Road Racing and Youth Running: Cross Country Coaches’ Perspectives

Authors: Peter S. Finley, Jeffrey J. Fountain, Douglas P. Finley

Corresponding Author:
Peter S. Finley
Carl DeSantis Building
3301 College Avenue
Fort Lauderdale, FL, 33314-7796
pfinley@nova.edu
954-262-8115

Peter Finley, Ph.D., and Jeffrey Fountain, Ph.D., are Associate Professors of Sport and Recreation Management at the H. Wayne Huizenga College of Business and Entrepreneurship at Nova Southeastern University.

Douglas Finley, M.S., has served as an agency administrator in park, recreation and resource management for both municipal and state government; as a member of the adjunct faculty at Michigan State University; and as a leader in creating, funding, and coaching fitness programs for youth. Finley is founder and editor of the Center for Children’s Running website and a published author on youth running, including works for the 20,000 U.S. schools Mileage Club initiative and for Running Times/Runner’s World magazine.

Road Racing and Youth Running: Cross Country Coaches’ Perspectives

ABSTRACT
This study focused on obtaining the thoughts and opinions of high school cross country coaches regarding the role road racing should play in youth running. The participants for this study consisted of 132 successful high school cross country coaches from across the United States responding to an original Youth Running and Road Racing survey. The results of the survey found that there was a high level of concern by a majority of the coaches that youth runners face risk of both injuries and burnout because of the distances they run at young ages along with the current environment that focuses too much on competition and not enough on fun and enjoyment of running. Therefore, coaches need to be brought into the conversation with race organizers, the media that covers running, and parents to help modify youth road races so that they can ensure the health and safety of future runners.  

Key Words: youth running, cross country coaches, road racing, youth sports

INTRODUCTION
An estimated 12 million children between the ages of 6 and 17 run every year in America, with the number increasing as school administrators extol the many positive attributes of running including fitness, discipline, dedication, and esteem building, among others (9). As more children run, more are seeking organized events, be it recreational in nature, such as, children’s fun runs or more competitive in nature in the form of local road races, ranging from five kilometer (5K) all the way to full marathons (26.2 miles). Currently race organizers essentially sanction youth participation in races, including marathons, by allowing children to compete and encourage competitive behavior by keeping records and offering awards that are based on age-groups (11). This raises many questions for parents, coaches, and race organizers, such as, when should children begin to run in competitive races? What length races are appropriate for different age groups? As well as, what age groups should competitive race organizers offer, knowing that the creation of an age group is tacit approval for competitive racing by children at that age?

Expert opinions from the medical community have long been split on the role of endurance athletics in the lives of children. In 1990 the Committee on Sports Medicine published a statement in Pediatrics (the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics) on the “Risks in Distance Running for Children” that was approved by the Council on Child and Adolescent Health. The statement highlighted numerous risks youth distance runners faced including “musculoskeletal, endocrine, hematologic, thermoregulatory, and psychosocial damage,” (1). The purpose of the statement was to provide physicians with the knowledge of the possible risks youth distance runners face, such as overuse injuries, delayed menarche in female distance runners, iron depletion, heat-related disorders, setting unrealistic goals, and being submitted to inappropriate pressure from adults. Physicians could then provide guidance and advice to children, parents, and coaches interested in introducing children to running activities, clubs, and teams. However, the Committee on Sports Medicine did not provide specific guidelines nor did it identify the distance of the competition as the causing the greatest risk. Rather, the total mileage during training and heat-related disorders resulting from running for long durations presented the greatest risk facing youth distance runners. 

A significant amount of debate relative to youth running has focused on the marathon, including claims regarding how young is too young for marathon running. In a position paper unanimously approved by the International Marathon Medical Directors Association (IMMDA) at its 2001 General Assembly, Rice and Waniewski (10) took the position that marathon running should be limited to participants aged 18 years and older. Their analysis relied heavily on published statements from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Rice and Waniewski maintain that while there are significant benefits to aerobic activity and that fitness as a child contributes to health as an adult, fitness can be achieved without approaching the rigor of training required for marathon running. The burden of training can lead to emotional burnout and feelings of failure and frustration as demands exceed the internal resources of the participant (10). While there are differing opinions regarding youth and marathon running, the IMMDA’s members believe that their marathons “are not the place to study whether children and adolescents running marathons is physiologically and psychologically damaging to young people or not,” (11).

Among the chief physical concerns regarding children and distance running is the fact that children do not adapt to heat stress as well as adults, as children gain more radiant heat on hot days and produce more metabolic heat per unit of body mass, while having lower sweating capacity, leaving them subject to greater increases in core temperatures during endurance activities as compared to adults (2). Further, children training over long distances are required to take more strides than adults, due to shorter stride length, and thus have a greater number of foot-to-ground impacts leading to increased risk of stress fractures and other overuse injuries (4). This is exacerbated by immature articular cartilage which is more susceptible to shear force, predisposing children to injury (6). Some orthopedic surgeons express concern regarding children training seriously prior to skeletal maturity, which leaves them predisposed to degenerative diseases of the joints and cartilage as adults (12).

However, one study conducted by Drs. William O. Roberts (Medical Director for the Twin Cities Marathon) and William G. Nicholson, determined there was low incidence of injury among youth participants in a marathon, in terms of visits to the medical tent immediately following the event. A limitation of the study, however, is that there was no record of the number of youth participants who started but failed to complete the marathon course and the authors noted that long-term effects, either good or bad, cannot be assessed from the study (8).
An expert on sports medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital, Dr. Mininder S. Kocher, said there is not sufficient research to make across-the-board judgments and that, while there are clear medical risks including stress on growth plates and delayed onset of puberty among females, there are kids who compete in endurance sports without problems. Similarly, Dr. W. Douglas B. Hiller, an orthopedic surgeon who has been the chief medical officer for the triathlon at the Olympics, recommends that “kids should stick to kids distances and then race at adult distances when they are adults,” but he also notes there are exceptions (3).

In recent years there have been numerous news stories that have focused on achievement in youth running, such as children winning races against adults and setting age-group records. For example, in 2012 the New York Times wrote an article on the Welsch sisters, ages 12 and 10, competing in a 13-mile national championship trail run after the oldest, Kaytlynn, had made history by winning the female division of the 21K Xterra Cameron Park Trail Run the previous month (3; 13). In 2013 5-year-old Anthony Russo made the news by becoming the “youngest sub 2:30 half marathoner in U.S. History” (7). A 2015 article highlighted the growing trend of world records being broken by youth runners. Jack Butler, a ten-year-old runner, was featured in the article for setting a new half marathon world record for ten-year-old boys and seven-year-old Megan Crum set a new 5K world record for her age in the same month (5). The article also noted that the younger Welsch sister, Heather, at age 11, had set a half marathon world record for her age. There appears to be a trend of younger and younger American runners pursuing and breaking world records because between 2013 and 2015 American boys set nine 5K world records in the single-age categories of 4 to 12 (5). Similar to most articles highlighting high-achieving youth runners, the issue of health was brought up but was quickly dismissed by the parents (3; 5; 7).

To date, one group that has not been given adequate voice in the discussion about the role of road racing for young runners is high school cross country coaches. As the group most trusted to usher runners through to ranks to increasingly higher levels of competition, researchers should focus more attention on high school coaches’ attitudes regarding the role racing should have in the development of young runners.  

This study specifically explored the attitudes of successful high school cross country coaches’ perceptions of competitive road race participation by young runners. The objectives were to determine the coaches’ attitudes regarding: (1) appropriate race length for varying age groups; (2) appropriate ages to transition from “fun running” to competitive races that focused on pursuing goals and awards and has structured training; (3) their concern about injury and burnout; (4) appropriate age divisions to offer for children;  and (5) this study presented coaches with an opportunity to provide their own thoughts on children participating in road races and to offer advice.

METHODS
The target population for this study was successful high school cross country coaches. Success was defined by having teams finish in the top ten in their states’ championship events (cross country state finals) at least four times in a five-year span. The researchers used state finals results from all 50 states to determine coaches of both boys’ and girls’ teams who were consistently competitive at the state meet level. Schools in all classifications (small and large enrollments) in each state were included. Five hundred coaches, representing all 50 states, were identified and invited to participate. No existing survey was found in the literature to address the exploratory nature of the study, so an instrument was created by the research team to address the specific research questions. An email notification was sent one week prior to the survey, which was also delivered via email. Responses were made online via a hyperlink in the email.

RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
The survey was completed by 132 high school cross country coaches (26.4% response rate) and all 132 surveys were deemed usable. The respondents were predominately male (82.6%) and a majority coached both the girls’ and boys’ teams (63.6%), as noted in Table 1.

Table 1 – Gender of the Athletes Coached

 

 

Percentage

I coach both Girls and Boys

63.6%

I coach Girls Only

21.2%

I coach Boys Only

15.1%

Total

100.00%

To determine what the coaches thought were appropriate race lengths for various ages, the survey divided children into two groups, a lower-elementary group (kindergarten to the second grade) and an upper-elementary group (third to fifth grade) and offered a list of common race lengths ( ½ mile or shorter, 1 mile, 2 miles, 3.1 miles (5K), and 6.2 miles (10K)). The coaches were then asked to select the longest race they believed appropriate for each group.

Table 2 shows the results of the coaches’ preferred longest race length for the lower-elementary group. The preferred longest distance would be one mile (42.7%), followed by half a mile or shorter (34.4%).  As Table 3 illustrates, coaches selected slightly longer races as appropriate for the upper-elementary group. The 5K was selected most frequently (36.9%), however, the one mile and two miles were each selected by 29.2% of the coaches. Nearly 60% believed that some distance of two miles or shorter would be an appropriate maximum race distance for upper-elementary children.

Table 2 – Longest Road Race for Lower Elementary (K-2)

 

 

Percentage

Half Mile or Shorter

34.4%

One Mile

42.7%

Two Miles

14.5%

5K (3.1 Miles)

8.4%

10K (6.2 Miles)

0.0%

Total

100.00%

Table 3 – Longest Road Race for Upper Elementary (3-5)

 

 

Percentage

Half Mile or Shorter

1.5%

One Mile

29.2%

Two Miles

29.2%

5K (3.1 Miles)

36.9%

10K (6.2 Miles)

3.1%

Total

100.00%

Coaches were also asked about how concerned they were regarding the possibility of injury and the possibility of burnout from the sport when they see elementary-aged children running road races at the 5K and longer distances. As Tables 4 and 5 illustrate, almost 70% of the coaches in the survey were somewhat or very concerned that elementary-aged children face the possibility of injury when running in a 5K or longer road race. That concern increased to almost 85% (somewhat or very concerned) when looking at the issue of burn out from the sport.

Table 4 – Injury Concern for Elementary Children in 5K or Longer Road Races

 

 

Percentage

Very Concerned

19.9%

Somewhat Concerned

50.4%

Not Concerned

29.8%

Total

100.00%

Table 5 – Burn Out Concern for Elementary Children in 5K or Longer Road Races

 

 

Percentage

Very Concerned

51.9%

Somewhat Concerned

32.8%

Not Concerned

15.3%

Total

100.00%

To determine the coaches’ attitudes regarding the youngest appropriate age to enter a 5K race for varied purposes, the coaches were presented with three scenarios. The first scenario had a child entering a 5K race for recreational purposes, defined as “having fun, walking if necessary, getting a t-shirt, and earning a finisher’s medal.” The second scenario had a child entering a 5K race for competitive purposes, defined as “the goal of setting a personal best, competing for an age-group placing, appearing in published race results, and winning awards.” The third scenario had a child entering a 5K race for competitive purposes, with training defined as “scheduled workouts as opposed to occasional runs, formal coaching, and setting performance goals.”

Table 6 shows the breakdown of appropriate ages selected by the coaches for each of the three scenarios. Scenario one (recreational purposes) had a wide range of responses, from age two to fourteen years old; the most popular selections included eight (19.1%) and ten years old (22.1%).  The second scenario (competitive purposes) responses also ranged widely, from three to 15 years of age, with the most frequent choices being age 10 (22.7%) and 12-years-old (23.5%). The third scenario (competitive purposes with training) had a more narrow range, from age seven to 15 years, and coaches converged around the middle school ages as appropriate to begin formal training, with 35.9% selecting age 12.

Table 6 – Appropriate age for Scenario’s 1, 2, & 3

 

 

Scenario 1

 

Scenario 2

 

Scenario 3

 

Count

Percentage

 

Count

Percentage

 

Count

Percentage

2 Years Old

1

.8%

 

 

3 Years Old

 

1

.8%

 

4 Years Old

6

4.6%

 

 

5 Years Old

12

9.2%

 

 

6 Years Old

9

6.9%

 

 

7 Years Old

14

10.7%

 

4

3.0%

 

3

2.3%

8 Years Old

25

19.1%

 

14

10.6%

 

4

3.1%

9 Years Old

6

4.6%

 

9

6.8%

 

3

2.3%

10 Years Old

29

22.1%

 

30

22.7%

 

16

12.2%

11 Years Old

5

3.8%

 

7

5.3%

 

9

6.9%

12 Years Old

17

13.0%

 

31

23.5%

 

47

35.9%

13 Years Old

6

4.6%

 

23

17.4%

 

24

18.3%

14 Years Old

1

.8%

 

12

9.1%

 

22

16.8%

15 Years Old

 

 

3

2.3%

Mean Age

9 Years

 

11 Years

 

12 Years

Coaches were then asked to identify the youngest age at which they believe participants should be competing in 5K road races for the purposes of age group placing and awards. Table 7 illustrates the results with a majority of coaches selecting ages that are associated with the middle school years; 75.3% of coaches selected either age 12, 13 or 14. Age 12 was selected by 38.8% of coaches, 13.2% selected age 13, and 23.3% selected age 14.

Table 7 – Youngest Ages for Competitive Racing in 5K Distances

 

 

Percentage

Age 9

3.9%

Age 10

14.0%

Age 11

7.0%

Age 12

38.8%

Age 13

13.2%

Age 14

23.3%

Total

100.00%

Participants were asked to share their thoughts and/or advice to parents regarding elementary-aged children participating in road races. Of the 132 coaches who responded, 118 coaches provided responses to this open-ended section. Responses were categorized for common words or themes. The word or theme “fun” was identified in 80 of the 118 responses to the open-ended section, followed by “moderation” (28), “patience” (22), “burnout” (13), “well-rounded” (nine), and “family time” (nine). The following quotes are representative of these themes:

  • “Kids today need to play more and have fun with sports so that they develop a healthy interest in movement experiences that will then lead them to positive competitive experiences in their high school and college years. That experience should then help them participate in healthy lifetime sports opportunities as adults.”
  • “Keep expectations in perspective and run as a family for fun. Never stress performance or preparation with serious or formalized workouts.”
  • “Do not push the competitive part of races; let the children run them for fun. Start small and resist the urge to expect faster and faster times. Never force the child to race.”
  • “Make running fun and not the only form of physical activities that kids can do to be well rounded. Sole participation in any one sport is a recipe for injury and burnout.”
  • “Be patient. There is plenty of time in high school for long races. This is a lifelong sport. Let them finish growing before beginning longer races and training.”
  • “Run together as a family. Let the kids dictate the pace; fast, slow, walk, it is their choice. Associate running with fun, like a trip to the park or a jog to the local ice cream shop.”
  • “Parents should run with their children for fun and look for one or two family-oriented events, not ‘races’ for young children.”
  • “If you want them to run, have destination runs; to a friend’s house, to the library, to the store. Each run should be an adventure or a mode of transport, not a timed or recorded event.”

CONCLUSIONS
The results show that a large percentage of the successful high school cross country coaches that responded to the survey share the same common concerns as the medical community in regard to the distances and the type of environment in which children should be running, especially younger children. They generally favored limits of two miles or less and a focus on fun as a key factor. The high level of concern by these coaches for both injuries (70%) and burnout (85%) should be a cautionary flag for race organizers, the media, and parents who want their children to continue and enjoy competitive running into the future. The conversation must focus first on the race organizers as they are the gate keepers with respect to who is allowed to compete in their races as well as the orchestrators of the awards categories that encourage young runners, sometimes pushed by parents, to enter events for competitive purposes.

Further research is needed to drill down to core beliefs of the race organizers to determine if they lack the knowledge of the medical concerns, is there a lack of input from the coaching community, is it merely a financial imperative that the additional revenue from these younger runners is needed to sustain the race operation, and/or is it more egocentric and that the popularity of the race along with the chance at additional media coverage is the driving force for why race organizers continue to allow young children to run long races? Thus the next light needs to shine on the media coverage of these young runners that manage to excel against competition that includes adults. As many of these stories are produced by running-based publications, one has to ask if they are factoring in the long-term issues that could arise from these children running long distances. While most articles that hype these high-achieving youth runners will add a small component questioning if it is healthy for the child, these questions are typically posed to the parent and not to a medical expert or a coach that has experience with other youth runners.

This leads us to the final group that needs further examination and that is the parents of these youth running participants. As with most youth sports, some parents take things to the extreme and their personal perceptions and biases sometimes make it harder for them to make decisions that benefit their child in the long term when short-term athletic success is within reach.

Further research into the goals and motives of parents of highly successful youth runners might yield additional findings to the plethora of sociological and psychological research that already exist on sport parents. However, as parents and children enter and exit the competitive running world at all different times, the task of providing them with medical and coaches’ expert advice so they can make knowledgeable decisions is herculean and a more practical approach is to focus on the race organizers to set limits and look out for the health and safety of their future runners.

APPLICATION TO SPORT
Based on the results of this study, race organizers should consider the following; Offer races of no more than one mile for early-elementary aged participants and one or two miles for upper-elementary aged participants; eliminate age-based awards and competition for participants prior to the age of fourteen; restrict participation in marathons to runners eighteen and older. Parents who are supporting aspiring runners should focus on creating a fun atmosphere, train in moderation, be patient and take a long-view approach that allows for well-roundedness as the child tries out a variety of sports and activities, and use running time as a family time.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
None

REFERENCES

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  2. American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness (2000). Climatic heat stress and the exercising child and adolescent, Pediatrics, 106(1): 158-159.
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  11. Rice, S. G., & Waniewski, S. E. (2005). Response to the letters to the editor by William O. Roberts, MD, MS and Nick Mohtadi, MD, FRCSC, MSc., Dip, Sport Med [Letter written March, 2005]. In Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine (2nd ed., Vol. 15, pp. 110-111).
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