I’ve been involved with coaching youth runners now for the better part of a decade. As a kid I participated in several youth running programs, from USATF Junior Olympics to Steens Mountain Running. One of the frequent questions you’ll hear when coaching youth athletes in the sport of running is, “Isn’t it bad for them to be running so young?” The easiest answer would be, no. But I never take the easy way, so let’s discuss.
Much of our hesitation in allowing young children to run comes from our own “adult” misunderstanding that running is inherently bad for you, or hard on your joints. This is often due to our own injuries that we’ve incurred as adults, stemming from poor running form and bad habits. Likely, we got into some nice cushy shoes, and didn’t have any instruction on how to run properly.
It’s never that simple of course, and I realize that sounds pretty harsh. From my perspective, and this is purely based on my own experience, the potential of learning and developing a healthy active lifestyle will far outweigh any short term injuries a child might get from running. Part of being a kid is running – through the woods, around the playground, or after a ball. Kids run, it’s what they do. Only when they make a conscious decision to focus solely on running do parents get worried, and rightfully so. A focus on any one aspect of a sport can lead to an injury, but risks can be reduced when properly instructed. Most injuries will be short term and can provide a good learning opportunity.
Endurance sports often inflict issues in children because very self-driven, motivated, and introverted kids are drawn to them. They can get caught up in the pursuit for perfection, and eventually burn out. It’s important for someone – a parent, coach, mentor – to caution athletes about about the dangers of overdoing it. There must always be a balance in what the athlete is hearing, so they can continue to have a healthy relationship with the sport.
With 10 years of experience coaching kids as young as age seven, as well as being a runner the past 25 years, I have seen everything. I could point to specific examples in cases that involve success, injury, and burnout. Ultimately it comes down to the individual, what they want to do, and how hard they are willing to push. Successful athletes have a balance of drive and determination, an understanding of their ability both mentally and physically, and patience.
Many of the most successful (not most talented) athletes I’ve seen are those that struggle in their early years, or have enough modest success that it helps them realize their potential, and extract it over a long period of time.
Early success can often be the death knell to a child’s relationship with sports. They can become hyper-competitive and see themselves as unstoppable, but often it’s on a small scale. Eventually most, if not all athletes will experience some disappointment through a loss, an injury, or physical changes. Kids needs to be taught that this is normal, and they need to use mental strength to overcome these obstacles if they are to have a healthy relationship with sports.
A priority of coaches and parents should be to support their child by helping him or her foster a healthy relationship sports. One that will have a lasting effect, ultimately resulting in a healthy lifestyle through activity, whatever that turns out to be.
The nice thing about running is that it’s one of the simplest forms of exercise, costs very little, and no one is ever benched for not being good enough. Everyone gets to compete. Unfortunately, accessibility to coaching and programs are few and far between for a number of reasons we won’t get into. A national poll put out by the Big Sur International Marathon found that only 3.7 million children are involved in youth running programs. Of the roughly 55 million children in grades K through 12 in the U.S., this is an astonishingly small number considering how simple the sport is.
We are lucky in the Northwest to have some really great clubs that cater to our youth, and have great coaches that make running fun. We also have a supportive environment with good urban running paths and trails, and a perception that running is cool (trust me, this last one is huge when getting increased participation).
If much of this sounds contradictory, it’s because it is. Are there risks in running? Absolutely. Does it sometimes lead to burnout and a rejection of endurance sports? Sure. However, the likelihood that it will teach perseverance, healthy lifestyle choices, and confidence far outweighs any negative impact. There’s a fine balance between too much and just enough. I’ve been running for 25 years, and my mother is still harping on me that I’m doing too much. I frequently hear “you shouldn’t be doing that, it’s not good for you.” As parents, the concern that a child is doing damage to his or her body never really goes away. I’ve been able to find that right balance at a very high level. I enjoy what I do almost every day, have a very low injury rate, and will be doing this sport for as long as I live.