Ever since a 6-year-old “finished” the 2022 Flying Pig Marathon, there has been a flurry of articles in the press and on running websites, most focusing on the wisdom, risks, and even the parental responsibility associated with children running long distances. Yes, children had run marathons before, but probably not as young or as visible and not with the role of parents being brought under such heavy scrutiny.
And going back a few years, two sisters, while still in elementary school, began winning long distance trail races. At first it was a curiosity. Then runners learned the parents had put a treadmill in the living room so the girls could log miles while doing their homework. Concerns soon surfaced in the press. Most were judgmental.
But in spite of concerns, even the chorus of disapproval, children running distances generally reserved for adults is not going to go away.
Ultimately, it is the parents who will set the tone, the environment that children will follow. If parents want their children to run and continue to run, it isn’t the risk of running a marathon, but of doing too much, too soon, every day. Burnout is the issue. Not one race, not one distance, not one day, but putting running as a child’s priority, even an expectation.
COACHES VOICE CONCERN
By a recent program-by-program count, there are now more than four million children logging miles in elementary school or after-school running programs. Coupling that with the surging number of kids entering recreational Fun Runs has given birth to an expectation that there would be similar growth in the number of kids who would run in high school and beyond. And yes, the number of high school students running cross country is at an all-time high nationally.
However, there is a growing number of coaches who have voiced concern that elementary-school-aged children who routinely enter competitive road races at the 5K distance and longer, are at elevated risk of burnout, and, with increasing frequency, do not continue with the sport.
Underlying this concern were reports made to the Journal of Youth Running by coaches whose championship teams were often made up entirely of new runners; none having regularly competed in road races as children. The untested theory was that children in elementary school that regularly competed in races have dropped out by high school, leaving slots on teams to be filled by previously non-competitive runners.
A parallel issue mentioned by some coaches is the number of road races that now offer an “open” age category for children -- meaning no minimum age restriction. Most common are eight and under or 10 and under categories. This allows even preschool children to run in actual races at any distance by simply the parent paying the entry fee.
A university study initiated by the Journal of Youth Running assessed the perceived impact of elementary-school-aged children entering competitions at distances 5K and longer. The research team was headed by Jeff Fountain, Ph.D. and Peter Finley, Ph.D., Associate Professors of Sport Management at Nova Southeastern University. NSU is a nationally ranked, private, research university in South Florida.
The research team believed high school coaches were best positioned to understand the issues and respond objectively to the questions posed in the study. Five hundred coaches, representing all 50 states, received an invitation to participate. The coaches selected for the study had demonstrated sustainable success as measured by having teams finish in the top 10 in their states’ championship events (cross country state finals) at least four times in a five-year span. The researchers used state finals results in all classifications (small and large enrollments) to determine coaches of both boys’ and girls’ teams.
Nearly 83 percent of the 136 coaches that responded to the full survey were male, with 63.6 percent coaching both the girls’ and boys’ teams.
The objectives of the research team were to determine the coaches’ attitudes regarding: (1) appropriate race length for varying age groups; (2) appropriate ages to transition from “fun runs” to competitive races that focused on pursuing goals and awards, and (3) the advent of structured training. Also queried was the coaches concern about injury and burnout; and appropriate age divisions to offer for children.
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.
In summary, there are six major findings. The statistical term “mean” identifies the central tendency determined by adding all the coaches’ responses in terms of appropriate age and dividing by the total number of responses.
1. Coaches identified the longest race length for preschool and lower elementary-aged runners (K-3) should be ½ to one mile (77.1%). The balance was heavily weighted in favor of distances shorter than ½ mile.
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. Eighty-five percent of coaches in the survey believe or strongly believe that elementary-school-aged children that frequently race at distances 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 percent were concerned, but short of labeling it as dangerous or harmful. Ten percent expressed little or no concern.
DISCUSSION and CONCLUSIONS
The findings of this study do not completely explain why coaches of championship teams have reported that their teams were comprised entirely of runners who did not compete before high school.
What the study does show is that the participating coaches believe, and by significant margins, that children who do too much too soon, in racing and in the distances, they run, increase the prospect they will drop out of the sport before high school.
The risk is minimized, according to the coaches, by allowing children to progress as they mature physically and emotionally, not in one year but from year to year. For early elementary children (K-3), it is short distances – ½ mile to one mile Fun Runs. Later it is longer runs, but where having fun, joining the crowd and walking if necessary are still encouraged. By late elementary school, racing can begin but without training or performance objectives coming into play until middle school.
These guidelines also apply when parents enter their children in races with no minimum age restriction -- eight and under or ten and under. This practice, initiated by race organizers, is in clear conflict with what the vast majority of the responding coaches believe to be appropriate for preschool and early elementary-aged children.
The high level of concern by coaches should send up a warning 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 gatekeepers 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.
The complete results of the NSU study are posted on The Sport Journal website. Search: Road Races and Youth Running: Cross Country Coaches’ Perspective.
NOVA Southeastern University is the research partner for the Journal of Youth Running. To learn more about NSU visit the university website at https://www.nova.edu/ .