Emer McKee of Willowfield Harriers

Running for children – the fastest and furthest

runABC coach Alan Newman researches the contentious issue of distance running for young athletes

Recent stories written by runABC South's resident coach Alan Newman have featured outstanding running exploits over 5K by two prodigiously talented young athletes: Emer McKee from Belfast and Jake Meyburgh from Weybridge.

Emer ran 16:40 in the ChampionChip Ireland 5K on 25 April for the world's fastest ever 5K by a 12-year-old and Jake recorded the fastest ever UK parkrun by a 12-year-old (15:57) at Dulwich on 16 October.

This got Alan wondering how far and how fast youngsters can and perhaps more importantly should be allowed to run. The statistician Dominic Eisold maintains international age records of the world's best performances by those aged 5-19 years, with 55 countries represented.

Those lists show the current unofficial world bests for 5000m by 12-year-olds are 15:36.8 by Lucas Bourgoyne on 30 March 2014 and 16:44.80 by Grace Ping on 17 June 2016. Note that Grace's time is 4.8 seconds slower than Emer ran on the roads but the international age records only cover track and field events, plus the marathon.

Perhaps the more worrying aspect is the inclusion of world bests for marathon running by children aged as young as 5 years. Bucky Cox apparently ran 5:52:09 at that age in 1978 and a year later ran 4:07:27. Meanwhile, Jennifer Amyx has held the world-leading performances for girls aged 5, 6, and 7 at 4:56:36, 4:00:36, and 3:51:54 respectively since 1975!

As for covering vast distances at an early age we again turn to the USA (all the above 'record holders' are American). The JFK 50 is America’s oldest ultramarathon, run on the Appalachian Trail in Maryland since 1963. The inaugural winners were three 16-year-old High School athletes: James Ebberts, Steve Costion, and Rick Miller (along with their coach, Buzz Sawyer).

Such exploits are unlikely ever to be seen in the UK. The UKA Rules for Competition require athletes to be aged 18 to run a marathon; 17 for a half marathon and 15 for 10K. Lower down the age groups an 11-year-old may race up to 5K on the road, or in a multi-terrain event.

However, the same rules confusingly require young athletes to be over 13 to race 5K in cross country events and at least 15 to race 5000m on the track. And UKA Rules do not cater for athletes under the age of 11 years. Are we being too soft on our young athletes or is restricting their racing distances the right way to protect their developing joints from undue stresses? 

Mark De Ste Croix, professor of paediatric sport and exercise at the University of Gloucestershire, said in 2015: "Most research shows that the optimal type of physical activity at primary school age is high intensity, sporadic exercise – the kind children do in the playground. They need to develop basic motor skills and fitness and while some running is necessary, the pay-off is that too much, too young can be detrimental. We should never take an adult approach to training and apply it to a child". 

Image of Emer McKee courtesy Willowfield Temperance Harriers on Facebook

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