Exercise is generally good for young people, and in Britain today young people are increasingly doing too little of it. That is one reason why levels of obesity are rising among young people, storing up significant health problems for themselves, and for society, in the future. As well as improved health, young people who exercise are more likely to do well at school and have more self-confidence and a better body image. Girls who run are less likely to suffer from negative images of their bodies; and are less likely to become pregnant as teenagers.[i]
Running is an excellent sport for young people, requiring little investment or special skills. It is infinitely flexible, allowing young runners to do as little or as much as they want.
Do you need to start young?
Some sports – such as tennis and swimming – seem to need training from a young age in order to reach world class status. This is not the case with endurance sports such as running. There is no evidence to suggest that there are physiological benefits to training as children which cannot be obtained by training after the age of 18. Indeed, the opposite is true: children who do well at school often don’t go on to perform competitively as adults. One explanation for this is that runners appear to have a finite period of time during which they can compete. If young people compete intensely, they may “use up” their competitive years by the time they are 20, and so lose the opportunity to compete when they are at their physical and mental peak. It may also be that young people who are pushed into running by a parent or teacher give up the sport as soon as they are able to assert control of their lives.
How to avoid doing too much exercise
Young people are usually good judges of how much running they should be doing. Generally, for people under 18, the best advice is to do what you enjoy, and not to train too intensely.
Parents who are themselves keen runners, or who have ambitions for their children, should be careful not to push them too far and too fast. Create the opportunities for your child, but don’t put too much pressure on them.
As a rule of thumb, children should not train for middle distance races (e.g. 800m and 1500m) until they are about 13 or 14; and longer races (e.g. 10km) should be put on hold until the young person is 16.
10 Guidelines for parents of children in sports
1. Make sure your children know that – win or lose – you love them and are not disappointed with their performance.
2. Be realistic about your child’s physical ability.
3. Help your child set realistic goals.
4. Emphasise improved performance, not winning. Positively reinforce improved skills.
5. Don’t relive your own athletic past through your child.
6. Provide a safe environment for training and competition.
7. Control your own emotions at games and events. Don’t yell at other players, coaches, or officials.
8. Be a cheerleader for your child and the other children on the team.
9. Respect your child’s coaches. Communicate openly with them. If you disagree with their approach, discuss it with them.
10. Be a positive role model. Enjoy sports yourself. Set your own goals. Live a healthy life style.
The Physician and Sportsmedicine (1988).
Running injuries occur in young runners as they do for all runners, especially when training levels are increased too fast. Like all runners, young runners should ensure that they don’t increase their mileage too rapidly. This can be a particular problem for runners who train mainly at school or at college, if they resume training after a long summer holiday during which they have not run much.
The requirements of young runners
For young people who run occasionally, there is no need to buy specialist running shoes. But if they run more than 10 miles a week, then they should buy appropriate running shoes from a specialist running store.
There are no specific dietary considerations for children who run: they basically need the same diet as any other child. While they should certainly not be eating a diet of high-fat, highly processed food, they should also not be prevented from eating foods which are appropriate to growing bodies, including more calories and lots of protein and calcium. Because protein and calcium often come from foods that are relatively high in fat, an appropriate diet for a young person may well have more calories and more fats than a health‑conscious adult would eat.
Children are at greater risk of overheating than adults, because their ratio of body mass to surface area is lower, they sweat less and they produce more heat. So it is important to make sure that young runners drink enough to keep their body temperatures low. Chapter 6 contains more information about dehydration.
[i] ‘Adolescent Girls: Factors Influencing Low and High Body Image, ‘ Melpomene, vol. 14(2), pp. 14-22, 1995)