Children now running in elementary school fitness programs and the surging number of kids in recreational Fun Runs, has given birth to an expectation that there would be similar growth in the number of kids who would continue to run in high school and beyond. And yes, the numbers of high school students running cross country is at an all-time high nationally.

The future participation of elementary school children that enter road races (not Fun Runs), at distances 5K and longer is, however, less certain and worthy of closer examination.
A parallel issue is the number of road races that offer “open” age categories for children – meaning no minimum age restriction such as eight and over, but instead eight and under. This allows pre-school children to run in actual races at distance longer than what high school competitions allow.

The Center for Children’s Running partnered with the s
port management faculty at Nova Southeastern University (Florida) to conduct a national research study on the perceived impact of elementary school children entering road races at distance 5K and longer. The focus was on (1) appropriate race length for varying age groups; (2) appropriate ages to transition from “fun running” to competitive races (those focused on pursuing goals and awards and involves structured training); (3) the concern about injury and burnout; and (4) appropriate age divisions to offer for children.

The target research population for this study was 500 high school cross country coaches from schools with small and large enrollments whose teams (male or female) finished in the top ten in their states’ championship events (cross country state finals) at least four times in a five-year span, 2010-2014.

The complete results of the study are posted on The Sport Journal website.


In summary, there are six major findings. The statistical term “mean” identifies the central tendency determined by adding all the coach’s responses in terms of appropriate age and dividing by the total number of responses.

1. Coaches preferred the longest race length for the lower-elementary a runners (K-3) as one mile or shorter (77.1%).

2. The mean age established by coaches for children to enter a 5K race with the purpose of “having fun, walking if necessary, getting a T-shirt, or earning a finisher’s medal.” is age nine.

3. The mean age for children entering a 5K race for competitive purposes, defined as “the goal of setting a personal best, competing for an age-group placing, appearing in published race results, and winning awards, is age 11.

4. The mean age for children entering a 5K race for competitive purposes, with training defined as “scheduled workouts as opposed to occasional runs, formal coaching, and setting performance goals” are ages associated with middle school, ages 12, 13 or 14.

5. By a highly significant eighty five percent, coaches in the survey believe or strongly believe that elementary-school-aged children that race 5K or longer are at high risk of burnout from the sport. 

6. According to the survey, 71.9 percent of the coaches used words like risky, dangerous and harmful when describing how they felt about early elementary-school-aged children entering events (including races) longer than 5K. Eighteen point one percent were concerned, but short of labeling it a dangerous or harmful. Olny 10 percent express little or no concern.

Burnout, as applied by the research team, differs from child to child. For children who race, it may be the stress to improve each time. For others it may be the physical discomfort of running distances longer than the child is physically or emotionally prepared to run. Or it could be the loss of interest in extrinsic motivators (T-shirts, water bottles, medals) or the feeling that running is not their own but an expectation of their parents.

The high level of concern by coaches should send up a cautionary flag for race organizers and parents who want their children to continue and enjoy running into the future. The conversation must focus first on the race organizers as they are the gate keepers with respect to who is allowed to compete in their races as well as the orchestrators of the awards categories that encourage young runners, sometimes influenced by parents, to enter competitive events and at longer distances than the child is prepared to run.

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