Ever since the famous distance run obtained its name from the battle of Marathon, young and old alike have been training for and competing in marathons. Running is popular world-wide and the 26.2-mile distance is, for many individuals, the race of a lifetime. But how young is too young to begin training for and competing in marathon races? There is currently little research available on the topic of children and the necessary considerations involved in their training for and running marathons. For most marathon races, the youngest age that is allowed to participate is 18. But could marathon training be a safe and effective form of exercise for children?

Many concerns exist regarding children participating in marathon training and events. Childhood development and the onset of puberty bring about many physical changes in children. Marathon training can increase a child's risk of injury. For example, a lack of development may increase a child's risk of a heat-related illness because of his or her inability to effectively regulate his or her body temperature. Furthermore, improvements in running economy and aerobic capacity have to be acquired through consistent, progressive training which may be difficult for a child to do. Other common concerns include bone and cartilage damage, overuse injuries, the premature sealing of the growth plates, and coercion or pressure from authority figures in a child's life.

The International Marathon Medical Directors Association (IMMDA) issued an advisory statement in 2001 on children and marathon training. The advisory statement can be summarized by stating that children should not train for and run marathons until the age of 18. This advisory statement opens by stating that children are too frequently treated like adults despite the fact that they are still developing physically, mentally, and emotionally. The authors  of this statement assume that most children who train for marathons should not be doing so. The long distance of the race and the vast amount of time needed to properly train may lead to injury, mental and physical burnout, heat-related illnesses, and unnecessary stress. This is not to say that children should not participate in any form of physical activity or organized sport. However, adults should give proper consideration to the talents and limitations of their children. Physical activity and organized sports should be encouraged because participation on the part of children can result in greater health, reduced obesity rates, strong friendships, learning teamwork and other social skills, improved motor skills, and discovering how to win and lose with a positive attitude. But, responsible adults must make the final decisions and guide their children toward forms of exercise that are safe in terms of their development and age. Undoubtedly, allowing a child to train for a marathon does entail greater risk.

However, it should be noted that the authors of the above-mentioned statement practically negate all of their previous concerns about children and training for marathons toward the end of that statement. They say that "it is conceivable that given proper biomechanics and anatomy, a quality progressive training program, and appropriate maturity and cognitive level, a long distance runner can have a positive experience from participating in marathons prior to 18 years of age. This special individual would be the exception and not the rule." But, that is the very nature of children and marathons. Millions of adults will never attempt a marathon in their lives.  Furthermore, even fewer children will attempt that distance.  Consequently, children who possess a strong desire to train for and run marathons are already enormous exceptions in society. It seems that, in a way, that the IMMDA's advisory statement unintentionally lends support to some children training for and running marathons.

To be continued in Part 2.

Source: Camp, S. V., M. D., Maharam, L. G., Pujol, P., & Thorsall, J. IMMDA Advisory Statement on Children and Marathoning: How Young is Too Young?. (2001).