Many parents who enjoy running want their children to run also. Some children will ask to go for a run with you but some will need some gentle encouragement.
Regardless of who initiates the first run the question is, what distance can my child run safely?
Here are some guidelines based on my experience and what the experts recommend to help you decide what is best for your child.
What distance can my child run safely?
The two main factors are your child’s health and overall fitness and their age.
Your child’s health and fitness level
Pediatricians disagree on how much running is too much for children and little research has been done. Some question if rigorous training may cause damage to the growing areas of children’s bones.
Young runner’s bodies are still figuring out the mechanics of motion. Why wouldn’t young, growing, un-matured bodies be more susceptible to injury?
These are all good questions that parents should keep in mind when running with their children.
But with increasing numbers of children leading sedentary lives, it’s difficult to argue against allowing children to run if they want to.
Before deciding to run a race or start a training program for a race, think about your child’s health and level of physical activity.
At your child’s annual physical let the pediatrician know that your child is interested in running or starting a training program.
This is a good way to start a conversation with the pediatrician and your child. Your pediatrician will be able to tell you about your child’s overall health and any concerns you should be aware of.
Based on your child’s age and fitness level they may have some training or distance recommendations.
Children are more likely to follow recommendations on nutrition and exercise from their doctor. If your child wants to run a 5K with you but their doctor recommends starting out with a shorter distance, the doctor’s orders are more likely to be followed than yours.
Your child may be excited to run because you do. Maybe they like the colorful shirts or race medals you bring home. They probably do not understand how much training you do or how hard it is to finish a 5K.
If you do not have a pediatrician’s appointment coming up, you can do a basic assessment of your child’s fitness level.
Does your child participate in sports already? Do they spend most of their spare time watching TV or playing video games. Are they generally active and full of energy?
While you may not know what your child’s heart sounds like, you do have a pretty good idea of their activity level.
The best advise for any new runner is to ease into it. Start with short runs and don’t worry about speed. The first few runs will give you a better understanding of your child’s fitness level.
Remember, if you push too hard early on, your child may decide that running isn’t for them.
If your generally healthy 5-year old wants to run a 100-yard dash, you are probably don’t need to train. If your 10-year old wants to run a 5K with you then you should run with them a few times before the big day.
Your Child’s Age
In addition to your child’s health, your child’s age is an important factor in how far they can run safely.
The Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) is the largest running organization in the US and provides educational materials for clubs interested in hosting youth running programs.
The RRCA guidelines recommend that children under 5 participate in kid’s fun runs.
Like the kid’s menu at your favorite restaurant, these “Fun Run” races are much less expensive than your registration fee and are often free. This is a great way for your child to try running in a fun and encouraging environment.
This also allows them to participate in a running event with you, but have a race of their own.
RRCA Youth Running Guidelines
As your child gets older it is generally agreed that it is safe for them to run longer distances. Here are the RRCA’s guidelines:
- 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.
These are general guidelines. You should take into consideration your child’s health, fitness level and motivation.
I believe that the RRCA’s Guidelines address the issue of young children putting too much stress on their bodies. Younger children should stick to shorter distances while teens can move to longer distances that require training.
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 your young runner and help them make wise choices about running.
As a rule, young children should not be training to run a “fun run.”
Here are the distances that the Hartford Marathon Foundation (HMF) uses for their youth events. The HMF organizes dozens of races each year that include youth running events. They have a lot of experience in this area.
Most Fun Runs award a ribbon and sometimes provide a drink and a snack. They usually do not provide a medal or shirt as they are free events.
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.
The program emphasizes fun and encourages weekly organized runs for children. You can find out if there is a program in your town at their website. You can also find out how to set up a program in your town.
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?
- 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
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 with 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 competition. 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 younger children 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 has a medical condition, please consult with your pediatrician first. If your child has no known conditions, at their next check up mention to their pediatrician that your child is interested in running.
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. Most 5K races do not give finisher’s medals. Usually only the top male and female finisher and top age group finishers.
Run well my friends and happy running with your child!