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Do Children Belong in Adult Races?

Posted Aug 28 2012 8:53am

This is exactly how I encourage my kids to run. Make momma proud!

Tripping people is a child’s number one God-given gift. Their abilities to shoot a slingshot, creatively mock their siblings and even hold their own adorably bobbly head up may be latent but every baby is born knowing how to take an adult down. Take, for instance, my third son. We had just brought him home to a teeny tiny apartment where the only spot we could find to put him was in a pack-n-play right at the bottom of our bed thereby necessitating that one had to vault from the bed through the doorway (bonus points for a tuck-n-roll!) — he didn’t even have to be awake and he routinely caused my husband to land in a heap in the hallway! Not even 48 hours old and already had figured out how to keep dad from going to work! And his skills have only gotten better as he’s gotten older, smarter and perfected his primal scream.

It was this I first thought of when my sister first asked me what I thought of the newish trend of letting kids run (or bike or swim) in adult races. Sure I’ve run past a few pre-teen kiddos or babes in strollers during races but I didn’t realize that it was A Thing now. But my sister lives in the trendy Boulder area and when it comes to fitness they’re usually on the bleeding edge. “My friend’s 8-year-old just did a sprint triathlon with her mom,” she started and I didn’t hear the rest because my mind was blown. can’t even do a sprint tri. (Okay, that’s mostly because I hate the swimming part — not because I can’t swim but because I detest being wet and cold.) For those of who are unacquainted with the wide wonderful world of peeing in your wetsuit, “bricking” training (biking and then immediately running) and timing how long it takes you to put on shoes, a sprint tri distance is swimming less than a 1 mile, the bike is less than 15 miles and the run is less than 5 miles. The ones around here seem to average a 1/2 mile swim, 15 mile bike and 5K (3.1 mile) run. For most people it takes at least 1.5 – 2 hours if not more to complete.

That’s kind of a lot for an 8-year-old.

“Yeah,” my sister said, “poor kid was wiped all the time. But she seemed to have fun!” And my sister’s friend is not alone. According to USA Triathlon, the sport’s governing body, participation by children is up 36% from last year and involves over 40,000 kiddos. It’s not just tris that are seeing an insurgence of kids. My friend recently completed her first marathon– with the help of her dedicated training partner, her 12-year-old son who not only ran the full 26.2 with her but did all the training leading up to it as well.

Their are two perspectives to consider in deciding whether or not kids should be running adult races. First is that of the child. (And by “child” in this post I mean anyone under 13 but old enough to run under their own power. I’m definitely not talking about the high school cross-country stars who run 5-minute miles while having full conversations with their buddies as they pass me at least five times.) Is it safe for kids to do that much exercise in one go? And is it safe for them to do the necessary training?

In the AAP’s Journal of Pediatrics, a recent study on children in sports begins, “Overuse is one of the most common etiologic factors that lead to injuries in the pediatric and adolescent athlete. As more children are becoming involved in organized and recreational athletics, the incidence of overuse injuries is increasing. [...] This overtraining can lead to burnout, which may have a detrimental effect on the child participating in sports as a lifelong healthy activity. One contributing factor to overtraining may be parental pressure to compete and succeed. ”

Of triathlons in particular Dr. Joel Brenner, director of the sports medicine program at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk, Va. says , “The actual event might not be the harmful thing, but improper training could be. It’s all about moderation.”

On the other hand, Steven Kelly of USA Triathlon points out that a tri “combines three things kids like to do: swim, ride their bikes and run around.” However, he cautions, “We don’t want to push kids into it too early. As coaches and as a federation, we need to put the brakes on it a little bit.”

IronMan, the grandaddy of all tris, recently started IronKids, a series of races geared toward and scaled down for kids ages 6-15. Director Michelle Payete says , “I think kids’ triathlons could spread like wildfire — we’re on the brink of something big and extraordinary. This is the new generation. We need to start them young and get them involved in the sport.” Other tris allow kids as young as 3 to compete (one race director said she had to turn away an 18-month-old entrant). The Big Sur half marathon (13.1 miles) – another kids-only race – allows entrants as young as 5.

But in kids’ races the only adults on the course are the volunteers. My sister’s friend ran an adult race with her daughter. Explains Dr. Stephen Rice, MD, in Running Times “Children are not small adults. Their anatomy and physiology are developing and not fully mature.”

Of course the other side of this are what the adults think. (And by “adult” in this post I mean anyone who is over 18, paid a ridiculous amount of money to participate and is not the parent.) From a personal standpoint while I’ve seen plenty of babies and toddlers in strollers and smaller kids jogging/walking, I’ve never been bothered by any of them. But then I’m not all that fast. Anyone who’s ever been in that initial crush getting off the starting line knows how hard it is to carve enough space for yourself to run much less watch out for tiny ones. I’ve seen people run out of bounds, push, throw elbows and make a lot of noise to get around slower runners, including people with strollers or kids.

What do you think – is this a great way to encourage kids to get fit and love sports early on or is it too much pressure? How do you feel about kids and strollers in adult races? Should 5-year-olds be encouraged to run half marathons? What about just a 5K?



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