Friday, March 04, 2011

Why would a kid be running a marathon anyway?

Should children run marathons? In the New York Times, health and fitness writer Gretchen Reynolds recently asked this question. Her piece indicates that the research, such as it is, is inconclusive.

On the one hand, a recent study notes that the number of young runners seeking treatment for injuries related to the sport is rising, Overall, the number of injuries was 34 percent higher in 2007 than in 1994, she reports.

On the other hand, injuries to kid marathon runners supposedly are rare. In one study, a University of Minnesota researcher identified 310 kids 17 and under who ran the Twin Cities Marathon from 1982 to 2007. Just four "visited the race’s medical tent, and none required interventions beyond a brief rest."

Reynolds asks: "In other words, it’s safe for 11-year-olds to run a marathon but not to participate in the running program in phys ed class? How are parents supposed to interpret what could be seen as contradictory findings?

I interpret the studies this way.

Study No 1: More kids likely are running now than 16 years ago. And many are likely training harder than kids were back in the 90s. They are in most sports so the big news would be if runners unlike other youth athletes have dialed back their training.

Study No 2: Interesting idea but I wonder what is being measured. Would you expect a 12-year-old full of energy and blessed with fresh legs, having trained properly, to break down in his/her first marathon? Or second or third? I wouldn't. So the fact that few showed up in the post-race medical tent seems like a sidebar at best. The kids who continued to run marathons into their late teens and twenties would be interesting subjects. Were they slowed by overuse injuries? Did they lose enthusiasm for running at a rate higher than non-prodigies?

On a long run the other day, I asked my friends who are marathoners to reflect on past races and to try to recall the youngest kids they had ever seen attempting 26.2 miles. Collectively, the dozen runners questioned had run 25 to 30 marathons. No one could recall a kid younger than, say, a junior or senior in high school. So maybe we're on the senior circuit. Or maybe, as we surmised, these young kids are finishing ahead - way ahead - of us.

Which raises another key question, especially around here: Is it safe for a middle-aged man with chronically tight hamstrings to run marathons?

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