How far at what age?

Every once in a while you come across stories of kids running long-distance races. A friend recently passed along an article about a 9-yr. old boy who recently finished a 10-mile race in Syracuse. I know of a local girl who last year, at the age of 11 did a 1/2 marathon (she was about 15 seconds ahead of me, so yeah, I noticed her.) And every time I see or hear about one of these feats, I get mixed feelings.

How much is too much for kids when it comes to mileage? I don’t know the answer. The only yardstick I have to compare is my own 10-yr. son. He’s a solid athlete and likes to run 5ks. In fact, he likes to push himself to lower his times. But can I see him running a 10-miler? Not really and my gut tells me that I shouldn’t let him, either.

The flip side of the argument, I suppose, is that we’re a sedentary nation and that if kids want to run distances, then why discourage them? I read the article about the 10-yr. old in Syracuse and from the sounds of it, he wasn’t pushed by his parents in any way; he just thought it would be cool to run 10 miles.

A local youth coach that I know–a really good, experienced coach–uses this rule of thumb with kids: They should run races of distances that are no longer than the grade they are in. So for my fourth grader, a four miler is about where it should end. This seems pretty reasonable and also about what I think my son would/could do at his age.

What are your thoughts?

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  1. Tri-Living...Together says

    My oldest son who is 15 runs cross country and track. From what I read LONG distances aren't good during puberty. For now I think the longest he has run is 6 miles. He really has no desire to do a half and I don't think he should. (mamarunsbarefoot)

  2. giraffy says

    Hm. My 12 yr old is a natural – and she only runs 3 miles at a time (she goes for speed rather than distance!). And we always run with her. She's asked to do a 5K by herself in a few weeks, but some friends and I are also participating, so we'll be close by, at least.

    I passed a kid that looked to be her age during my last half, who really looked like he was struggling. He asked what mile we were at, and we were only around 6.5. His parents were no where to be seen. I can't even imagine. I mean. It was getting tough FOR ME, and I'm an adult, and could walk off and find my way home or call someone. This dude was alone, no phone on him, nothing.

    SO I guess my answer is, in theory I can see the grade level = miles run, but only if there's a back up plan and the kid isn't left to their own devices.

  3. marathonmaiden says

    hmmmmmmm i don't know enough about it medically except that i know at age 10 i was more interested in boys than running.

    from what i see, XC at the middle school level is more fostering a love of running…kind of pahying it forward for the high school team. social stuff rather than "real" training (although they do workouts, but not nearly training intense)

  4. Running Ricig says

    I don' tknow that I've ever really thought about it, but you'd think that high mileage wouldn't be good during key growing years.

  5. Shellyrm ~ just a country runner says

    I don't know the medical ramifications caused by the stress of young people running distances so this is only my opinion. I do feel that children until there are through puberty are expending a lot of energy in "growing" their bodies so I think there needs to be medical guidance before allowing those children to run long events. The only reason I would allow a young child to run a distance event would be if that child was conditoned to do so and the pace chosen was to provide a fun experience vs a competitive one.
    There are exceptions to the rule of course but even in tough rare children, medical advice should be sought before racing.
    (Great post. I hope you get loads of opinions. This will be a great discussion.)

  6. Teamarcia says

    Great question. One I've often wondered about and quite frankly, I'm not sure what to think. The last race I did there were so many kids doing SO WELL at the 5k distance. I think that's wonderful. I don't know enough about the implications of longer distances on young bodies to have a valid opinion.

  7. Coy Martinez says

    I'm glad you brought this up! I tell you why! My daughter is 12 and for the past couple of years she has been running 5K's. She does really well BUT I've been told by some respected people that I know, doctors, etc, that pushing them too much at an early age, especially in adolescence can have a significant effect on their growth and structure. You're right about them running their grade. I think that half marathoning and anything close to that should probably wait till late high school. Just my opinion.

  8. Matty O says

    great topic!!!!!!!

    no clue. I have always been told that endurance and heavy sports as a kid messes with your growth plates and screws you up.

    I have no clue to be honest… Have seen younger kids running half marathons. Signing up for a 70.3 the minimum age was 10 yrs old at day of race. Imagine that one ??? haha.

  9. J says

    I think it depends on the kid and the parents. I know that some kids are put on varsity track or XC as 7th and 8th graders and run a lot of mileage because it is part of the training. I think running a half marathon or marathon in high school may be a bit much because it is so long and taxing on the body.

  10. Jake Rosen says

    Seems like sound reasoning. I ran half marathon a couple years ago with a 14-year-old that was running quickly. She was celebrated by the community and was praised for running longer distances, but I too wondered if that would be good for her long-term physical maturity.

    Would love if there were hard facts.

  11. Aron says

    Great topic and one that I have been thinking a lot about myself. This past weekend I ran with a 15 year old who is training for SF Marathon, and its not his first marathon. I am not sure how I feel about it, but he has done a ton of research on "kids running" and really is knowledgable on the whole topic. Part of me thinks that it's great and so much better than what most kids his age are most likey doing on a Saturday morning, but I hope he isn't causing long term damage by it you know?

  12. Laurie says

    Your post and all the comments so far are very interesting. I like the no more miles than the grade you're in, that sounds reasonable. Other than that, though, I have no idea.
    My kids just did a jog-a-thon for their school and amazed me at how far they could run but it was something they did as a school and there was no pressure, walk breaks encouraged, lots of music and much more of a party around a track then a race.

  13. Marlene says

    Interesting topic! It's not something I have thought much about, except I have seen some YOUNG kids in 5Ks and 10Ks and been in awe that this is how they want to spend their weekends!

  14. Carly says

    Great topic for discussion. My first gut reaction would be that kids younger than 10 should not run anything more than 5K but then I realize my own kids can be on a hockey rink or football field for hours on end without stopping and I don't bat an eye….is there a difference?

  15. Rachel says

    I'm not sure what I think but I went back and looked at the results from the Green Bay Marathon and Half that I did this month and here's what I found:

    There was 1 female that ran the marathon who was under 15 years old. She was 13 and finished in 4:21. There were no males under 15 that did the marathon.

    The winner of F01-14 in the half was 12 and finished in 1:32. A 10 year old girl finished in 2:12 and there were 24 total in this age group.

    The winner of M01-14 in the half was 9 and finished in 1:44!

    Yikes. That seems super young to be running those distances. And to have times like that I am guessing they are also training on a consistent basis. Is that good for their bodies? At the same time kudos for them on being able to do something so well!

    Is it a whole lot different/worse than the kids that play football or soccer or gymnasts that are 14 going to the olympics? I'm not saying it is, but just a thought.

  16. Melissa C says

    I have been wondering this too. My children are still very young. As a gymnast, I had lots of intense workouts as a child and I don't think it had any permanent problems as a result. I did experience puberty later and grew an inch in college. I am not sure about running long distances. I have only improved as I have gotten older, so I guess I feel like there is no need to rush at all. My last half(kentcky derby mini) I encountered a 10 year old girl who was running with her dad. I started in the wrong corral and was passing people the whole race, but was unable to pass her at mile 8 ish. She was running with her dad who was obviously a very good runner. He had the camera out and was running ahead to take pictures of her (lots inside Churchill downs- so cool) and the waiting for her to catch up, as well as assisting with getting her water. She was all smiles the whole time. I found them at the finish. She finished about 4 minutes behind me with a 1:42! It may just depend on the child.

  17. Kovas says

    Recent studies seem to show that kids come to no harm from running long distances. A 26 year study of youth finishers at the Twin Cities marathon tracked the 310 finishers. Only 4 of the 310 young people throughout the entire 26 years visited the race’s medical tent, and none required interventions beyond a brief rest. That's half the adult rate!

  18. Stephanie says

    I think it probably depends on the child's desire.

    I was a swimmer and I was swimming (training not splashing) 3+ hours per day (six days a week) by age 12. I think swimming is less difficult on the joints, but no less taxing on the heart rate. Our coach was very careful with weight training (didn't really do that until age 15 or 16), but we would swim for miles at a time.

  19. kimi says

    interesting topic! my little guy just turned one and of course i hope he takes up running someday (his name is Miles, after all :) )

    i like the rule of thumb of no more miles than the grade they are in. i didn't take up running until jr high so it's hard to imagine being a 'runner' at a young age but i think if they kids are into running and well supervised than go for it!

  20. SupermomE12 says

    I have really been thinking about this as my almost 12 year old has been BEGGING me to run our local half marathon. He can already run six miles easily, set the school record for the fastest mile run ever (6:03 as a fifth grader) and won our local 5k (not just out of the kids… beat all of the adults too… me included).

    I asked our PT that comes for my younger son what he thought (he is also a runner) and he thinks that if he continues to slowly add miles there is no reason it would be bad for him and that this is the kind of thing we should be encouraging if our kids want to do. I certainly would never force one of my kids to run any distance, but it is hard to say know when he wants to so badly and I can't find any evidence it would be a bad thing….

  21. I RUN LIKE A GIRL says

    Great post – and very interesting! Since I'm not a parent yet, I'm not totally sure where I stand. But, right now (kid-less) I'm with the coach who says that a child shouldn't run further than his/her grade. Thanks for sharing!

  22. The Happy Runner says

    Good question and one I may grapple with when my sons get older. I've enjoyed reading some of the other comments — lots to think about.

  23. Chris says

    I have been wondering the same thing, as my son has been asking about racing longer than 5Ks (he is in 3rd grade right now and has been running 5K races sub 30 minutes since he was in 1st grade),and I Just can't decide what to let him do..I like your coach friend's suggestion.

  24. Allison says

    Such a good question! The grade-school rule sounds really good to me. I also struggle with what shoes to put my son in now that's he interested in running. Thoughts? I almost feel like I want to introduce him to minimalist running since I've seen so much of it on your blog.

  25. Jason says

    I have Marathon Makeover as you know. A parent asked if their kid could do it and I told her that I needed to have a Doctor's note and that I also needed her to sign a consent form for anything over a 5k.

    I was nervous b/c he is still developing and I was worry about his getting injured.

  26. S Club Mama says

    does that mean my preschooler should run a 1/4 mile? lol I don't know. Each kid is different and as long as they are exercising and not being pushed, it's good.

  27. Raquelita says

    It's not a topic I've given much thought to because I don't have kids. My gut tells me that there's still a lot of developmental stuff going on in the early teens, though, so maybe these long distances aren't such a good idea. 5ks and 10ks seem reasonable for a 13 year old, but I'm less convinced that they should be running half-marathons.

  28. Suzy says

    We are trying to figure out what to do in my house. I have never heard the mileage / grade level idea before. It sounds like a good one, but I still worry about growth plates of the kids. My son wants to run farther (we have him at 1 mile & he's in 1st grade) but are holding him steady because he can tell us when he is growing because of the pain in his legs. I had to add the stress of running longer distances, even a 5K at this point, to the stress of growing physically.

  29. Holly @ Rust Belt Runner says

    Great topic. I don't have kids yet but I think the grade level idea makes sense. I would also consider what kids run in cross country. My Hubz did XC and from the sounds of it never really rean more than 5-6 miles at a time and that was in high school.

    I would definitely not have a child running that much, let alone 10 miles or a half.

    As a parent I would think it best not to put your children at risk of injury — or inhibit their development in any way. Plus running should be fun for them, never a chore.

    I think with longer distances it could go toward the "chore" route, despite what the child says. Just IMHO.

  30. MCM Mama says

    I think that's a good rule of thumb. I can't imagine my 3rd grader running much farther than that. (But then, he's more of a sprinter LOL).

  31. Kittee says

    Great Question… We used the grade to decide how far out children should run. And it worked out great. My daughter is now 19 and just ran her first half marathon.

  32. Jess @ Blonde Ponytail says

    thought provoking question A! With weightlifting they say don't go ultra heavy too young, I wonder if that applies to running?

    Nowadays with childhood obesity as an epidemic, it's nice to see active kids!!! 😉

  33. Terzah says

    A few weeks back (for Mothers' Day) I took my 4-YO twins out for a "run." We made it about 1/2 mile and there was walking involved. I just want them to love running (if possible), so I never plan to push too hard. If they start pushing for themselves at some point, I'll probably weigh it on a case-by-case basis. One of my best friends growing up came from a huge running family. Her brother ran a full marathon at 12. He's now in his 40s and still running marathons (and fast ones too). I think as long as you and a doc monitor the kids, it's probably OK.

  34. Lesley @ says

    As a mom, my kids won't go beyond 5k until they are in high school. Too much stress on growing bones and joints. They have plenty of time to develop and I'm fairly certain team high school and college events don't go over 5k anyhow, right? Runners peak at a later age than many sports, so I don't know why rush it. With that said, yes, I think there are exceptions…

  35. Char says

    My three sons never wanted to run very long – in fact, from one end of the soccer pitch to the other was about their limits. They'd do the school cross-country without training so I find it amazing that such young kids want to run such long distances.

  36. Nelly says

    wow, Supermom's son above sounds like he is insanely fast. I see a state champion high school miler in his future. 6:03 mile in 5th grade is insane.

    When I was younger I was on the junior high track team, I don't think I did more than 5 miles until high school, which I thought felt right to me.

    Not sure how I feel about kids running long distances. It would be great if there was some science to backup what should be done.

    Main thing is that kids should want to run, and not be somewhat forced to run by their parents. I've had 2 encounters over the years with kids who seemed like they were dying and needed a break, but the Dad kept saying for the kid to keep running. In one of the encounters I literally asked the kid if he was okay, but he didn't respond, I think because he was afraid of what the Dad might say. I was literally running all out, so I guessed that he was tired. Parents should never be the one's to kind of "force" the kids to run like that. If they are tired, they should take a break.

  37. Ewa says

    If a kid wants to run, let her (or him).
    If a parent is pushing a kid, whack the parent. OK, I am kidding, I think.
    I am noticing a trend though of kids doing things that many adults would not dare to try. I have very mixed feelings about that but only because I don't know whose dreams are followed, the child's or the parents'.

  38. Mark says

    The same thought crossed my mind last year when I caught up to a 12 yr old(guessing based on size) running a 10 mile. It was the second thought actually as the first was "phew glad I passed the little guy."

    I think the running their grade sounds appropriate until the majority of growing is completed. Stress fractures and overuse injuries on a growing body sounds like a recipe for disaster on a growing body if they push themselves too far.

    But then again I grew up playing football and not running farther than 20-30 yards at the most.

  39. Jill says

    We talk about this with the track coaches at school a lot and I've asked my PT about this, too, as my son wanted to do this 15mile trail run this summer. We all thought that until the bones are done developing and growing, it was not a good to go too far because there's more risk of injury!

  40. ajh says

    There was a young – very fast girl in a race I was in. I know Joan Benoit spoke to her and said she was doing too much too soon. It was only a 5k. I tried to follow the girl for awhile. There were articles in the paper about her father being her coach and doing too much pushing. Her sister had "burnt out" and I think that is what JB was referring to plus possibilities of injury. The whole idea fascinated me as I didn't completely understand it but was very interested in this very young fast girl.

  41. Gracie (Complicated Day) says

    I think if the kiddies want to, let them. We have a few 7 to 10 year old local kids to run a lot of races; they also run in the park (there is a little girl who has an ipod shuffle…so cute!). One of the older boys beat me in a ten miler!

  42. Vanessa @ Gourmet Runner says

    I think the rule given is a good one–a mile for each grade. At a certain age (maybe 13/14) this changes and I think it's up to them! I would definitely encourage them to run though!

  43. Richelle says

    I think the distance matching the grade is a good rule of thumb. And I've also read that running long distances during puberty is not a good idea.

    I always feel a little disheartened when a young kid beats me during a race. :(

  44. Erin@gosupermamago says

    Great post! I've got a lot of research to do before my daughter gets older. She loves to run already and she is only 4. :)

  45. RunSingTeach says

    I coach middle schoolers and they run up to 5k distance and I feel that is healthy for them. Once they get to 8th grade they might go longer to start to prep for HS XC but I would never push it. With this age, I always encourage running as a way of a healthy life and it isn't about speed.

    I think the key is encouraging a life long love of running not just first place finishes. Also, I think running distance should be incremental. If you run a marathon when you're 15 what are you going to do when you're 30? But again, as long as healthy lifestyle and safety are encouraged, then the kids happiness comes first!

  46. Kim says

    I really don't know what is healthy and what isn't, but I was surprised to see how many kids were running the Indy 500 Half a few weeks ago. My idea of what is "far" is really skewed, also. To me, up to a half marathon doesn't seem so bad for a teenager provided it's not all the time – maybe one a year.

    Certainly, 5Ks and 10Ks are fine, I'm not sure about 10 milers and above and at what age.

    I do love seeing kids at races though – I wish I had done one when I was a kid!!

  47. Maia says

    Very interesting…I've wondered this myself. I recently saw 2 younger kids running a half marathon with their mom (I"m assuming it was their mom). They were about 10-14 years old, definitely middle schoolers. But they weren't running fast and they really seemed to be enjoying themselves.

  48. Molly says

    I ran the Mountain Goat along with that 9 year old! He beat me!!

    I think that going by a child's grade is a good guideline, but I'm also concerned about doing to much too soon to a growing body.

  49. Amanda@runninghood says

    I've never really thought about this Amanda. But looks like everyone had lots to say. Thanks for the food for thought as always! YOur blog is always one that makes me feel like it was worth my time to visit. :) Thanks.

  50. Candice @ I Have Run says

    I love that my little girl likes to run and hope it continues. I think the grade level/miles measurement sounds pretty reasonable. I think I would hesitate to let my 5-year old run more than a mile or so.

    Great question! I've loved reading all the opinions.

  51. lindsay says

    (i don't have kids, so not sure how valid my opinion is, haha)

    i think it should be up to the kid for the most part. obviously don't force them into it, but don't necessarily deny it. i think it would take a lot of drive and dedication for a kid to think "hey, i want to run (more than 5 miles)" and that if a kid/young adult is going to ask to run a 10k/half/full i have to assume they are most likely prepared for the training aspect of it too.

  52. Jim ... 50after40 says

    I think as long as we don't push them too hard or far as parents, they'll probably naturally run as hard or as far as their bodies will allow them to. They'll know when they've had enough … it's probably different for every kid. Great post!!!

  53. Black Knight says

    I disagree about the long distance running kids and I agree with you. 5k is the right race. When my son, now 31, was a kid he only ran distances between 1 mile and 5 km, no more!

  54. Chris K says

    That sounds like a good approach. Better safe than sorry. I don't really need to worry about that b/c my kid would rather go to the Dentist than a run, especially with me. Just wait, you will love teenagers.

    So not only did you get chicked, you got kidded. Ouch.

  55. Irene says

    Great topic of discussion!

    It's sort of a tough call. Some kids are just naturals at what they do, others should probably wait.

  56. Anabela (Bela) Neves says

    Interesting topic. As you know my daughter will run all the 1K and 1 Milers at my races whenever they have one. She did a 5K with me at Disney in Feb and tomorrow is running a 3K with me by her side. She's 8 year old and I don't feel comfortable her running anything over 1 mile without me there running with her. I also don't push her. I ask if she wants to run and she always says yes. Not sure when she will go past the 5K mark!

  57. Tim Wilson says

    I don't have anything other than my gut to go with on this, but my 9 year old son will be running his first 4 miler in the next couple weeks. I would not take him any further than that.

    My two daughters who are in 10th and 11th and run XC and track run up to 10 miles for their long runs. I would take them for a half marathon if the opportunity came up and it didn't interfere or jeopardize their training or racing. We have cancelled one before because we didn't want to risk injury right before Track Season started.

  58. Little Miss Runshine says

    I can't imagine long distances for a still developing body is that good. I'd be nervous to have my child run too far. I would still want them to run of course, but maybe wait to do really long distances until they are older. I know the pains my body goes through and I don't think I'd want my child to risk injuries like that or hurt their growth. Great post to bring up this question!

  59. Kenley says

    I am with the coach, though I have no kids. It's a no brainer that that is just too much stress for a kid to endure for that age before their bodies mature more. But on the flip side, is it better that, than being 10 and weighing 200 lbs? I have mixed feelings

  60. Sherri says

    I have struggled with this…I am not a huge young runner pusher! I think parents get over excited! I try to just let the kids decide! If they want to run…go for it! If the 10 yr old, really wanted to do it on his own choice…maybe its okay! I wouldn't want it for my kiddos! I love the grade …miles…tip! I am going to use that as a good guide! =)