Born to Run: How Young is Too Young to Run a Race?

Advice for when your child has caught the running bug
Kids competitively racing on a track

There’s no question that physical activity is healthy and good for kids. But if running is your child’s sport of choice, there’s no clear-cut answer when it comes to what’s the right age to give it a go.

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The good news, according to Gary Calabrese, DPT, Senior Director of Sports Therapy, is that if your child is the one excited and asking (or begging) to run, let them. Just keep a few general safety guidelines:

  • Running should be fun. The most important factor is that the child shows their own enthusiasm and motivation to run or participate in a race. Never force a child to do any sort of strenuous physical activity for an extended amount of time (Sorry, kids, gym class and mowing the lawn don’t count!)
  • Good technique and form is crucial. The younger the child, the stronger the emphasis should be on form and technique. Consider getting your child’s form evaluated by a professional and seek out a pediatric visit with a sports medicine physician to be cleared for fitness first. This is essential for preventing injury, especially if they continue with running into their teen years.
  • The younger the child, the shorter the distance should be. Fitness level and physical development are two factors parents should think about if their child wants to run. The younger the child, the more rapid the growth spurts are and the more the child needs to recover.
  • There’s no one-size-fits-all running program for children. Adult 5K training plans aren’t typically meant for children, so super-structured activity can have a negative impact on a child’s normal growth pattern. There should be a combination of regular activity (like playing other sports and with other children) and running. Children aren’t adults, so don’t expect them to keep an adult training schedule.

Distances and age

Children’s bodies are still trying to figure out the mechanics of motion and coordination. Consider these age guidelines if your child is begging to run or join a race:

7-year-olds and under
Look for “fun runs” or races between 1 and 2 miles or a 100-yard dash. These should be short runs, not long or extended. Training for this age group should be around one or two days a week. Race time should not be important to this age group.

8-to 12-year-olds
Tweens’ normal development changes allows them to adapt to longer training. This is an appropriate age group to safely participate in a 5K (3.10 miles). Training should be around three or four days a week.

13-to 15-year-olds
Younger teenagers can safely attempt 10Ks (6.2 miles) or a half marathon (13.1 miles). Training can be upwards of every other day, or even every day as long as there is appropriate recovery time.

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16-to 18-year-olds
Most marathons have a minimum age requirement. The minimum is typically between 16 and 18-years-old and may require parent consent. Smaller races might have younger age requirements, so be sure to check before committing to the race.

Lifelong habits and benefits

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

And it’s not just the physical activity that’s a benefit to kids getting involved in running. Of course, that part is great. But it can also help the child develop a healthy lifestyle ― especially later down the road. Running often goes hand-in-hand with nutrition, such as thinking about what’s good to eat before, during and after a workout.

Running is also a good way for children to learn how to set goals and push themselves in a safe manner, Calabrese notes. It can help with both short-term and long-term confidence because they can see improvement and achieve goals.

A chance to spend time together

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

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

And since distance and time shouldn’t be a factor, you should always be able to see your child running.

Use this as an opportunity to achieve goals together and to bond, Calabrese says.

Parents who are already runners just need to be aware of the demand that their current fitness level would play on the child. Children aren’t adults, so don’t expect them to keep up with you.

Lastly: Keep in mind that motivation is crucial for your child. You shouldn’t be dragging them out to go run just because you like to. It has to be a fun, no-pressure environment.

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