Several years ago, certain activities were thought to have detrimental effects on young athletes. Long distance running was an activity once thought to be potentially harmful to kids. Though participation in long distance running has been deemed "safe" for kids, experts have recommended guidelines, broken down by age, for mileage and training frequency (discussed in detail later).
Kids Are Different Than Adults
It is obvious that participation in youth sports has grown steadily over the past decades. Most people would agree that kids are now playing sports at a higher skill and competition level than in years past. As a result, it is common for people to look at children as "miniature adults." There are, however, several physical, physiological, and psychological differences between children and adults.
The two most important differences to keep in mind in regard to long distance running are heat (both accumulation and dissipation) and aerobic capacity.
Thomas Pommering, D.O., Medical Director of Children's Sports Medicine, says, "Children often accumulate heat faster than adults. The combination of exercise, warm environmental temperatures, and a higher metabolic rate in children causes them to produce more heat than adults. It has been reported that children also have fewer sweat glands than adults and do not cool themselves as efficiently."
These two factors combined put children at greater risk of heat illness while exercising.
"While it is a fact that regular exercise will increase a person's aerobic capacity, this potential is much less in children than adults," continues Dr. Pommering. "Increases in aerobic capacity are somewhat limited until puberty. Because of this, training levels should be different for prepubescent and postpubescent athletes."
Easy Does It
One error commonly made by athletes of all ages is overtraining. The dramatic increase in level and intensity of competition at the youth sport level has translated into a significant increase in overuse injuries. Tendonitis, apophysitis, and stress fractures are three common types of injuries seen in pediatric and adolescent athletes. If the accumulated load on the body is greater than the body's ability to adapt and recover, these types of overuse injuries will occur. Coaches, parents, and athletes must not cross that fine line between conditioning at the maximum level for improved fitness, and exercising to the point of overuse.
There are recommendations for level and intensity of training for kids in all sports but the number one rule is to emphasize fun, safety and fitness when it comes to kids.
Maximum running distances for children of different ages are as follows:
Half Marathon: 13.1 miles
Marathon: 26.2 miles
Experts recommend that weekly training distances not exceed twice the maximum competition distance. Therefore, middle school kids should only be running up to 12.8 miles per week, if they are planning to run in a 10K race. Kids up to age 14 should only run three times per week. Athletes over 15 can train up to 5 times per week.
Do Your Best to Prevent Injuries
Advocates for the young athlete must do all they can to prevent injuries from occurring. The following are a few guidelines that can keep a young runner on the track:
- Remember to stretch before and after you run.
- Change your running shoes every 500 miles at a minimum.
- Do not increase running mileage by more than 10% per week.
- Follow hard workout/running days with easy days.
- Do not run on slanted or uneven surfaces if possible.
- Use pain as your guide - "no pain no gain" does not work here!
Mistakes made in training the young athlete can prove to be costly in terms of time spent on the sideline. Athletes are happiest when they are able to compete. Make good decisions when it comes to training the young athlete. And above all, make it fun!
Consult your primary care physician for more serious injuries that do not respond to basic first aid. As an added resource, the staff at Nationwide Children’s Hospital Sports Medicine is available to diagnose and treat sports-related injuries for youth or adolescent athletes. Services are now available in five locations. To make an appointment, call (614) 355-6000 or request an appointment online.