How Much Running, Training and Conditioning Is Right For Kids

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University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children'sExperts in Children's Health
Male soccer player suffering from knee injury on field

Running a marathon can be grueling, to say the least. The recent story about a 6-year-old boy who participated in a Cincinnati marathon raised some eyebrows and some questions about how much is too much for such a young child.

University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children’s pediatric sports medicine specialist Amanda Weiss Kelly, MD says there is no absolute answer about how much mileage is safe, even for a 6 year old. In this case, the child was motivated to join his parents and siblings in the marathon – and he walked most of it with his parents, crossing the finish line at 8 hours, 35 minutes.

“It’s probably not advisable for most kids, but some motivated kids really want to do it, and if properly supervised, it may be fine,” she says. “There are families who take their children of similar age and walk them in national parks or the Grand Canyon for a day. Those hikes can be significantly more strenuous.”

How to Avoid Overuse Injuries in Kids

There is the potential for injury to a young person’s muscles, joints and tendons from repetitive stress in nearly any type of athletic activity. Many youth sports injuries, particularly overuse injuries, happen not on the field of play, but because of poor training and conditioning. A key to avoiding injuries is good training – start out slowly and gradually increase the workload, Dr. Kelly says.

Running and other forms of training do a lot of good for children and adolescents, and often instill a lifelong love of physical fitness. But Dr. Kelly sees problems when children and teens do too much, too soon – particularly when starting out in a sports program.

“When kids are off season and haven’t done much, and suddenly start practicing two hours a day, five days a week, we see a lot of overuse injuries such as stress fractures and tendonitis,” Dr. Kelly says.

“They’ve gone from zero to 60 in one day. The overuse injuries generally come on anywhere from four to eight weeks later, and they don’t recognize that a training error led to it. Initially, it hurts a little bit and then pain increases to the point where they can no longer play.”

How To Train Right

When it comes to weight training, running and swimming, the rule of thumb is to increase what you’re doing by 10 percent per week, Dr. Kelly says. It’s easy to measure when the training involves weights, times and distances; it’s a bit more challenging to gauge in sports such as soccer.

“It can be tricky because early in the season, coaches hammer on conditioning,” she says. “The beginning of the season can be a real problem because they’re getting stress fractures six weeks into the season and they can be out for a month or more of games, depending on what the injury is.”

Weight training is a core part of sports conditioning. It helps improve endurance and performance. It can help build bone density in kids. And it helps protect against sports-related injuries.

Weight-Training Tips for Kids

Weight-training is great for kids at any age, but should be supervised so young athletes use the proper amount of weight and good technique.

Dr. Kelly emphasizes that weight training does not mean power lifting. Too many student athletes engage in “one-repetition maximums” – lifting the heaviest weight possible in one repetition. “Unfortunately, we see a lot of injuries related to one-repetition maximums. We can see disc herniation. Growth plate injuries can also happen.”

Dr. Kelly offers the following tips for safe weight-training:

  • Kids should start out training with no weights, just body weight to learn proper technique.
  • As training progresses, light resistance with higher repetitions builds muscle and reduces risk of injury.
  • Weight machines should be the proper size for kids.
  • Qualified instruction is critical. That can be a challenge in crowded school weight rooms, Dr. Kelly says. Certified strength and conditioning coaches are preferred. But team coaches often are capable weight-training instructors. Senior athletes with experience also can help younger teammates with technique.
  • The risk of injury from weight training is low if you do it right. While lifting too much weight can lead to growth plate injuries to the wrist, most growth plate injuries are acute injuries sustained in competition, not from training.

Dr. Kelly says children and teens also should have lighter weeks of training interspersed throughout the season to rest their bodies.

Finally, she offers a reminder that the goal of youth sports should be to help kids enjoy physical activity into adulthood, not to produce elite athletes. “The goal of sports should not be to get a college scholarship,” she says. “It should be about fun, fitness, learning social skills and learning to be part of a team.”

Related Links

The pediatric sports medicine experts at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s is dedicated to treating athletes of any age – from toddlers through adolescence and teenagers or young adults. Learn more.

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