If you have young children, running can be a nice solace or short break of alone time if you can have the support of someone to watch your child while you get your workout in. Or, you might enjoy pushing a jogging stroller as a way to get your miles in with your baby or toddler.
But what happens when your little one wants to run with you? Running can be a fantastic form of exercise for kids and a great way to use up boundless energy, but how far can kids run? How much running is safe for kids?
In this article, we will talk about safe distance running for kids, recommendations for healthy running with kids, and discuss guidelines for how far kids can run.
We will look at:
- Is Distance Running Safe For Kids?
- How Far Can Kids Run?
- How Far Can Kids Run? Recommended Running Distance Limits for Kids
- Tips For Healthy Running For Kids
Let’s jump in!
Is Distance Running Safe for Kids?
There are many mental and physical benefits of running for adults and kids alike. However, running is certainly an example of something where doing too much of a good thing can be counterproductive for your health, especially when it comes to distance running for kids.
Because kids are still growing and have yet to achieve skeletal maturation, their growth plates are still soft and have not yet fused.
According to research, repetitive stress—particularly with high-impact activities like running—can damage the growth plates, causing pain and swelling, and may even cause deformations in bone shape and stress fractures.
Moreover, children and adolescents hit various growth spurts throughout their maturation. These periods of rapid growth are coupled with changes in hormones.
Together, rapid growth and hormonal changes cause shifts in weight and body shape over a short period of time, which can affect the ability of the muscles, bones, and connective tissues to handle the loads placed on them during running.
This can happen particularly at the anatomical sites where tendons attach to bones, such as right under the knee at the patellar tendon and in the Achilles tendon at the heel.
For example, tweens and teens are prone to, Osgood-Schlatter’s disease, or osteochondrosis, which refers to a painful condition that occurs just below the kneecap where the quadriceps tendon (patellar tendon) attaches to the growth plate and tibial tuberosity on the tibia.
In this condition, repetitive stress and traction force caused by running or other high-impact activities cause microvascular tears and inflammation, leading to pain, swelling, and often even a visible bony prominence at the tibial tuberosity.
From a metabolic standpoint, it’s also important to ensure that kids are eating a nutritious diet with enough calories to support their running. An energy deficit is not recommended unless specifically guided by a doctor or medical professional. Otherwise, too much physical activity with insufficient caloric intake can potentially compromise growth.
How Far Can Kids Run?
Given the potential risks of long-distance running and repetitive high-impact activity on an immature musculoskeletal system, health and fitness experts recommend limiting running distances for children.
There are three primary factors to consider when determining how far your child can safely run: their age, their health status, and their interest level.
Your Child’s Age
The age of your child plays a major role in how far they can safely run. A 12-year-old and a 4-year-old are at very different stages in their growth and maturation, so they can handle different amounts of running.
The age of your child usually refers to one of the two things—their chronological age or their biological age. Chronological age refers to their age in years and months based on when your child was born.
Biological age refers to how well developed they are relative to other children and adults as expected during the maturation process.
Unlike adults, because children are still physically maturing, and this maturation occurs at different rates, two children of the same chronological age can look very different physically in terms of their stage of maturation.
For example, imagine two different 10-year-old children. One child is a “late bloomer,” so he or she has yet to hit another big growth spurt and is much smaller and shorter than most age-matched peers. This child would be at the bottom of the height and weight curves for his or her age.
The other 10-year-old child might be on the faster side of things, perhaps hitting puberty early and already midway through a large growth spurt. This child may appear more like a 12-year-old in terms of size and stature.
Most distance running recommendations are solely based on your child’s chronological age, but it’s worth using your discretion and speaking with your child’s pediatrician if his or her biological age differs significantly from their chronological age.
Children who mature faster may be able to handle running longer distances than their age would otherwise recommend, whereas children who are maturing more slowly should be treated more conservatively in terms of distances since they still have more growth ahead of them.
Your Child’s Health Status
Your child’s health and fitness level should be considered when deciding how far he or she can run. Just as adults need to build up their cardiovascular stamina and muscular strength and endurance, if your child has been mostly sedentary, running distances should be very short initially.
A walk/run approach is a great way to build fitness.
If your child has other health conditions, work with their pediatrician to discuss running before beginning a training program.
Your Child’s Interest Level
Although sometimes overlooked, one of the most important factors to consider when your child starts running is their interest in running and motivation level. Above all, running should be fun for kids and the goal needs to be to enjoy it.
Let your child set the tone in terms of how formal they want their training to be (loose play with bouts of running or designated “runs” with little stopping).
Discuss running with your child and try to get a sense of his or her goals and how he or she would like to run. Does your child want to race? Does your child want to join you at the beginning or end of your runs? Do they want to join a running club for kids?
How Far Can Kids Run? Recommended Running Distance Limits for Kids
There are no absolute limits or guidelines to answer the question: how far can kids run? However, various organizations share recommendations and guidelines for how much and how long kids can run based on their age.
For example, the Road Runners Club of America, one of the largest and most respected organizations in the industry, has the RRCA FUNdamentals of Youth Running for race distance limits for kids. These distance limits are based on the age brackets as follows:
- Children 5 and under: Running races should be limited to “dash” events, ranging from a few yards to 400 meters.
- Children 6-11: Kids in this age group can enjoy fun runs from 1/2-1 mile.
- Children 12-14: Children in this age bracket can run 5ks.
- Children 18 and up: Marathons can be considered.
If we ask the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Sports Medicine Department how far can kids run, they have slightly more aggressive allowances. Their maximum running distances for kids of different ages are as follows:
- Children under the age of 9: Can safely run 1.5 miles (though they don’t list a minimum age, this should be limited to kids 7-8 years old).
- Children aged 9-11 years old: Listed to be 3.2 miles, so 5k would be appropriate.
They also note that children up to age 14 should only run a maximum of three times per week.
New York Road Runners (NYRR) does permit children as young as 8 years old to compete in 5k events, so these policies are more aggressive than what RCAA recommends.
The International Committee Consensus Work Group’s Youth Running Consensus Statement for minimizing the risk of injury and illness in youth runners recommends that children should be 12 and up when they compete in 5k events.
The International Association of Athletics Federations also has guidelines on the maximum distance children should run in any one session. They say that the total weekly training mileage should be no more than twice the maximum recommended single-session distances.
The maximum distances are as follows:
- Under age 9: No more than 3K
- Ages 9-11: No more than 5K
- Ages 12-14: No more than 10K
- Ages 15-16: No more than a half-marathon (21.1K)
- Age 17: No more than 30K
- Age 18: No more than a marathon (42.2K)
It can be seen that there’s no universal consensus but hopefully, the maximum running distance guidelines for kids from these variations organizations provide a ballpark idea for you and your child.
Tips for Healthy Running for Kids
Just as there are certain elements that can make running more approachable for adults when they start running, so too are there ways to make running more successful for kids.
Here are a few tips for getting your child started with what will hopefully become a lifetime of running:
#1: Keep It Fun
The emphasis should always be on fun. Some children do thrive with structured runs and workouts but other children prefer unstructured running and playing sessions. For example, instead of running for five minutes straight without stopping, you can run for however long it takes to sing a certain song or reach a certain landmark.
Incorporating games and creativity can keep running from feeling boring.
#2: Get the Right Gear
Not only will it be fun for your little one to get some bright new running shoes just like mom or dad’s, but having proper footwear and the right gear and clothing will help prevent injuries and ensure your child’s feet are supported well.
#3: Let Them Set the Pace
Let your child set the pace and stop as much as he or she wants. It’s their workout, and kids tend to listen to their bodies well.
#4: Keep Training Varied
To reduce boredom and the risk of overuse injuries, encourage your child to vary their workouts. Run on different surfaces, especially softer ones like grass, trails, cinder, and tracks, and vary the paces and routes he or she runs.
#5: Use the Buddy System
Depending on your child’s age; ensure you or another responsible adult is always running with the child or in an area where you can see your child running the whole time.
If your child is on a running team, make sure there is adequate supervision and safety measures in place for their age.
#6: Start Good Habits Early
Get your child off on the right foot when it comes to doing all the little things that support training.
Emphasize the importance of getting enough sleep at night and keeping a consistent bedtime, eating nutritious foods and limiting processed foods, drinking enough water or milk throughout the day, stretching after a run is over, and listening to their body and resting if something is hurting.
#7: Set Reasonable Goals
If your child is interested in racing and competing; work with them to set reasonable goals. Emphasize the importance of fun, good sportsmanship, and progress over perfection. Establish the attitude that in every race; someone has to come in last and that’s just as great of an accomplishment as first.
Now that we’ve helped guide the answer to the question, how far can kids run, you can get a better idea of where your child is in the process.
For a Couch to 5k walk/run plan, check out our 5k training resources!