Neil Featherby: How far should youngsters really be running?

How far should youngster be running? Picture: Archant

How far should youngster be running? Picture: Archant - Credit: SIMON FINLAY

With the recent four race track training series which I organised with Joe Skipper and the help of others now completed, apart from it being so much fun, it did also produce one or two divided opinions with regards to some of the much younger athletes who wanted to take part in what was the longest event at the end of the series.

That of course being the 5,000 metres and whilst the races were all seeded by way of trying to ensure that people were running in a race which represented their ability, I don’t doubt for one moment that some of the youngsters in question would have more than ably completed the distance.

The 15 and 16 year-olds most certainly did whilst producing excellent race times.

However, and irrespective of whether they can run long distances at a young age or not, is it actually good for them in the long term?

There has been so much medical evidence over the years suggesting how it can be harmful and detrimental to youngsters who run beyond recommended distances in training and racing by way of increased long term injuries particularly to young bodies which aren’t fully developed and are still growing. Youngsters also have higher metabolisms and will not only create more heat in their bodies, but at the same time they don’t have the same ability to sweat and dissipate heat as efficiently as an adult which of course could also potentially lead to complications.

MORE: Love running? Join the Run Anglia Facebook group hereWhilst UKA have regulations governing what distances junior athletes can compete in, lots of young children take part in the weekly parkruns over 5k (pre covid) and whilst parents have to be present with their child, I have regularly listened to a proud mum and dad telling me about how they cannot keep up with their nine-year-old, who has just ran parkrun in a little over 20 minutes.

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Needless to say they have every right to feel proud and I don’t want to be the one who destroys the conversation.

Nevertheless, I will always suggest that if they want their children to develop their athletic abilities to their full potential, then it really would be advisable to seek out an athletics club or specialist coaches that cater for children’s needs and requirements.

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Just because a young child can run 20 minutes for 5k, it does not necessarily mean they will run a time which befits an international athlete for the same distance when they are into adulthood. It really is all about careful development to hopefully guide each young athlete along the long road to fulfilling their true potential.

There are lots of changes which take place as a youngster grows into adulthood and it is a well-known fact that for many years now, some of the very best junior athletes disappear before senior status. This of course is usually after leaving school or coming out of education when coming to terms with the realities of life. Nevertheless and whilst we have mentioned the potential physical problems, one other very important factor is mental burnout, especially when any young child or adolescent feels under pressure to constantly perform to what might be in their minds that of satisfying the needs of others, be it peers, teachers or of course parents.

When I was 15 years of age and just to clarify, I was only very good at county/eastern counties level, I still found myself on the way to both physical and mental burnout.

Just through fear of failure, I constantly increased the amount of miles I was running in training and sometimes I even ran up to three times a day. My feet and shins were always sore and I was constantly tired and fatigued. By the age of 16, I raced two more times with reasonable success and then completely walked away from the sport vowing that I would never ever put a pair of running shoes on again. Needless to say I did, but those four years away from running helped me figure out exactly who I was running for and allowed me to then come back with a renewed enthusiasm for the sport and activity which I love and have not walked away from since.

Therefore and for what it might be worth, my own personal opinion with regards to very young children running longer distances is to let it happen gradually whilst also following natural development to guide each young person towards the right event and even sport if need be to match not only their natural ability, but their own desires too.

If youngsters get a thrill out of running longer distances such as 5k parkruns, well that is fine too providing it is of course under supervision.

One final footnote on this subject which I feel I must mention and of course is a contradiction to all the advice given to us about the dangers of running excessive distances too early in life and that is about the stories we have heard for many a year about how some of the great African runners developed their super human abilities after having run up to six miles to school and back every day from the age of nine. Whilst I am sure there are many exaggerations as to whether they really did run this far each day, I am also sure that there is some truth in it too.

Lastly, we said a final goodbye to a lovely lady this week by the name of Peggy. Peggy was one of those people who just like her daughter Mandy Foyster was loved by everyone who came into contact with her.

She came to me for many years armed with bags of apples and pears from her orchards whilst also buying new running shoes for what would usually be her next attempt at the London Marathon which she did well into her 70s. Whilst Peggy, will be so very sadly missed, she will of course also be so very fondly remembered.

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