What a question. The more I thought about this the more it intrigued me and the more I realized I had to say on not only running but exercise and sports in general. Although previously I’ve given it thought, after stumbling upon an article, How Far Is Too Far For Kids To Run?, the thought of the overall concept reengaged and fascinated me. I encourage you to read it in full but the basic synopsis is this: we don’t know the answer because it hasn’t really been looked at yet and kids are so different and dynamic it’s going to be hard to make a blanket statement but the early indication is that specialization often leads to problems.
As mentioned in the article, many people are worrying about repetitive motions and high volume activities with kids (i.e. arm injuries from too much pitching). I worry the same thing, regardless of the activity or age. We are the product of what we do. The more we do something, the harder we do it and the younger we start the more it will mold and define us and the more we will give up or lose in other areas as a result of that activity. Whether it’s running, swimming, dancing, golfing or playing piano, a kid who spends lots of time doing something will adapt to that behavior. The degree to which depends, on the volume, intensity and starting place. A child who runs a little gets slightly better at running but doesn’t become a runner. A child who plays some baseball gets better at throwing, batting and fielding but isn’t defined as a being a baseball player. A child who dances occasionally improves their coordination, balance, rhythm and musicality but doesn’t become a dancer.
When they take it to the next level, or specialize, is when they start becoming the activity. To me, this is where the problems start. Once a child, who is still developing, becomes a runner, dancer, pitcher, golfer, etc. you will start to see problems. This is no different than the video gamer who’s posture, eyesight and social skills deteriorate while they become incredibly skilled at Halo or World of Warcraft.
So to attempt to answer the question of how much is too much running we need to first look at the concept of specialization and ask “how much specialization is too much?”
Specialization, or focusing one’s time and energy on a single objective or activity, can be a rewarding and very fulfilling pursuit. Many amazing things exist as a result of specialization but, like everything else in this world, it has to be kept in context and perspective. The more we give ourselves to one activity the more we need to be willing to give up in order to get good at it.
…takes a lot of time and energy, leaving less of both for everything else.
….makes you better at the skill/activity but puts you at a greater risk for injury, particularly overuse.
…makes you worse at everything else you don’t practice.
…ends up defining people, physically, mentally and socially.
…is very difficult to undo.
It’s nice to find aptitude and develop skill but it always comes with a price. With kids we just don’t always know what that will be or how severe. Running is an area that scares me for just those reasons. I like it as a human movement but I dislike how modern humans redefine and practice it. When you watch kids, they very rarely run at a constant speed and for very long. They are stop and start, interval based and run for a purpose. To get somewhere fast, to chase a friend or just to feel what it’s like to sprint for a little bit. They aren’t “runners” like adults have trained themselves to be. I don’t think even adults should be running like we do, as I’ve explained before (*links below), because I think specialization comes at too high a piece for most people. I don’t think kids should specialize or do anything in excess. I think that, because they are growing so rapidly both in body and brain, specialization or repetitive activities have more potential for damage, both short and long term. This means that even less running has the potential to impact their little bodies. Can running be fun, develop discipline and character? Yes. Does it have the potential to harm easier than on an adult? I think so.
We often push our desires onto our kids. If we like to run or get some benefit from it then they should run. Kids are also more likely to think they want to run too because they see Mom or Dad run and have fun and get attention, praise and medals. We have to ask ourselves if it’s good for them. Is it nice to have your kids run with you? Yes. Is it nice to see them active and complete a mile run for charity? Sure. Should your 6 year old train for a marathon with you? No. Should your 8 year old be running a couple miles every day? Probably not.
It’s not just running. We have a growing population of specialized kids these days because people think that’s what it takes to be special and extraordinary. It just might. But at what cost?
There are miniature runners, dancers, pitchers, pianists, gymnasts, computer programmers and golfers all over the world developing mode blowing abilities most of us will never imagine attaining. But, there’s a world of kids that are going to end up with problems and adaptations we can’t even predict or fathom because we just don’t know what happens when little kids start turning themselves into specialized humans.
My belief is that humans are a generalist species. We are capable of doing many things and should pursue a variety of activities both mental and physical. Just because a jack of all trades species can master things (and it’s often easier and quicker starting from a young age) doesn’t mean it’s in our best interest to do so.
Summing up specialization and running specifically:
I don’t think kids should specialize at anything, particularly running and long distance running at that. I don’t think any age humans should run that much either.
If a kid gets bored running it’s too far.
If they hurt at all it’s too far.
If they don’t want to it’s too far.
If it prevents them from doing something else it’s too far.
If they don’t run well they shouldn’t be running at all. They need to fix their body first.
Fill in any sport/activity and you get the same result. Maybe I’m wrong but I think it’s bad practice to encourage anyone, especially kids, to specialize.
The Bottom Line on How Far Is Too Far For Kids To Run?
1. We don’t know. Either short term or particularly long term.
2. Trying to find out the answer is a dangerous pursuit and will probably happen as a result of kids getting hurt or suffering some repercussions from running too much.
3. Specialization allows progress in the focal area but jeopardizes other areas, sometimes severely.
4. Don’t let our prejudices, goals or biases steer our kids into trouble.
5. Kids are growing and developing humans and do best from a good exposure to variety of activities, challenges and stimuli.
Just because we can specialize doesn’t mean we should.
I don’t have a answer to how far is too far for kids to run because I don’t know. I just think we need to error on the safe side, which is less, because we have nothing to lose which I can’t say if we are wrong on the high side.
Let our kids do everything, be anything and have fun. We are their guardians, advisors and cheerleaders and we need to take all three roles seriously. Let them be kids, let them play and let them explore a world of different activities. Let’s not turn them into adults just yet…
Thanks for reading, have a great day!
**Update 10/25/14- just came across this yesterday… The Race To Nowhere in Youth Sports