Updated May 19th, 2023
As parents we want to encourage our children to be healthy and active, and we want to make the best decisions for them.
And to make good decisions for our kids, a little advice and some good information can be very helpful.
We often talk to our friends with kids to get this advice and information, but how many parents know how far should a 7 year old run, or how fast can a 4 year old run.
For this article, I gathered tips and advice from the experts to help you make an informed decision about how far your child should be running.
In full disclosure, I am not one of these experts. What I offer here is expert advise from organizations with extensive experience designing running programs for chidren. I hope to make your decisions a little easier to make.
I do encourage you to consult with your pediatrician before you begin doing more than running around the yard.
What distance can your child run safely?
Children are born to run and love it. Just look at kids on a playground or at the park.
However, running for play and running for exercise or to train for a race are completely different.
At play, kids start and stop and make up their own rules as they play. The only goal is to have fun.
When you introduce formal exercise or training for a race, there are goals and a few rules. Your child may feel obligated to follow those rules and reach for those goals before they are ready.
This article can help inform your decisions when you are setting goals and making the rules.
Goals and Rules
When I talk about goals and rules we’re not talking boot camp or anything close to that!
The rules could be, you have to be able to talk while you run, who sets the pace, or that homework needs to be done before the evening run. Things like that.
Goals could be that you will run 2-3 times each week. Time and distance don’t matter. Or a goal could be to run one block or one telephone pole further each week.
You and your child can make the rules and set the goals. The biggest goal and most important rule is that it should be fun.
So how far can your child run?
The two things to keep in mind when considering how far your child can and should run are:
- Your child’s health and fitness level
- Your child’s age
Your child’s health and fitness level
While pediatricians disagree on how much children should run, all agree that children need exercise.
Some is better than none but you can have too much of a good thing.
At your child’s next physical let the pediatrician know that your child is interested in running.
This is a good way to start a conversation between your pediatrician and your child.
If there are limits or cautions, your child is more likely to be receptive if the pediatrician makes suggestions. The doctor’s enthusiasm may also help motivate your child and keep them going when running turns into work.
If you do not have an appointment coming up, a quick call is advised.
I suggest involving your pediatrician as a best practice.
Fitness and Activity Levels
Fitness and activity tend to go hand in hand.
Active play and sports help keep children’s cardio-vascular system in good shape. Active kids tend to be fit kids.
If your child comes in the house after playing and they are a hot sweaty mess, it’s safe to say they got some exercise.
For younger children, the vigor of their play time is a good indicator of their fitness.
If your child is older and participates in sports, they probably have a healthy level of activity. Drop by practice some time and ask the coach how they are doing.
Your Child’s Age
If your child is healthy, age is the biggest factor in deciding what distance your child should run.
How far a 12 year old can run and how far a 6 year old can run will be quite different.
Older children are more physically developed, stronger and have better coordination.
Older children also tend to have higher levels of motivation, self control and understand goals.
The Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) is the largest running organization in the US and provides educational materials for running clubs who host youth running programs.
Established in 1958, they have extensive experience and expertise.
Their guidelines address appropriate race distances for children starting at Pre-K and give you some guidance on training and encouraging your child.
The RRCA guidelines recommend that children under 5 participate in kid’s fun runs which are usually under 400 yards.
These “races” do not require training and everyone gets a ribbon and lots of encouragement.
They are a great way for your child to try out running and have a good time. And that’s what it’s all about for this age group.
Not all races have a children’s fun run, so you will have to look around and keep your eyes open.
Mother’s day, Father’s day and some holiday races are your best bet.
RRCA FUNdamentals of Youth Running
These age bracket guidelines from the RRCA should be helpful to you.
- Children 5 and under should focus on “dash” events that range from a few yards to 400 meters.
- Children 5 and over, kids fun runs that are a ½ to 1 mile long may be considered, but allow for a combination of running and walking.
- Children ages 12 and over may want to participate in a 5K run.
- Children ages 15 and older may want to participate in a 10K to half marathon event.
- Children 18 and older may want to participate in a marathon or further distance.
While every child is different, you should feel comfortable using these guidelines to decide what distance your child should run.
Running should be fun
Children should not be pressured into running longer distances than they want to. As any parent knows, it’s not unusual for a child to change their mind in the middle of something.
As adults we know about challenging our limitations and pushing through to the next level. Children often do not have these motivations and just know that “this isn’t fun anymore.”
If your child wants to stop or walk while training or racing you have the difficult task of knowing when to let them have their way.
For pre-teens, the emphasis should be on fun, participation and enjoying the event. The emphasis should not be on competition and attaining goals.
If a young child has a genuine enthusiasm for running, let it grow naturally. They will move up to longer distances as they mature and grow stronger.
As the parent your role should be to guide and encourage your young runner and help them make wise choices about running.
Additional Running Guidelines
Here are the distances that the Hartford Marathon Foundation (HMF) uses for their youth events.
Many HMF races have included FitKids fun runs as part of their races for many years. They have a lot of experience in this area.
HMF greatly expanded its platform of youth running programs in 2022 under the umbrella of the Susie Beris, MD Youth Running Program. With a mission to build lifelong runners, the expanded program encompasses the existing HMF FitKids offerings with additional resources and opportunities in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
It’s exciting to see their program grow to include kids from age 2 to 12th grade!
If you click on the HMF FitKids tab they list races throughout the year that your child can participate in.
Most Fun Runs award a ribbon and sometimes provide a drink and a snack. They usually do not provide a medal or shirt as these are free events.
If these things are important to your child, you should see if you can buy an extra shirt for your child.
Omni Running does offer a medal for first time 5K finishers, but a younger child might be happy to receive it for running a shorter distance.
Some races allow you to register your child ahead of time for the Fun Run, but some only have “day of” registration.
The Healthy Kids Running Series was created by Jeff Long, Founder and President of Pattison Sports Group, to provide kids with a positive, educational, and fun experience in the world of running.
They help parents set up youth running programs in their own towns and provide these youth running distance recommendations.
On their web site you can find information on good running form and stretching. It’s important for kids to form good habits early.
The program emphasizes fun and encourages weekly organized runs for children. You can find out if there is a program near you by entering your zip code at their website.
Angela Bekkala wrote an article for Active.com: How to Get Kids Ready for Their First 5K It’s a quick read and offers additional advice.
Your child wants to run a 5K with you. What should you do?
If your child has been running shorter distances, you can either run the 5K for fun or start increasing the training effort.
If your child has never really run before, I would suggest a few short easy training runs at the very least. They should know ahead of race day what running feels like.
If the easy training run doesn’t turn them off, both of you should work out a training plan.
You’re not training for The Olympics, you just want to improve their conditioning and get their bodies used to running.
- Do not put any pressure on them to achieve a certain goal
- Forget about your own time. You need to run their pace
- Be prepared to walk and always be positive and encouraging
- You are mom or dad, not their coach, so always be supportive
This applies to training runs and the race it self.
If your child has a positive experience with you at their first 5K, you may have a new running buddy. What could be better than that?
Make sure to emphasize the fun race environment. Make them feel like one of the other runners by introducing them to your friends and including them in conversations. Everyone loves a new runner, and your child will thrive on the positive energy at a race.
Some 5K races are adult events and can have loud music and drinking. If you run one of these 5Ks with your child it may be a good idea to only stay for a while after the race.
Competitive Running for your Child
Around the age of 12, the RRCA says children may participate in 5K races. Moving from fun runs to a 5K race should be your child’s decision. The emphasis should still be on fun and participation.
When a child starts running 5K races on a regular basis, they may become competitive. A child may compete with themselves, friends or you.
Competition is good and running competitively teaches many life lessons. As the parent it is up to you to guide expectations and be supportive.
It is important for children to understand that few of us ever come in first place. Most of us have friends who finish ahead of us. As adults we understand this and our self worth and image are not dependent on how we do at a race.
For a pre-teen or teenager, winning and loosing can become the focus of running. As a parent, it is your role to focus more on the fun and participation in the event and running community, and focus less on competition.
As your child runs more races and improves their running, competition can become more important.
Setting goals and training to achieve them are important life lessons. If a child sticks with running and maintains a healthy enthusiasm for the sport, your guidance can help them set healthy goals and expectations of themselves.
When your child moves from the 1-mile fun run to the 5K, let them guide you. You can see when they may be pushing too hard and you can see when they should push for the next goal. As the more experienced runner, you can guide them.
Moving to longer distances
As always, the age and the health of your child are your main considerations. Around age 15 it should be okay for your child to run a 10K or half-marathon.
Many marathons will not allow anyone under age 18 to run. Some will allow teens to run with a parent’s permission.
If your child has run a few 5Ks and enjoyed themselves, then it should be okay to try a 10K. While a child may not need to train for a fun run or a 5K, they should do training for a 10K and definitely for a half-marathon.
In your child’s mid-teens, running 5Ks and 10Ks should be sufficient. In the later teens an occasional half-marathon and perhaps a marathon should be okay.
As your child moves up to longer distances, you child should train with you or a coach at school. Fitness and conditioning become more important at longer distances in order to avoid injury and to run successfully.
If your child does not get an annual athletic physical as a requirement to participate in school sports, make sure you are making those appointments.
I hope this information is helpful. I want to emphasis again that this information should be used as a guide only.
If your child is running their first 5K race and you would like to get them a medal to remember the race, check out the My First 5K medal. Many 5K races do not give finisher’s medals. Usually only the top male and female finisher and top age group finishers receive a medal.
And the sale of these medals helps support this web site.
Run well my friends and happy running with your child!