What distance can my child run?

Here are some guidelines and resources for parents to help decide what distance your child can run safely.

children running. kids races

Updated October 30th, 2020

With so many kids being home schooled due to COVID-19 many parents are wondering about Phys Ed and general fitness for their children.

Training for a 5K is a great way to get out of the house a few days a week and get some exercise.

People talk about “car time” as a good time to have conversations with your child.

If running with your child is anything like running with a friend, you are bound to have some interesting conversations that will bring you and your child closer together.

I put together these guidelines based on expert recommendations. 

You should consult with your pediatrician before beginning a training program or running a race with your child.

Many parents wonder what distance can my child run safely?

It’s an important question to ask before running a race or starting a training program with your child.

What distance can your child run safely?

The two main factors you should keep in mind are your child’s health and overall fitness level, 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  damage the growing areas of children’s bones. 

But with the increasing number of children leading sedentary lives, I think most pediatricians would recommend some exercise over no exercise.

When you are just starting out, over training is probably not an issue.

As a parent you know your child better than anyone else.

Before deciding to start a training program, consider your child’s health and level of physical activity.

Do they play sports or do they play video games? Are they being treated for any health conditions? How is their weight?

Almost any child can run, but you need to know where to start.

While some pediatricians may worry about damage from over training, you are just looking to get your kid outside and moving.

Even the most enthusiastic child will not start training like an Olympic athlete.

The first run may be fast and end quickly. But most children will walk and eventually settle into a pace that they can sustain.

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 between your pediatrician and your child. Your pediatrician will be able to tell you and your child about their 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.  

Training suggestions and recommendations from the doctor are more likely to be listened to than if they came from you. 

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 play sports or do they play video games? Are they generally active and full of energy? Any health conditions or obesity? 

Your Child’s Age

In addition to your child’s health, your child’s age is the other important factor to consider.

children running. kids races, what distance can my child runThe Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) is the largest running organization in the US and provides educational materials for running clubs interested in hosting youth running programs.

 

These 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. These are usually under 400 yards.

These “Fun Run” races are often free and part of other race day activities. This is a great way for your child to try running in a fun and encouraging environment.

A Fun Run allows your child 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.

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 and encourage 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.”

Additional Guidelines

child running distances, What distance can my child runHere 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. 

suggested distances for kids, youth runningThe 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 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 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.

races with medals, 5k medals, my first 5k medalIf 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!

Andy

Author: OmniRunner

9X Boston Marathon finisher, 17X marathons total. Sharing my love for running and the fun adventures and lessons that come with it. Helping non-profits increase fundraising and new runners celebrate their First 5K.

8 thoughts on “What distance can my child run?”

    1. Thank you. Someone asked me the question and I never really thought about it before.
      When I ran my first 5K with my daughter she was 22, and we walked some! We’ve run other races since then and it is so cool to share that experience with her.

  1. Great post! And very timely! There seem to be more of these fun runs and dashes around now, or maybe I just notice them because I have two kids under 5? We are thinking about seeing if the kids want to do the kids race at the Feaster Five in Andover. Hubs and I are doing the 5 miler. So this will be a first for the littles if they want to do it. Scratch that… my son did place second in the diaper derby at the Yarmouth ME clam festival. He may be a ringer…

    1. Thank you very much!
      I’m glad the post was helpful.
      When my oldest was 9 and 11 years old she ran across the finish line on Boylston street with me, but that was the extent of her interest in running. I never had to consider these things.
      Many races now offer children’s runs. I think part of it is that children are genuinely interested in running. Kids run all the time, it’s just what they do. Race directors want to encourage this and help these children grow into the running movement and the healthy lifestyle that goes with it.
      Having children’s fun runs also helps attract their parents to sign up for the paying race. I have no issue with that. People are running businesses or doing fundraising.
      I think everybody wins.

  2. I ran my first marathon when I was 15 in 1976. Back then, there were lots of teenagers running the distance (half marathons were not common). In 1977, I ran a few miles of the Seaside Trail’s End Marathon with an 11 yo girl who to this day still holds the age records for 10 and 11. I finished in 2:57; she was only a couple minutes behind me.

    1. Hi Kevin,
      There are probably some marathons that will allow kids under 18 to run with a parent’s permission. Some kids can probably do it also.
      If runners under 18 want to run, can do it and the race well let them, it’s all good.
      It’s impressive that you did it when you were 15. I ran my first marathon at 38.
      I appreciate your comment.
      Andy

  3. Nice post. My 15-year-old has been running races since she was in grade school. She’s gradually worked her way up to the half marathon (she’s run 3 half marathons) and wants to run a marathon next year. She has worked up to 20 miles for her long runs so I told her she’s ready. As you said, though, I’ll have to find a race that will allow her to run a marathon at the age of 16.

    1. It sounds like you are doing the right thing and moving her up to longer distances as she gets older.
      With virtual marathons, it may be easier to find one that will let her run.
      She would be under your supervision and the race would have no liability.
      But as we all know, virtual is not the same thing.
      It may be better to wait until she can run an IRL race and enjoy the full race experience that the rest of us got.

      Thank you for your comment.

      Andy

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