How Young Is Too Young to Run a Marathon?

A Kentucky family was recently at the center of controversy after allowing their 6-year-old son to run in the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati last Saturday. Many were put off by the thought of such a small child running such a long distance, wondering if it was safe for their health. Before drawing any conclusions, let’s see what the science says.

To find answers, I first read the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans , released by the US Department of Health and Human Services. According to this guide, running is recommended for children ages 6 and up. This activity not only helps children build an aerobic base, but also serves as a measure to strengthen bones. They recommend an hour a day of exercise for children and teens, which may also include muscle-strengthening exercises. Running isn’t the only activity that HHS recommends. Other aerobic basic activities include jumping rope, swimming, or cycling. Unstructured activities such as playing on the playground or climbing trees are recommended to strengthen the muscles. Basketball, tennis and hopscotch are recommended for strengthening bones.

Okay, so yes, kids can obviously run. But is it worth it to run such long distances? It depends on the child. Dr. William O’Roberts of the University of Minnesota at the Falen Village Clinic explains that long-distance running is allowed for children as long as they “follow an acceptable supervised training program with an emphasis on fun and participation, not records and quick results.” He goes on to note that this shouldn’t be a problem as long as “they don’t have injuries or pain while exercising”. In fact, as O’Roberts points out, there isn’t much data on young marathon runners.

Although some in the field believe that young marathon runners are at a higher risk of injury, there is no evidence to support this claim. In fact, writes O’Roberts, “Many thousands of people under 18 have finished the Los Angeles Marathon as part of the organized youth program and nearly 300 have finished the Twin Cities Marathon.” The youngest child in these datasets was 7 years old. There were no serious medical injuries at these events.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics shares a similar view, explaining that “children and adolescents must be properly educated to avoid hypothermia or hyperthermia, overtraining, overuse injury, and burnout.” Marathons require a carefully crafted plan to safely increase your total weekly mileage, but as long as this is taken into account, your child will likely avoid injury. The AAP states, “Ultimately, there is no reason to bar a young athlete from running a proper marathon if the athlete enjoys the activity and has no symptoms.”

In short, there is no universal answer to the question of whether your child should run a certain distance. It depends on the child’s age, motivation and training regimen, which makes it impossible to unconditionally declare: “This is completely wrong” or “Actually everything is fine.” What we do know is that children are encouraged to run, especially if they want to run. So just keep an eye on them if you’re worried about how far they go or if they do it safely.

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