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Should children run any distances?

Updated 2:32 pm, Monday, May 12, 2014
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A mother who reads this column recently asked me whether 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 years old.

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 but have shown to tolerate cold poorly. Therefore, care should be taken when running in extreme weather conditions for young runners.

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.

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

Dr. Robert F. Weiss, a Sport Podiatrist, was a member of the Medical Advisory Committee of the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Marathon Trials. Weiss, a native of Fairfield, has a practice in Darien.

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