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The Running Doctor: Should children run?

Published 1:50 pm, Wednesday, November 21, 2012
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We are constantly being asked if children should run.

There has been a growing concern that running is dangerous for children. People are worried about possible injuries including joint damage which could cause permanent injury to the epiphyseal or "growth" plates, chondromalacia patellae, tendinitis in the knee, pain of the heel, as well as psychological problems resulting from the "pressure to perform."

Specialists in sports medicine are questioning just how much running is enough, and more importantly, how much is too much. Until recently, there have been too few children running distances to do a careful study of the potential dangers to their joints, bones, and tissues. However, it has been found that the maximal oxygen uptake (the best known test for endurance) peaks for U.S. males at the age of 12.

In the absence of long-term studies on children's running, many debates have taken place. My thinking has always been that running is a sport that everyone can enjoy, if done at the individual's own level of fitness and ability. There are, of course, overuse problems in children just as there are in adults. It is also important to remember that a child's thermo-regulatory system is not as well-formed or effective as an adult's. Yet, they seem to have a greater psychological tolerance for heat and have shown to tolerate cold poorly. Therefore, care should be taken when running in extreme weather conditions.

The parent of a young runner should do what he or she can to keep running fun for the child. Try not to push. Let running be something the child chooses to do. Keep it in moderation, and allow the child a way out if he or she so chooses. The danger comes when the pressure to run is placed on him or her by enthusiastic parents, coaches or peers. That is when the child will run even though it hurts.

Aerobic exercise is often taken as one measure of an individual's endurance level. However, there is no conclusive evidence that shows that a child who begins training early in life can significantly improve on the aerobic capacity he or she was born with.

My overall impression is that running, if done in moderation, can be good for a child both physically as well as psychologically. Running can improve one's endurance, stamina and strength as well as improve one's self-esteem.