Neil Featherby: The experts have their say on how far youngsters should be running

The 1st anniversary of Norwich Junior Parkrun takes place in Eaton Park.PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY

The 1st anniversary of Norwich Junior Parkrun takes place in Eaton Park.PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY - Credit: SIMON FINLAY

After two-and-a-half years of writing weekly columns, last week’s piece certainly produced a response of mixed opinions when it comes to the activity level of youngsters in sport.

It really was a mixed bag, hence why this week’s column just had to follow on from where I left off whilst also seeking out the opinions of a number of highly qualified experts along with the father of one of Norfolk’s most promising young female athletes.

Eva Barton last year won various county titles on the track and cross country as an under 11 athlete as well as finishing close to the top of that national rankings for her favourite events.

Her dad, Scott, is without a doubt very much behind nurturing his daughter’s long term progression for which all her training and racing is planned well in advance.

Whilst she follows a carefully structured training and racing plan, she also travels to Norwich twice a week to train under the guidance of her coach Simon Eisenmann. The training can be very disciplined, but great care and time is spent on ensuring that all her sessions are broken down into components from the warm up to the key parts of the session and of course the cool down.

When I asked Scott about his thoughts towards Eva running longer distances or even taking part in parkruns, his response was that he and Simon prefer her to stay away from these longer distances for fear of potentially harming her body whilst she is still growing and still relatively young. They prefer for her to focus on her speed and speed endurance for sprint and middle distance events. This can mean anything from a 60 metre sprint up to a mile (PB 5:48) on the track or 3k for cross country. “Eva has a couple of races lined up during October and hopefully she will be able to compete for CONAC during the winter months, but her long term goal is to run for GB as a senior and perhaps even become the first woman to break the 4 minute mile barrier,” he proudly said.

He was also very keen to point out that whilst her training is very structured, she also sees a sports therapist regularly for maintenance and wears good shock absorbing insoles in all her shoes.

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Whilst the Bartons have their sights fixed firmly forward, I still wanted to get the views of others.

PE teacher and runner, Dave Upton, said: “Children are a bundle of energy and if we were to let them then they would probably train far more than they actually do. Their cardiovascular system will push them through a lot, which is fine, but if they start complaining of any joint pain then that is when we need to think about any damage which might occur particularly whilst their bodies are still growing. I’ve taught some really talented children whose sporting careers were cut short through injury and whilst this may be down to bad luck, I still can’t help thinking that some of them were pushed far too hard and far too soon.”

Coaches Tim and Pauline Ash, both said that whilst they agreed in principle with much of what was in my column last week, they also said it is worth noting that Iona Lake, Dani Nimmock and Mitch Goose all raced 5K as 15 and 16 year olds albeit sparingly, and have all gone on to have successful international careers. However, Pauline did also go on to say: “Whilst I don’t think the occasional 5k on the track as an under 17 will do any harm, I really do not think racing over this distance is conducive to longer term improvement for the much younger athletes.”

City of Norwich AC coach, James McFarlane, is adamant that youngsters should not run beyond distances as recommended by medical experts and as set out by UKA. “As a coach I would strongly advise against this and although a youngster’s cardiovascular system may be able to cope with the demands, bone structure cannot,” he said. “Whilst one race will not do any harm, it is when one race turns into more. Running is a high impact sport and even if any damage being caused does not show at the time, it will eventually.”

Exercise physiologist Chas Allen suggests that coaches and fitness specialists who work with young persons should always use individual assessments to determine the correct exercise level for each person. He also said that this should be based upon sound scientific research and failing to do so would be irresponsible and not applied practice.

Whilst all the above advice is from people whose opinions should be listened to, one man who has pushed his body to the limits for many a year whilst perhaps defying even logic at times is of course Ironman triathlete and triathlon coach, Joe Skipper. Joe of course is now world class, but he will be the first to admit that it has taken him several years of hard work and determination to push on when most others would back off. As far as Joe is concerned, he thinks that our bodies through adaptation to exercise at an early age will actually reduce the susceptibility to bone related injuries later in life.

“I started running when I was about seven or eight years of age and by the age of 13 I was already doing adult triathlons that would finish with a 3 to 8k run off the bike.

“Personally I think the risk of injuries are exaggerated and the more you do as a kid will actually reduce the chance of injuries in later life.”

Needless to say many will state that Joe is an exception to what is many people’s rule, hence why he is in the very small percentage of sportspeople who do go on to be a world class athlete.

Whilst I personally prefer to see young athletes being carefully nurtured by way of gradual progression so as to realise their full potential when it matters most ie so as to develop natural speed and then endurance which will come anyway through progression, I do also believe that sport and of course running from an early age does help make our bodies that much stronger as we go into adulthood and even later life.

Whilst I burnt out aged 16 after running excessive miles as a youngster, I am now two weeks into my 40th consecutive year of having ran at least once every single day since September 1, 1981 when aged 23 which I feel has only been doable due to all the running I did when very young.