Physical inactivity is one of the main causes of chronic disease and premature death in the world. Consequently, exercise is usually recommended at all ages. Children practicing regular exercise have been shown to present less chronic diseases later in life.
As sports practice has become more popular worldwide, children have started participating also in running events, in many occasions over distances longer than the 42.2k of the marathon.
The IAAF set a minimum of 20 years of age to participate in marathon world championships. No such requirement is present in other sport disciplines and is also absent in ultramarathon running. As for the marathons, usually they have an age limit of 16 or 18, but the Houston Chevron Marathon allows runners aged 12, and the Marine Corps Marathon participants who are 14.
The question arising would be: Is there any risk associated with these long running events at a young age? Many doctors recommend avoiding distance running for kids, as they are in a growing process and the effort could affect them physically and mentally.
Nevertheless, there are also supporters of long-distance running for children. Young runners have completed marathons in impressive times. The marathon record for an 11 years old boy is 2:47:17, and 2:49:21 for a girl, results unreachable by many adult runners.
A study following young finishers in the Twin Cities Marathon over 26 years found that only 4 out of 310 finishers needed medical assistance at the finish line, and only for minor questions that didn´t need further treatment. This proportion was slightly smaller that among adult runners.
A recent published review article has followed more than 7000 finishers, aged 19 or under, from 1960 to 2017, who covered distances ranging from 40 to 220k. They found that the most popular running distance among children was the 100k, also popular with adults, followed by the 50k.
From all children running ultramarathons, only 25% of them continued running into adulthood, 12% after 20 years, and only a 6% beyond 30 years. There was no clear long-term adverse health effect due to ultramarathon running, although there is no data regarding training volumes for example. Running a marathon or longer distance requires a commitment, that usually implies many hours of training during a long period of time.
Future studies should be carried out in order to understand the reasons why most child runners stopped running these ultra-events when reaching adulthood. Despite this, the discontinuation of sports practice is also present in other disciplines. Often parents push their kids to an intensity that may result in injury or early burnout. Why ultra-running would be more stressful than any other discipline?
With the present data it looks we should not discourage children from running, whatever the distance, considering that RUNNING should always be FUN, and teach them to LISTEN to their bodies.
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Too much too early? An analysis of worldwide childhood ultramarathon participation and attrition in adulthood.
Scheer V, Hoffman MD
The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness 2019 August;59(8):1363-8