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Is Your Child Old Enough To Run a 5K?

Let your little one’s enthusiasm and motivation fuel their interest in running, but don’t pile on miles too early

Kids running a race at the finish line ribbon

Your kid never stops moving. They run through the house. (Watch the table!) They run around the yard. (Don’t trample the flowers!) They run down grocery store aisles. (Look out for people!)

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So, with all that go-go-go energy, when is your child ready to go run a race? Sports physical therapist Gary Calabrese, PT, DPT, has the directions to the starting line.

When can kids start running?

Let’s start with the basics: Physical activity is fabulous for kids — and running is a natural human action. In many ways, we were born to run. One researcher even called running “an expression of our evolution.”

But there’s no clear-cut rule when it comes to the right age to begin a focused running program. So, if your child asks to start regularly running at any point … well, just go with it, says Dr. Calabrese.

“Nobody agrees on exactly how much running should be done when kids are young,” he adds. “But one thing we do all agree on is that activity is important.”

How far should kids run (or race)?

Younger children should target shorter distances for training runs and any races that they want to enter, says Dr. Calabrese. Distances can gradually increase as their bodies mature and strengthen.

Every individual is different, of course, but consider these general guidelines for setting up a plan for young runners.

Ages 7 and younger

One to two days of running a week is ideal for this age group. That’s a training schedule that allows growing bodies adequate time to recover, notes Dr. Calabrese. Keep distances shorter, too. Think “run around the block” rather than “run around the town.”

This isn’t the time to pull out a stopwatch either. Children at this age should focus on moving at a comfortable pace without worrying about hitting a certain time.

For races, look for “fun runs” between 1 and 2 miles or even a 100-yard dash.

Ages 8 to 12

As kids hit their tween-age years, developmental changes in their bodies allow them to better handle more runs and longer distances, says Dr. Calabrese. Training can expand to three to four days a week if their fitness allows.

This is a good age to try a 5K (3.1 mile) race if your child wants to enter a race.

Ages 13 to 15

Younger teens can safely bump up their training and run on an almost daily basis. This may be the age when your young runner joins a school cross-country or track team with a more structured training program.

Take caution, though: Overuse injuries can become a concern as children up their training, warns Dr. Calabrese. Rest and recovery days are essential to avoid issues like plantar fasciitis or runner’s knee.

For racing at this age, consider a 10K (6.2 miles) or half marathon (13.1 miles) within reach.

Ages 16 to 18

Weekly mileage can continue to grow as children get closer to adulthood. Again, it’s important to allow for rest and recovery to avoid overuse injuries.

With proper training, running a marathon (26.2 miles) may be possible at this age. But many marathons have a minimum age requirement of 18 or may require parental consent for entry. Check individual races for their rules.

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Working with young runners

Your child wanting to run is the key first step in starting what could become a lifelong fitness activity, says Dr. Calabrese. Here are a few other things to keep in mind as they get going:

  • Keep it fun. Miles should bring smiles! That’s true for all ages, but it’s especially important for young runners. So, use a training activity as an excuse for a fun outing, like a trip to a park to hit a trail.
  • Don’t force it. Running shouldn’t be turned into a requirement or chore for your child. If they’re going to build a love for running, let their enthusiasm and motivation fuel it.
  • Invest in gear. Running is like any other sport: It requires the right equipment. If your child shows interest in keeping at a running program, get them fitted for a running shoe that can ease strain on their feet and joints.
  • Focus on form; learning good technique is crucial for young runners. Consider getting your child’s gait evaluated by a physical therapist or other professional. Proper form can help prevent injury, especially if they continue running into their teen years.
  • Do other activities, too. Overuse injuries can happen when children focus on only one type of exercise. Encourage your child to continue doing other sports or physical activities so they work a variety of muscles.
  • Emphasize nutrition. Bodies run best on healthy food. Guide your children toward nutritious eating choices before and after their runs.

Remember, too, that kids aren’t adults — so don’t expect them to follow an adult 5K training plan or workout schedule, stresses Dr. Calabrese. Pushing them too hard can result in injuries or even affect their growth.

Use running to bond with your child

If your child has their heart set on running, consider it an opportunity to spend time together ― and a chance for you to get physical activity, too.

“I recommend that parents ride their bikes along while the child jogs,” says Dr. Calabrese. “Or take the child to a track or big, open park so you can watch them. Or better yet, walk or jog with them.”

Consider running a way to strengthen bonds with your child and achieve goals together.

Parents who run

If you run, the idea of your child running with you probably sounds fabulous. But keep in mind that they may not be able to do your routine ― particularly when they’re younger.

“Children aren’t adults, so don’t expect them to keep up with you,” reiterates Dr. Calabrese.

Think of the ‘long run’

Introducing your child to running can set the foundation for a healthy lifestyle when they become adults. It’s an activity that they can continue for years to build and maintain health and fitness.

“Running is also a good way for children to learn how to set goals and safely push themselves,” says Dr. Calabrese. “And it can help with both short-term and long-term confidence because they can see improvement and achieve goals.”

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