Youth Running: Not a question of age but rather, the relationship

I love running, I think it’s the BEST sport in the World. But it’s a hard sport, mentally and physically. Like really hard. Running isn’t like most other team sports, there can be a fantastic team aspect, but ultimately running is a test of YOU against YOURSELF.

The rigors of training, hard workouts, are a lot to ask of oneself, us runners are quite demanding. Those demands should come internally and 99% of runners are the type-A, OCD personalities who tend to be their own harshest critics. THAT kind of drive and motivation is what separates runners from the slew of people making New Years Resolutions that don’t eclipse January. The traits that can make you the best can also suck the joy from your running if you’re not careful.

running changes lives

The lessons running teach are incredible and lifelong.


So my stance on youth running and seeing stories like THIS, a 13-year old racing a string of half-marathons, my initial reaction is to cringe. Again, I LOVE running, and believe there is a way to introduce youths to such a wonderful sport, the benefits there are enormous:
* Create a lifelong passion with exercise and fitness
* Improve goal-setting and hard working habits
* Boosted self-esteem
* Introduction to one kickbutt AMAZING community of runners
If they wind up setting any PR’s or being any good at the sport, cool beans, but that’s not the goal at that point.

When youth running can turn into a nightmare, often times it’s because TOO MUCH is being done. Too much mileage, too many workouts, too much intensity of workouts, too much pressure that’s NOT coming from within.

When a child is running more for a parent or coach, when that child feels like their own self-worth is tied up in that, THAT is when things are ugly.

It’s hard to pinpoint or assess, as with so many other things with running, the line between a healthy relationship with running for youths and one that is destructive is fine, unique to each individual, and a bit ambiguous to explain.

I’ve written a few articles on this topic, one HERE for Run, Blog, Run, and I’ve talked to many coaches and other athletes as well. In short:
* Professional, REALLY KICK BUTT amazing runners that become parents, most of them take the opposite extreme when it comes to their kids and running. They stand WAY back, get their kids involved in tons of other things, and if their child winds up going into running their parents can be sure it was of the child’s own desire. I think that’s how it should be done.
runner by tree
* Fun, fun, fun: The younger the kid, the more fun, loose, relaxed relationship with running they should have. We’re talking short runs, most of those just being totally easy and not even aware of the pace. Not running every day, and preferably in a group environment. Let them be with their friends, who cares about a ‘training regimen.’
* Plenty of Time: Running isn’t gymnastics, you don’t peak at 12 years old, it’s a sport that rewards the patient. When I say PLENTY of time, lots of amazing runners weren’t even serious until college. I liked the story Coach Dena Evans, who ran as a youth and was the Women’s coach at Stanford, told me. When recruiting two of the then top high school females, Katy and Amanda Trotter, the twins were struggling to decide between running cross country or playing soccer their senior years. “I told them, go, have fun, do the soccer with your friends, Iā€™m not going to recruit you any less,ā€ advised Evans. Incidentally the twins DID run cross country and Evans jokes, “Katy ended up second at Footlocker Nationals, so what did I know, right?!ā€ But the point is: Dena Evans KNEW they were talented, had the work ethic, and that there was PLENTY of time for them to develop in college. She wanted to let them just keep it fun as long as possible.
* Parents and Coaches: For parents, the bottom line is whatever happens on the race course or during anything running related should be TOTALLY separate from all else the child does. Keep the two identities separate, don’t bring the running to the dinner table. As for coaching youth runners, less is more. From my article, Emily Sisson says it well, “It’s always important [for parents] to remember to put their [children's] happiness first…I attribute a lot [of my improvement] to the fact that my parents and coaches held me back a bit.” Eventually in 2010, Sisson lowered the 5,000m US High-School Record, after-which she’s continued to improve. “Running should always be something that you do because you love to do it. It shouldn’t become something you do to please someone else.”

Personally, despite both my parents being runners, I didn’t even test out running until about 8th grade. I joined a local club and thought running a WHOLE mile was amazing, didn’t run every day, didn’t even count mileage until maybe Junior year of high school, and my parents held me back when they needed to. I never lost my passion for running, not once.

Youth running should be dictated BY the youth runner. Meaning the passion must come from within, it should be THEIR goals. Ultimately any parents or coaches are merely there to guide them, following from behind. Often times that means holding back eager young runners and assuring them that LATER is when they can do more, more, more, and they’ll be much better off with patience.

1) Do you think there is an age that’s ‘too young’ to run?
Not an age, it’s more on the relationship the child is having. I LOVE seeing kiddies genuinely pumped about running.
2) If you have kids, are any of them interested in running?
3) Anything you’d like to say on the topic?

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10 thoughts on “Youth Running: Not a question of age but rather, the relationship

  1. What a timely post – Hunter (my youngest) wants to run a half marathon in late spring since he is turning 13 in April. (not sure where he came up with the idea of running his age on his birthday?!) Anyway, I’m torn – I want him to love running and I’m afraid that following a training plan will end up being too much for him. At the same time, I want him to be prepared so that the race isn’t a bad experience.
    Next week kicks off our 12 week training program – I guess I will just play it by ear and if he starts getting burned out we will back off.

    • i think the difference here is that i KNOW you’re a smart enough runner/mom to honestly make sure he’s okay. the fact you’re struggling with the decision to let him run is proof right there. play it by ear, i’ve got full faith Hunter will grow up loving running too. :)

  2. My V started running 5ks last year at the ripe old age of 5. He is currently 6 and has finished 4 5ks, two kids marathons, and goes to our walk2run runs, and participates. We went out tonight to run with our walk2run group, and found it to be too icy for us, the rest of the group took to the streets and I am not taking my 6yr old to the street. So we headed back to the store and waited for everyone to return. I think the best part is that the group loves him, and involves him. They listen to him and his ideas and I think he actually loves hanging out with the crowd more than the actual running.

  3. great article! I was just thinking about this yesterday because I saw a boy (probably like 7) training with a PT at the gym. The PT was so kind and motivating, and the child loved being there, and at one point the PT said “ok that’s it for this exercise” and the kid goes, “no I can do 2 more reps!” it was so cute.

    I think that these themes apply to kids and sports/being active in general. Just as we tell adults, they need to find something they love in order to be enthusiastic about it. Hopefully my kids love running ;)

  4. I don’t think there’s necessarily a “too young” age, but I think that the desire to run and to improve has to come from the kid. It’s the parents job to guide them and to protect them. One of my favorite things to see at a 5K is the kids that take off like a bat out of hell, and three minutes later they’re walking. Then here they come sprinting by you again, only to slow to a walk minutes later again. That’s the purest form of running right there. They’re listening to their bodies. And they kids- who cares if they don’t understand pacing and being able to run steady throughout a race. They’re having fun :)

    Here’s a great example about a local 9 year old boy that likes to run a local half marathon that has over 4,000 feet of elevation due to climbing two mountains during the race. The kid was interested in the race, so his mom made sure he had the right shoes and was adequately prepared to complete the distance. People saw a 9 year old running and immediately criticized her without knowing any other details. But this kid passed me on a hill around mile 10. The spectators were kind of quiet, so the kid starts waving his arms in the air as he runs up the hill and gets them all cheering. He was having a blast! No one was pushing him to do the race. He was out there because he wanted to be. I talked to his mom later that day, and she said he’s gotten faster than her so she has to find other people to run with him during races :)

    Now I do think that kids should at least wait until 16 or 17 years old to run a marathon, because it’s punishing and mentally very tough. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to immediately criticize the parents if there is a kid out there running.

    • eeek. like u said, it’s not fair to judge situations right off the bat…BUT i kinda think, like you, even if the child WANTS to run, it’s a parent’s role to know when to hold them back.

  5. I occasionally get asked if I coach kids. I think I’ll just send this article to those folks, as it pretty much sums up my philosophy COMPLETELY: If they’re old enough, and making the decision themselves, and don’t want to run too long for their age…OK. But the moment I get a whiff that they’re not enjoying it…time to pull the plug.

    • AMEN, Holly!!! i’m the same way, any time i catch a whiff of a pressuring coach or parent i want to swipe the poor kiddo and send them off to the circus for some fun! :) the saddest thing is when kids lose the passion for fitness and running because of bad experiences early on.

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