with men and women.


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