Parents who enjoy distance running often wonder whether it’s good to run with their children. The answer depends on the age of the kids—and your expectations.
Developmental age—a child’s physical, mental, and emotional maturity—is what determines what’s healthy and beneficial for children. When it comes to distance running, puberty is the key developmental milestone. The science is clear: prior to puberty, distance running has almost zero effect on improving a child’s aerobic endurance.
This means the only real benefit of distance running for a child is the time spent bonding with Mom or Dad. If the run is part of an elementary school running club, then the corresponding benefit would be spending social time with classmates. Speed is not enhanced by distance running. Strength gains prior to puberty are better achieved through simple bodyweight exercises and playful activities such as climbing trees, riding bicycles, and swinging on monkey bars.
Winning ribbons and trophies in distance running competitions is sometimes offered as another possible benefit. Indeed, some children are motivated by external rewards. But this desire can be served by other types of running activities that are better suited to their development, such as sprint events in 50- and 100-metre competitions, or events such as long jump and high jump.
Related read: How to teach kids to sprint correctly
Dangers and drawbacks to distance running
What’s the downside of distance running with children? First and foremost, prepubertal children are still growing, which means the growth plates in their bones are still soft. This means the growth plates are functionally weaker than the ligaments, tendons, and hard bone structures that surround them. This makes them vulnerable to injury and long-term damage through repetitive strain and joint impact.
The other major risk for kids is mental burnout and dropout from activity altogether. Research shows that the number one reason kids play sports is to have fun. Distance running, for the vast majority of kids, is not fun. So why make them do it?
As sports science author David Epstein points out, children are too often pushed into sports and activities by adults for adult purposes. This not only has the potential to lead to serious injuries, but also less long-term success in sports.
The best kind of running for children
Prior to puberty, the most beneficial type of running for children is vigorous-intensity sprinting for time intervals that last only a few seconds. This is the kind of running that kids do automatically when they play tag or sports such as soccer and basketball.
Research has shown that this type of short-duration, high-intensity activity fits the natural pattern [PDF] in children before puberty, whereas long-duration exercise does not. This is why when children challenge each other to a race, it is often a short sprint and almost never a distance run.
Let your children choose
In general, the best approach to children and distance running is to first let them choose whether or not they want to do it. If they choose to participate, then the next step is to monitor whether or not they start to feel any pain in their legs.
If they show any signs of joint pain in their ankles, knees, or hips, they should take a break from the activity until they are free of pain again. Contrary to the old saying “no pain, no gain,” joint pain in fact indicates that damage may be occurring.
Balancing risks and rewards
Given the risks involved to children’s physical health in distance running prior to puberty, as well as the increased chance of mental burnout and dropout from sport, parents might well ask themselves: Why ask kids to do this?
If parents want their children to be physically active and physically fit, there are hundreds of other types of activity that are better suited to the maturation and developmental needs of prepubertal children. Any running activity that involves sprinting for short time intervals, such as tag, will generally provide more fun and less risk of adverse health effects, as will any number of simple activities involving jumping, hopping, leaping, kicking, throwing, and catching.