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The Savoie family run a trail near their home in Calgary. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)
The Savoie family run a trail near their home in Calgary. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)

Running with kids: How far is too far? Add to ...

When John Savoie reached the finish line of the Scotiabank Calgary Marathon’s 5K race earlier this year, his family wasn’t there cheering him on. Instead, his wife Cathy and their three children Gabrielle, 17, Dylan, 15, and Hannah, 11, were running right by his side.

The Savoie family has run five 5K races and one 10K race together, and will be adding a 5-mile race to that total next month. “We’ve kind of made running a family affair,” Mr. Savoie says.

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They’re not alone.

Although the number of families who run together in Canadian events isn’t tracked, race organizers say they are increasingly seeing parents participating with younger children, from seven-year-olds to high-school students, especially at the 5K and 10K distances.

“It’s a great way to get your kids into health and fitness, and it’s a great bonding experience for a lot of families,” says Jay Glassman, race director of the GoodLife Fitness Toronto Marathon.

Mr. Glassman says two factors largely explain the trend. For one, there is much more emphasis on keeping children active. And then, while races used to be about competing for a time, they are now more about raising money for charities and encouraging participants simply to cross the finish line. This has opened the doors to huge numbers of people, including children.

But since longer distances have the potential to cause harm in younger people, many experts recommend holding off on half- or full marathons until kids reach the age of majority.

Anyone under 18 who wants to participate in the GoodLife event, which includes a 5K run and a half-marathon, must have a waiver signed by a parent. And although Mr. Glassman says he wouldn’t recommend anyone under 18 running a full marathon, some have.

In the 18-year history of the GoodLife marathon, 10 minors have completed the event, Mr. Glassman says. Each required parental consent and a note from a physician stating they were able to run a marathon. “In almost every case they’ve run with their mother or father,” he says.

Many events prohibit minors from running marathons.

The Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon requires marathon runners to be 18 or older on race day; people who want to run the half-marathon must be 16. The Scotiabank Calgary Marathon has the same age requirements.

The Boston Marathon also demands that runners be 18 on race day, and the Ottawa Race Weekend, which includes races of several distances, requires marathon runners to be at least 19. But huge numbers of kids participate in the Ottawa event. In fact, the largest single age category for the weekend events is under 19, says Jim Robinson, race director of the Ottawa Race Weekend.

“We have five-, six-, seven-year-olds doing the 2K,” he says. “Then we get up into older kids doing the 5K and 10K, kids from Grade 6 up to high school.”

Mr. Robinson says more than 1,000 people under 19 ran the 10K last year, while 2,700 did the 5K and more than 1,600 did the 2K.

Many marathons now have programs like the Y Kids Marathon, in which for six weekschildren must get enough physical activity each day to equal running one kilometre, and then run another kilometre or so on race day to complete the distance.

Jeff Dyer, chief operating officer for a non-profit in Calgary, is fostering a love of running in his children, a daughter who is 8 and a son who is 5.

“We’ve registered them in a number of different mini-marathons,” he says. “They think it’s kind of cool. They get a shirt. They get a medal. They think it’s just incredible.”

It’s important for the kids to stay active and perhaps learn about reaching goals, Mr. Dyer adds.

While there is no consensus on what distances kids should run, many experts agree that minors should not tackle marathons.

“This is really not a good activity for children under 18,” says pediatrician Stephen Rice. In a position statement published on behalf of the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races in 2003, Dr. Rice cited health risks ranging from reduction in bone mass to adult-onset arthritis.

Whatever their children’s ages, parents must ensure that they don’t over-exert themselves and that running is fun, experts say.

Mr. Savoie, who lives in Calgary, where he works for pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, says he does not want to push his kids into trying longer distances unless they are completely prepared through long and careful training.

“The last thing I’d want is, maybe they’re not prepared and they get into the experience and it turns them off completely,” he says. For his family, running together is not about beating the clock; it’s simply about spending time together.

“For my wife and I, we want them to know that even more important than the time is to be out and actively doing something. And to be able to do it as a family, and to see other families doing it, is a really cool thing to be able to experience.”

Of course, they hope their kids will pick up a few other important lessons as well.

“Whether they ever run half-marathons or marathons, to me is not the point. Can they be active? And do they get into the habit of, ‘I want to push myself a little bit more,’ or ‘I want to set a goal of doing this and I can accomplish it by doing this preparation and getting this kind of discipline.’ Those are some of the good lessons I’d like to see them get out of this.”

KIDS’ RACE PREP

It’s important to keep a few things in mind when your kids lace up. These tips might make the difference between the family that goes the distance together and the one in which the kids never want to run again.

Start with the right shoes, says Kevin Mackinnon, author of A Healthy Guide to Sport and head coach of the Golden Horseshoe Athletic Club.

“The big thing for kids is flexible enough shoes,” he says. “A lot of times kids will come out to our workouts and I'll look down and somebody has sold them shoes that would be perfect for a 220-pound guy.”

From there, Mr. Mackinnon recommends joining a running club. Doing so will help kids learn proper form before they have a chance to develop bad habits that can lead to injury.

“Form is just so critical,” he says. “Find a club where they’re going to focus on and teach that stuff.”

It goes without saying that parents shouldn’t push kids to tackle distances they’re not ready for. Mr. Mackinnon says it’s better to focus on improving times at shorter distances than try for longer runs.

But most importantly, “keep it fun,” he says.

“At the younger ages, it should never feel like they’re doing a run workout.”

Follow on Twitter: @Dave_McGinn

 

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