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Kids and Marathons: Are They a Good Idea?

Dr. Meg Meeker

Dr. Meg Meeker

Believe it or not, there is a contingent of well-meaning parents (particularly athletic ones) who are encouraging their kids to participate in marathons. As a pediatrician, I must say, this makes me gasp. A 10-year-old training for long distance running? A 12-year-old participating in a triathlon? Yikes, what have we come to?

Now, I’m from a crazily-fanatic family of exercisers. My husband runs ultra-marathons and my own daughters run regular marathons. So, I know firsthand the intensity involved in the mindset of those who do these things. As for me, well, I like exercise as much as the next mom, and I consider myself a fairly disciplined person, but marathons and kids should never be in the same sentence. Here’s why I say that.

First, encouraging kids to recruit the necessary self discipline to participate in long distance sports sets kids up to burn out at a very early age.

If you’ve never seen a young teen burnout on sports, let me tell you it’s not a pretty sight. They become bitter, turn against anyone who encouraged them to keep competing, and can even suffer depression. Burnout occurs primarily on a psychological level, but their young bodies can collapse under the strain as well.

Second, kids are not physiologically ready for even considering long distance sports until they are over 16 years old.

Their bones aren’t ready, their muscles aren’t ready, and neither are their joints. Teenage athletes who participate in well-established sports like hockey, football, soccer, and dance (to name a few) suffer many joint-related injuries that they can be tough to treat. Many of these injuries can have lifelong effects. For instance, we are discovering the long term sequelae (abnormal conditions) from serious head injuries sustained in hockey and football during the teen years. Young bodies that take a beating don’t bounce back as well as one might think.

Third, kids are not cognitively ready for endurance sports.

Since youngsters (even older teens) have difficulty with delayed gratification, training for distance sports confuses them. Adults understand that if we train day in and day out and increasing training slowly over time, that eventually we will be able to finish a marathon. But kids can’t think like this. They simply don’t have sophisticated enough abstract thinking. To ask them to participate in something with such delayed gratification frustrates them and thereby discourages them.

Finally, and most importantly, marathons are far too intense for the young psyche.

If a child has a tendency toward obsessive traits (and many high-achieving kids do), then allowing them to participate in endurance sports can trigger that thinking. Even if a child doesn’t have any obsessive characteristics, many simply aren’t mature enough to balance the intensity with relaxation. They latch onto the intensity and this spills into other areas of their lives. Girls can be set up for eating disorders, depression, and anxiety to name a few. And boys may suffer from anxiety, sleep difficulties, and self-esteem issues.

When we find ourselves considering allowing our kids (under 17) to participate in marathons, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions: What do we hope our kids will gain from doing these that they can’t get from more age-appropriate sports? And what do we hope that we will gain? Dare we admit that we want bragging rights for our “stellar “athletes?

Every parent wants her child to be successful, and well she should. But we need to remember that success must come slowly, deliberately, and lovingly. We need to nurture our children and help them learn to love exercise for life—not just for a few years. I fear that any parent who encourages his child into marathons seriously impedes that process.

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