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Sports Injury

Running & Racing for Kids - By Richard Beauchamp

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Runner parents often ask me: "When can my son or daughter run in a road race?" The most important factor to consider is the age and maturity of the child. It's a mistake to think of kids as adult runners, only smaller. Because they are still growing, children have a unique anatomical and psychological make-up, and may be more susceptible to athletic injuries or mental burnout.

Potential Injury Risks

Kids' bones develop and lengthen thanks to growth centres comprised mainly of cartilage, which is weaker than bone. This makes them more susceptible to shearing forces and fractures, as well as overuse and repetitive injuries. Children can also sustain soft tissue injuries to the ligaments and tendons that hold their joints together.

From a cardiovascular point of view, children have a sensitive circulation system and are more vulnerable to hydration problems. Children's bodies have less control of their water loss through sweating and may suffer more sudden onset of symptoms, particularly in adverse weather (both hot and cold).

Training Considerations

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has identified several time periods that may be associated with a higher risk of injuries in young runners. They are: the first four to six months of the onset of a running program; a return to running following an injury; and when running quantity (distance) or quality (speed and/or terrain) is increased.

The AAP also established some guidelines for those involved with training and coaching children in sports:

  • Encourage young athletes to have at least one to two days off per week from competitive athletics, sport-specific training and competitive practice. This allows them to recover physically and psychologically. Psychological factors play a bigger role in children's involvement in sports than previously thought.
  • Introduction to sports (including running) too early or too aggressively has been associated with a "burnout" phenomenon that may discourage the individual from pursuing physical activities later in life.
  • If the athlete complains of non-specific muscle or joint problems, fatigue, or poor academic performance, take these signals seriously.
  • Advise athletes that their weekly training time, number of repetitions, or total distance should not increase by more than 10% each week.
  • Encourage the athlete to take at least two to three months off from a specific sport during the year.
  • Emphasize that the focus of sports participation should be on fun, skill acquisition, safety, sportsmanship and socializing.

Kids and Racing

Most large race weekends across Canada host a 1K kids' run or similar family-friendly event. The Scotiabank Blue Nose Marathon Weekend in Halifax attracts over 4000 runners ages 15 and under, who run 2K or 4K in the Doctors Nova Scotia Youth Run. But what about longer events? Is it appropriate and safe to have kids running the same distances as adults?

At the BMO Vancouver Marathon, minors under 19 years of age are allowed to participate in longer races only if a waiver is signed by the child's parent/guardian. Participants must be over 18 years old to run in the full marathon and over 16 to run in the half marathon. To quote their website: "This policy follows international standards, has been informed by our external medical advisers, and is in place for the safety of participants."

To date, there are no scientifically proven recommendations relating to distance or duration for young runners. In general, parents of children who wish to participate should encourage the sport but with some caution and common sense. Hopefully in the future, properly researched and conducted training programs will be established to allow and encourage youth participation in organized races. These programs should encompass fluid and electrolyte balance, proper graduated increase in mileage, injury prevention, flexibility, health, nutrition and (most importantly) enjoyment.

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