Enough with the toddlers and marathons

PhilXC 300x199 Enough with the toddlers and marathons

Cross country and youth coach (and speedster himself) Phil Lang

I’ve got to say it: I’m really over the stories of five- and six-year olds running half marathons.(Or the one-year old that ran a full – thanks Mark Remy for this one). It’s just getting a little out of control, don’t you think?

As a parent, I just cannot for a single minute believe that the idea to run a half marathon was totally the children’s in either of these recent cases. I’m not saying the kids are being dragged, kicking and screaming, to the start line, but the origination of the idea came squarely from mom and dad. And, unlike tweens or teens, kids of that age like to please mom and dad, so if there’s even a little inclination or ability in there to go that far, the kids are going to be on board.

My opinion is that a half marathon is just too far for someone so young, but I’ll admit, I’m going on gut instinct on this. Phil Lang, local youth running coach with over 19 years experience and two talented running daughters of his own, however, knows his stuff. So I picked his brain recently to see what he thought. “Typically, a kid’s nature is to run short and fast,” he says. “Parents, however, typically like running longer and slower and in some cases, instead of encouraging their kids to run short and fast with their peers, encourage them to run long and slow with them.”

Phil has given lots of thought to how far, at what age, most kids should run and admits that he thinks about this daily. “I will not be so brash as to suggest I have figured it out as I do believe every circumstance is different,” he says. But he has developed general guidelines that he has applied with both his daughters and with the kids he coaches. “My rule is a kid can’t run in one day more miles than the grade they are in.”

So for a third grader, a 5k fits the bill; a sixth grader, up to a 10k, and so on. “This rule allows for progression, which is key, especially for youth,” says Phil. “Doing too much, too soon leads to failure in one way or another in almost every circumstance. Just because a kid wants to do a race doesn’t mean the parent has to let him or her.”

Does he see an upside to kids running longer distances? “I am happy more kids are running, even if at a leisurely pace–our country was becoming very unhealthy and I believe that many have begun exercising and eating better, so that is great,” he says. “Spending more time together as a family is also a good thing.”

Bottom line, though, according to Phil when it comes to very young kids running long distances: “Running long as kids isn’t terrible, but I also don’t think it’s great. I’m not sure what the long term goals are. I always think of tomorrow.”

I think Phil offered some useful insight. As a parent, my goal has always been to introduce running to my kids, but never push it–it has certainly never occurred to me to suggest either of them run a half marathon. Like Phil, I think about tomorrow with my kids and running and my goal is simply to expose them to something I love and enjoy and that might one day give them as much pleasure (and healthy side effects) as it has me. Right now, my nine-year old daughter enjoys it; my 12-yr. old son, not so much. And that’s ok–to me the drive to run should always come from the kids.

What are your thoughts–are you cheering or jeering the five-year old half marathon escapades? 

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  1. Coming from a track background and having run from an early age, There are a lot of people I think who shouldn’t run races…

    I believe races should have cut off times, maybe 2h15/2h30 for a half, and if you can’t finish in that time start on a shorter race. Do some training before you start wanting to run races. Over 2 hours of exercise is a lot and you shouldn’t be taking on something like that if your aren’t ready for it.

    All that said lots of people want to walk a half and that has pushed away cut-off times opening the door to people who shouldn’t be lining up. But thinking back to when I was 5, I bet I was running around playing for hours at a time and if I had lined up for a half it would have been easy. I mean I would play, run around, in the forest for 4 or 5 hours though out the summer. But I would never have wanted to run a road race…
    Coach Dion recently posted..GOING FOR BROKE AND GETTING IT…My Profile

    • Ouch. I’ve NEVER been fast, but having completed many ultras and almost 100 half marathons, a cut off of 2:15, or even 2:30 is a bit offensive.

      We can’t all be elites….

      • Very Offensive

      • I’m sorry if I touched a nerve, but maybe it’s me as a coach that is upset with runners… And be all means it’s not the back of the pack runners, but it’s the front guys!!!

        I remember back to went I started running and running a 73min half in a small race would place me about 20th. Last year I finished 5th in a half with a time of 74:30, and in a big race this year with 10 times more people and ran a 74:30, I place about 20th.

        So yes the number of runners have increased, but the number of front runners has decreased… Now while this might be good for the health of a country, till people start to put there bodies on the line and go for good times the Kenyans will dominate the front of the field.

        I’m not saying all of you have a hidden Kenyan inside, but some of you do, and I long to see it released. A friend of mine ran her 1st half in 2h15, and yes it was fun and she could have been happy with that, she wasn’t and now runs a 1h22 half!!!
        Coach Dion recently posted..GOING FOR BROKE AND GETTING IT…My Profile

    • Wow.
      Condescending much.
      Yep you can guess if I am slow or fast….
      We live in a country where obesity is a real problem.
      Encouraging physical activity is a must.
      I had to walk a half marathon this year because I was injured and did not want to skip that race, I saw the walkers and I admire every single one of them for showing up.
      Shame on you coach Dion.
      Caroline recently posted..Ragnar Las Vegas with team NUUN-PRO COMPRESSION part deuxMy Profile

  2. I agree with the basic premise, but also take it a step further …

    The 6 year old who went state-to-state to chase a half when one was closed was doing it for an anti-abortion cause.

    Um, no. There are any number of facets of that scenario that a kid that age simply cannot fathom. The child was being used as a tool by the parents.

    And THAT is my issue – that we have kids who are barely potty trained being used as vehicles for some reason or other by parents.

    I know, I know – there are many parents who tout that their kid is somehow different, more mature than anyone else ever – I saw it in video games with parents claiming that their 4 year old was already bored with the entire Wii & DS library and ready for the X360 and M-rated games (um, no).

    I know it is a bit of a jump, but what these parents are doing borders on mental, emotional – and in the the case of marathons for these kids – physical abuse. And it really needs to stop.

    It isn’t a gimmick or a slogan or a fundraising tool. It is your child.
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  3. He makes a great point. Bottom line let the kids decide first and if needed, reign it in.
    Kristina Walters @ Kris On Fitness recently posted..Stretching The LimitsMy Profile

  4. I’m mostly jeering just because I can’t honestly believe a 5 year old is interested in being out on a race course for that long. However, I am happy to see that the kids are active. Did you see the recent article that said kids today are running slower than their parents did? That’s not right.

  5. I’m jeering it. I actually think the original idea might have been the children’s. Most kids want to emulate their parents. And I could see them trying to run for a short distance. But when something gets physically difficult, the natural human reaction is to stop doing the activity. I think this is where the problem begns. When the children’s bodies told them to stop, they were no doubt encouraged by their parents. And in my opinion pushed pushed too far. I know years of gymnastics have a very detrimental effect on young bodies, it will be interesting to watch what happens to these young runner bodies.
    Jim recently posted..How I Got Faster at 44 Years OldMy Profile

  6. I think that is a perfect rule, and one easily remembered! I agree with you on this one. My boys are still only four but I’ve read enough stories where I just don’t get it!? Especially seeing little girls lining up at the start with big MEN and, of course, getting run over. Who wants to see their kid doing that??
    Allie recently posted..The Time I Was Fired From My Dream Job – Guest Posting at The ValentineRDMy Profile

  7. I struggle with this one too and always wondered if it were just ME
    just the kids I KNOW.
    theyd never wanna do it unless pushed…
    MIZ recently posted..KLOUT & the power of a tiny tribe.My Profile

  8. I’m jeering here as well. I think Coach Lang’s formula of a mile per school grade is sound. If the child even WANTS to do that much. I agree with you: the desire to run must come from the child. They have their whole lives ahead of them to run long, if that’s what they desire.
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  9. i’m with you. i think there is a fine line. Never push it but then again, if my child (future) wanted to run long and could, i would let them. Is that wrong?
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  10. I really like that rule of thumb- one mile for each grade their in. I see some other 3 and 4 year olds running 1 mile races, but L is not there yet… she’d have a blast for the first 400 and then be annoyed that she has so much farther to go! I’d rather her do some dashes and learn to really love the sport.
    Laura @ Mommy Run Fast recently posted..What’s Next?My Profile

  11. I like the grade-mile rule of thumb! I have a 7yo in 2nd grade and although she wants to run longer with us, 1-2 miles at a time seems about right for her.

    And you hit the nail on the head – kids that age want to please their parents. Even though my 7yo is done after 2 miles, she will never say that to us especially when she knows that we head back out for more.
    Smitha @ FauxRunner recently posted..Consistency – Back to Basics TrainingMy Profile

  12. Hmm. He makes some good points for sure. I don’t have any kids, but I’m always quick to defend kids who want to do things like this at a young age, since I did, though 5 is definitely a little young. I did my first half marathon when I was 9, and I can definitely say that my parents didn’t pressure me at all to do it, but once I was committed, they did make me put in the training necessary to finish. It was certainly a good lesson in dedication, but there is a big difference in understanding that between 9 and 5 years old. And of course, my dad stayed with me the whole time during the race =)

    So…that was kind of rambling. I guess there is a fine line between kids doing something to please parents and doing something because they really want to do it.
    Steph recently posted..What’s Next?My Profile

    • Steph–very interesting to get your perspective since you are probably one of the only ones who can truly speak from first-hand experience.

  13. Yeah. I’m kind of tired of the whole thing. It’s starting to get a little exploitive.
    Gracie (Complicated Day) recently posted..Life hands-freeMy Profile

  14. Yes yes yes!!! These stories seem insane to me. Even IF my 3rd grader had the physical ability to run a half marathon, I can’t imagine actually doing it. Like you, it’s also just based on gut instinct. It just doesn’t feel right.

  15. It is all completely ridiculous and it is mostly parents who have crafted all of it. A 6 year old doesn’t even understand what 13.1 miles means in terms of distance measurement, let alone the amount of time that would be spent traveling it on foot. I am sure most child psychologists and educators would also agree, the attention span and interest for kids with most activities doesn’t go beyond a half hour to 45 minutes as it is, let alone find fulfillment with 2+ hr half marathons. I have a 7 year old and I can’t even fathom having her go 13.1 miles. She’s naturally active, sporty, and high energy, but it wouldn’t hold her interest in terms of personal growth and accomplishment and it would in her little mind be borderline torture. Even a 5k is pushing it for this age bracket but it is at least more reasonable.
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  16. I read this expecting to comment on your blog…but I feel compelled to comment on your first comment. Not trying to start something here, but I’m a little offended by Coach Dion’s comment that the half should have a 2:15-2:30 cutoff…which means I would rarely finish within the cutoff time…..and the comments says due to lack of preparation. Just because you are a slow runner, does not mean you are not prepared. I train my butt off and run, bike and swim, tons of miles a week. I strength train and I’m in great physical and cardiovascular health….I’m just a slow runner…not unprepared. I’ve done 25 half marathons…all in the 2:20-2:35ish timeframe. Anyway, enough of that, I just had to say something.

    As far as kids running, I think it’s awesome to see them out at events doing active things, but I think the stress of distance, especially the marathon or even ultras is probably too much on a developing body, but I don’t know the science behind it and whether or not that gut instinct is true or not.
    Michael recently posted..Richmond Half Marathon Review – A 2013 PRMy Profile

    • I understand, Michael!

    • I agree with you Michael, and I commented on the same thing. I run over 100 miles a month, I am just not blessed with speed. My PR for a half is around 2 hours, but over the last few years, I am more in the 2:20-2:30 range, again NOT FROM LACK OF PREPARATION, I am just NOT fast.

      Anyway, as for the kids running, what. My daughter is 8. She ran her first 5k at the age of 5. And she has never run further than a “mini marathon” – 3.7 miles. I mean, I guess she COULD do it, but I doubt she would enjoy it, and I certainly can’t imagine training with an 8 year old.

      Just does not seem right to me, so I would not encourage it. She has asked to run a 10k, and my solution to avoid that is have her run another 5k and when it’s over ask if she thinks she could do twice that and the answer is always NO.

  17. Ugh, I don’t like it all. No matter what people say, the 5-year-old is not the one who came up with the idea to run so far and I think it smacks of parents doing far too much pushing. Plus, I think they’re asking for injuries on those little, still-developing bodies.
    Colorado Gal recently posted..Five for FridayMy Profile

  18. I’m all against it. The official rule here by us is 18 or older for half marathons and 15 or older for 10km and 15km races. I think that is how it should be.
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  19. As with all things running, there is no one size fits all – if the kids seem to be enjoying it, why not? I wouldn’t support it being competitive, but otherwise it seems fine to me.
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  20. That’s way too young to run that far. I agree that it is most likely the parent’s idea. But even if it is the kid’s idea, the parent is there to make sure good choices are made. Running is great, but shorter distances for that young of a child.
    Rachelle Q recently posted..Five for FridayMy Profile

  21. I think part of the issue for some adults is that they view running as ‘work’outs, while (in my experience) children view running as play – especially in a race setting, with all the fun add-ons that go along with it. I ran as a child, only up to 12k on road, and XC from 7 or 8, but i loved it and had no long term effects of a heavy training load at that age. Each child is different, and I believe only family are in a position to judge what their individual child is able for.

  22. I completely agree. I can not imagine E running a half in 2 or 3 years. I’m really not a big proponent of it either.
    Katie recently posted..Steroids, Stress and SuppositoriesMy Profile

  23. Coach Dion, you are an ass. “People who shouldn’t be lining up”. And who makes these proclamations, oh, ye of the master race?

  24. I have a hard time wrapping my brain around a child that young wanting to run that far, but maybe that’s because my kids don’t like to run! I don’t push my passion on them at all, I hated running until I was an adult, so I just try to encourage them to do what they are passionate about and hope that some day it will be running and I get to run with them.
    Beth @ Miles and Trials recently posted..I’m In – 2014 Ironman ArizonaMy Profile

  25. I know that I’ve been grooming my 4-year old to be the youngest finisher at the AR50 in April…of course, she will have turned 5 by then so maybe we won’t get as much attention.

    Just kidding.

    Yeah, young kids racing (as in younger than middle school) is really all about the parents. Even if the kids LOVE to run…they are racing to please their parents (or some other authority). For that matter, any COMPETITIVE organized sports for kids younger than middle school is about the parents and attention and is, to my mind, NOT healthy for mind, body or spirit.
    MILF Runner recently posted..Some questions answered and finding solutionsMy Profile

  26. I am all for anything that will get kids more active- BUT I think that halves/fulls are too much. I feel like that is an accomplishment that needs to be worked up to, in a longer period of time than that. Childrens bodies are still growing and forming, their mental state is constantly changing– and as we all know…running distance is just as much mental as it is physical. Let’s let kids be kids and run some fun runs. Get them to be active without pushing the limits and aiming for the next newspaper headline. Those parents are no better than the “dance moms” who push their daughters to grow up so much faster than they should have to.
    Laura @losingrace recently posted..TBT: Motivations behind ‘multiple marathons’My Profile

  27. I’m totally against the 5-year olds running a half marathon idea. My oldest is currently 5. He loves to run miles… When I say miles, I keep it under 4. He is a natural distance runner and asked to run with me. I think I will keep him in 5K territory until he is much older.

  28. Becky Moody says:

    I am totally on the same page with you and Phil in keeping distances short. Phil’s rule of thumb seems reasonable and he has the athletes to prove it. As a 43-year old who has been running since the age of 11 (5th grade), I strongly believe in keeping distances short, minimizes the pounding on the pavement ( choosing trails/grass when you can), and delaying the longer stuff. Young girls going through puberty don’t need the extra stress on their bodies. In fact, all of my cross- country friends peaked by the 9th or 10th grade, when we were lighter and therefore faster. My fastest mile was achieved in 7th grade. (Don’t despair though if this is you, I re-peaked at age 35)Whether due to a stronger desire as a youngster or the complexities of changing into a young woman, longer distances would have complicated things. Since running can be a “lifetime” sport, I recommend keeping the mileage short…you only have so many miles on those tires!:).

  29. I feel guilty about having my little one run a full mile! I can’t imagine dragging her to the start line of a half or full! Especially as a runner myself, I know how BRUTAL the marathon is on your body. Growing, developing, changing bodies do NOT need that kind of stress! UGH!
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  30. That rule about having kids only run their grade level seems like a good rule to me. When I was in elementary school, I liked to run, and the furthest that I probably ran at a time was probably 2 miles in 6th grade or something. Just seems like a bad idea to have kids so young running long races.

    A couple years back at Bay to Breakers I was going at a fast pace, and a 8 year old and his Dad started to run by me – I could tell the kid was really struggling. Enough so that I asked the kid if he was doing okay, because he clearly was not. The Dad was just simply urging his kid on, instead of asking him if he was okay. Seemed like I cared more about his son than he did.
    Nelly recently posted..Stanford ugh / Nine for IXMy Profile

  31. I agree, I think that there is a huge difference between age 5 and age 8, I mean does a 5 year old even comprehend what they are doing?

    I am all for my son running if that is what he wants, but I will start at 1 milers and 5k’s and I always want it to be fun!
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  32. My daughter did her first 5K just before 2nd grade so she bent the miles/grade rule a smidge, but walked a lot so I guess technically she probably ran less than 2 miles of it. She hasn’t seemed inclined to go over 3 miles ever so I don’t think it is a big issue for us. She walks less of it now, but still struggles (like me) to find a pace she can maintain. But she can way outrun her 12 year old brother (who while he said he enjoyed the mud run 5K, said he’d rather man the lawn chair/cooler next year). So we’re right there with you.
    TriMOEngr recently posted..Phoenix TripMy Profile

  33. Well, my 12 year old wants to run a half-marathon in April or May to celebrate his 13th birthday. I’m actually supporting him (and plan to run with him) since this was completely his idea (I’m not sure how he cam up with the idea of running his age?!). I think as he starts training if he gets to the point where he hates it or dreads it then I will have him rethink his distance plan because I don’t want him to feel like he has to do it.
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  34. Oh my. I didn’t even know that was going on with the youngens running like you.
    You know l’m not a runner, but perhaps I would sign up just to run away from my kids for a while. The agony of a full marathon should be easy nothing compared to their bickering & trashing the room with toys.
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  35. I like the miles-per-day/grade-level guideline, though I just recently broke it by putting our whole family including the two first-graders in the 2-mile Turkey Trot. My kids both enjoyed and it, though, and I’m betting they run more than 2 miles in a typical soccer game (soccer games do have rest periods, though, unlike running races). I’d never suggest either of them do a half-marathon or even a 10K–if they asked me to do the 10K, I admit I might have a hard time saying no.

  36. Amanda I’m glad you posted this. I do think this whole thing has gotten way out of hand. I am all for kids being active but 5 yr olds running halfs?!? I really like the grade-mile guidelines. So far my 11yr old has only shown interest in running a 5K and I’m good with that.
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  37. I have had a feeling this is not right, too, but I have no credentials to back up my concern. Glad to read your post, Amanda.

  38. I don’t know if I’m for or against. All I know is that nothing that I could have done or bribed my kids with would have made them run even one kilometre when they were that young. Sure they may have run that much chasing a soccer ball around a pitch for an hour but they wouldn’t have just run. It’s all about motivation.
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  39. I volunteer at the finish line of a 2 mile kid race each year and see a lot of happy kids and a lot of sobbing tantrums where the mom is dragging them across the line. To me, it seems like it is easy to tell which kids really want to do it and which don’t. I think that if a five year old wants to do it, let him put in the training (maybe on soft trail surfaces?) and see how it goes. If he doesn’t make it through all the key runs, don’t let him race.
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  40. Well I have to young sons…7.5 and 9 yrs old…they enter kids race. They like that. They ask to enter these races. The distance is usually 1 mile. All good. My 9 yrs old said he wants to do a half marathon soon. I said no way. Too much too soon. Be a kid. I said ok to a 5K WITH me. Everything now is too much too soon…what they learn in school …and now this and for this specific issue I agree that kids who have a parent who runs often want to imitate the parent but I think that for the most part these kids running the longer distances are being pushed my mom and or dad.
    Coach Dion….I have nothing nice to say about condescending people.
    That is what you are : condescending.
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  41. Different take on this issue. Today I did a 5K. There were two kids there who were pre schoolers. Maybe okay?? The problem was it was one of the coldest races I have ever been in. The wind was brutal. I think as the parent I would have reevaluated. We were bussed to the start and ran back so there was no quitting early either.
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  42. Ridiculous.
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  43. I have a 9 yr old that runs competitive track and xc, and ranks pretty high nationally – and even being that competitive, his long run is five miles, and he doesn’t even do a run that long every week. We don’t let him race more than a 5k and wouldn’t even consider letting him race a 10k. Numerous marathon running books tell us that the body starts to break down after long runs of 2 1/2 – 3 1/2 hours (I’ve seen that number vary quite a bit). So I wonder what the impact is on little bodies? It can’t be good.
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  44. George Rennick says:

    While I agree with you about the premise (and particularly the idea that Grade 1′s shouldn’t run more than one mile, etc., I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that every individual is different. While not everyone is going to turn out as successfully as the 10 and 12 year sisters (can’t think of their names) in the US who have won a bunch of half-marathons against grown-ups, or the the 16 year old girl who qualified for the US Olympic marathon trial during a marathon in Sept of this year, I suspect that each of these 3 girls has been running for a long time now. It will be interesting to see where these girls end up (as runners) in the years ahead.

  45. I completely agree with you. I think it’s nuts to let young kids run long distances. I don’t even comprehend it as a parent either. I just can’t imagine my almost 4 year old actually wanting to run a long distance race in a year.
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  46. I’m extremely late to this party (been out of town and am just catching up on my blog reader now!) but it strikes me that running media may be playing a role in feeding this craziness. When you see on the news feed of a major running magazine stories about 5-year-olds running 5ks to half marathons, a parent who enjoys running might think – ‘oh, that might be a fun thing to do with my child’ rather than ‘this must be an exceptional child’.

    Now, I’m not a parent yet but I have been a kid; while every kid is different I’m sure that I would have been thoroughly bored, tired, and hungry doing anything more than a 5k at age 10 – and I was a kid who LIKED to run.
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