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!