Many of you know that I disapprove strongly of young athletes running the Parkrun. Interestingly, Athletics Weekly carried an article this week on young athletes and the Parkrun that mirrors many of my own views.
It may look impressive and be exciting when a young athlete is beating lots of adults and running an impressive time over 5k at a parkrun. However, this is very misleading and hides dangers to young athletes and their development.
As young athletes grow, their bones are soft, particularly at the ends, and their tendons are vulnerable to the pressures that are caused by racing on hard surfaces over long distances. Their bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments are at much greater risk of injury than those of adults. Bones are particularly vulnerable during growth spurts. Running in general, particularly on softer surfaces, tends to stimulate bone growth and help muscle development. However, when racing on hard surfaces, the force placed on each leg is up to 3 times body weight. Imagine the forces going through each leg and the number of steps a young runner will take over 5k on a tarmac surface. If bones—particularly while growing—are overstressed by such severe impact on repeated occasions, they can become weaker and breakdown.
Some of the dangers are inflammation and damage to the growth plates or tendons or even stress fractures. The growth plates—the areas of developing cartilage at the ends of growing bones—are particularly vulnerable to inappropriate stress. Fractures in these area can damage normal bone growth. Such injuries can impair growth and may lead to long-term health problems.
The experience of running fast times and beating lots of adults is exciting for young athletes (and parents). But it leads to inappropriate competition, expectations and the pressure of running faster —and so increasing the impact forces—each time. It is part of the powerof10 culture where the focus of too many athletes and their parents is on times and rankings even at the very youngest ages. Young athletes need to be exposed to healthy competition within their own age group and to appropriate racing distances (800m and 1500m on the track and cross country in the winter). An unhealthy focus on running more and more parkruns while chasing pbs will eventually lead to burn out and becoming disillusioned with the sport.
Young athletes should focus on developing their endurance and learning to race over shorter distances. It is important to develop their running speed over these shorter distances as they are growing. This will be a major factor in their development and increase their chances of success as they move up to longer distance (where appropriate) when they are older and more mature. Running longer distances—including 3k on the track as well as 5k park runs—before developing ability over 800m and 1500m will inhibit how fast the longer distances can be run. Basically, if you run slowly at 800m and 1500m, you are going to run slowly (or even more slowly) at 3k and 5k. The development of basic speed while young will have a positive impact on racing success over longer distances as a fully developed athlete.
As with the post on Basic Principles, it is crucial to remember that we are dealing with young children and trying to set out a path for them to enjoy and develop in athletics for the rest of their lives. They are not miniature adults: they are not miniature Mo Farahs or Paula Radcliffes. These are young children whose talents and abilities need to be nurtured and protected.