Have you ever played with one of those magic 8-balls? You know the ones that pop up the answer to whatever question you ask? Wouldn’t it be great if, one, those actually worked, and, two, you had one to ask regarding developing youth when it comes to running and racing?
While the word “marathon” strikes fear in the heart of many, it also simultaneously brings a smile to a face and is the theme to think about when it comes to your, or developing another’s, running career. When considering the sport of running, one must approach it in terms of how we approach life, as a marathon. Running is the arguably the hardest sport of any, which could be why it is usually the form of punishment inflicted in other sports.
That being said, progression in the sport is crucial. One cannot expect, at any age, to sign up for any race, compete with those who trained for weeks, months, or even years, and being able to keep up or beat a majority of them. One also should keep in mind that just because a person does not start running 5k’s (3.1 miles) under the age of 10, that he or she will not be a successful runner later on in junior high, high school, college, or for recreational fun.
On the flipside, one should not expect that early success from running 5k’s or fast times in junior high cross country or track will lead to grand success later on in high school or beyond, which brings us back to the word progression. Whether it comes in the realm of early success, parental desires, or the accumulation of miles and races upon miles and races, the potential for burnout and injuries lurks around the corner far too often in running for youth.
This is where that magic 8-ball is needed to help predict how to develop youth the best, specifically in regards to when to, and how far, to begin racing. I could envision the following questions being asked by many if that magic 8-ball was around:
1. What is the key age to send a youth to a race?
2. Are there limits to the distance he or she should race?
3. Am I pushing my son/daughter too hard?
4. How can I help prevent injury?
5. How can I prevent burnout?
Sending out kids under the age of 10 to 5k’s to when they have not run more than a few miles consistently at a time or even been running, should never be considered. Training kids under the age of 10 to do the best they can in a 5k also seems a bit extreme.
It is important to remember how bodies adjust as they develop. This is especially true in teenage females. As their bodies change, not only can the physical development of their bodies (height, weight, etc.) affect their running, but also things that are not seen by the naked eye. The most common issue with teenage female athletes (and it can affect male athletes also) is low ferritin levels (i.e.- Low iron, red blood cells, anemia). This is not something you can witness just by looking at an athlete as he/she develops. This change occurs on the inside and presents itself in the form of sleepy, fatigued, and “dead legged” all the time by athletes and can be monitored through a simple blood test.
Now, all that being said, you are still waiting for the answer to the “magic” question: At what age(s) is it appropriate for youth to race? Ultimately, all of this is up to the parents of the athlete. However, there are some conventional guidelines to try and adhere to, along with common sense.
Remember, the key is to make it fun. The more positive the experience, which does not always equate to winning within the sport of running, the more likely the young athlete is going to want to continue along.
A basic guideline that I tend to follow looks something like the this, while keeping in mind all that has been said previously:
5k: Not under the age of 10
10k: Not under the age of 16 (especially if in high school cross country/track)
Half-marathon: Not under the age of 18 (especially if in high school cross country/track)
Full-marathon: Post-high school (with a good plan to prepare)
The above range is again, a personal range that I would suggest if being asked. Is there always going to be a rare special athlete that could do the above and do it a high level of competition? Sure. However, let us keep to our theme of your running career being like a marathon. Far too many times I have witnessed burnout in athletes upon entering, during, or leaving high school. Why is this the case? Too often it comes from over racing.
Think about the following example. A junior high boy exhibits amazing potential, such as breaking the 5-minute barrier in the mile. Everyone immediately begins pegging him as a great high school runner who could go far. However, he has done numerous 5k’s, 10k’s, and maybe even a half marathon already by the time he either leaves junior high or starts high school. He arrives at day one of high school practice and is immediately thrown into Group 1, since he is obviously very talented. He experiences longer workouts, longer runs, and harder runs than he is use to, not to mention the accumulation of the total mileage of what could be 50-70 miles a week. His body adjusts some, but as each meet or each year progresses, he never reaches the level to which everyone thought he would be. In fact, in some cases, the athlete, whether male or female, becomes slower or stays roughly the same throughout their high school career.
Example number two ties into something discussed before: anemia. Take the example of a freshman female athlete. She produces phenomenal times while on lower mileage and at a young age. However, as her high school career progresses, the mileage and longer workouts are stacked upon her to see how much she can handle (risk vs. reward). Eventually, she experiences the extreme tiredness, a decline in her times in all events, and severe fatigue. Hundreds of female athletes throughout the nation will experience the low ferritin/anemic issue each season (cross-country and/or track). Not being able to do what she was once capable of can lead to other issues beyond just her (even his) perception of running in general.
The pressure of high school athletics is far greater than that of junior high. If a young athlete experiences setbacks from injuries, etc. and also begins getting burnt out, the potential, especially in this day and age, are far too many that a teenager could turn to.
The following question may sound a bit far-fetched, but hear me out. If a professional runner is not willing or does not do something, why are or would you, your athletes, or your kids do it? Professional runners are not out racing every weekend at every chance they get. No, they are training their bodies through easy runs, different workout paces, long runs, core/lifting, and cross training. They are setting goals for certain races and using a few as either hard workouts or measuring sticks towards their goal race(s). They stay within seasons and they take time off. Many professional athletes take anywhere from 2 weeks to 1 month off once their season is completed. Yet, we see young athletes out doing 5k’s or longer every/every other weekend between seasons. Something doesn’t add up.
In conclusion, there are many different types of approaches and opportunities for young athletes today, which I find to be a great thing. Running is/can be a lifetime sport for enjoyment in many ways. It teaches discipline, self-control, and patience. It shows someone that nothing happens overnight, hard work is still something of value and allows you to test the limits of your body. For your young athlete’s sake, don’t try to “keep up with the joneses,” but, instead, show them how the sport of running relates to life and how through it not only can you find yourself in many ways while seeing the amazing creation around us. You also can meet people that are part of a family that is different than other sports offer; one that can keep you accountable, support you through tough times and rejoice with you with reaching your goals.
Use the ability, enjoy the ability, but never abuse the ability.