By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer
There is a certain amount of controversy surrounding children's running. While pediatricians agree on the benefits of children's exercise, they differ on the risks of children's competition. In addition to the questions of how far is too far, and how much is too much, there are concerns over the children's emotional well-being.
Take, for example, ten-year-old Paula. Last May, Paula set an age group course record at the Tecumseh Training Runs. Her time of 22:22 over the 2.83-mile hilly course broke the old record by 43 seconds. Paula wrote the following account in her diary.
"At the start of the race, Mark D. asked me if I wanted to go for the record. I answered: 'I guess.' We started really fast. I thought I could never keep up this pace."
"During the race, I thought of a lot of things to maintain the pace. I thought of my name next to the course record. I thought of the chocolate chip muffin waiting for me at the finish. I thought of the crowds clapping for me when I am introduced as a new course record holder. I thought of my piano audition. Most of all, I thought of the finish line and my family waiting for me there."
"I was close to the finish on the last uphill, when Mark D. started reading the times. Nineteen minutes... I was tired. Twenty minutes... I knew I could do it. Twenty-one minutes... I must not give up now. Twenty-two minutes... The finish line is in sight."
"I was so tired, I wanted to walk across the finish line. I heard people cheering me on. I ran through the finish. I broke the record. I was so tired, I could not write for ten minutes."
"Next morning, I was really sore, but it was all worth it. My parents gave me a white bear with flowers on it as a present. At school, my friends and teachers congratulated me. I was so happy for breaking the record."
As I read Paula's account, several questions came to my mind. Did Paula run because she enjoyed running, or did she run to please her parents? Were Paula's parents passive role models or intimidating cheerleaders? Should parents permit young children to compete, or just encourage them to run for fun?
On the medical front, running is one of the safest forms of exercise for children. Running comes naturally. Many toddlers run before they walk. In malls and parks, we hear worried parents' plead with their children to walk not run.
There is no medical evidence that running interferes with bone growth in children. In moderation, running strengthens the bones and the muscles, and develops the cardio-vascular system. Children who run have higher energy levels and lower body weights than inactive children. On the long run, active children develop into healthy adults.
Children are more susceptible to heat injuries than adults, given their higher body mass to skin surface ratio. Parents can protect their children by giving them plenty of fluids when running in hot weather. Better still, replace running with swimming or an indoor activity on a hot day.
The psychological impact of competition may exceed its physical effects. The pressure to win at an early age can cause children to hate running. Unfortunately, there are many stories of young prodigies who burn out in their teens, and miss the benefits of lifelong fitness.
Parents can be good role models by letting their feet do the talking. Active parents raise active children. However, parents should refrain from living their athletic aspirations through their children.
The jury remains out on whether Paula enjoys racing, or runs to please her family. However, as she runs faster, breathing down her father's neck, a few precautionary measures become necessary. Paula has been limited to three short training runs each week, and restricted to racing at short distances. In the meantime, her father has started marathon training, to extend his unbeaten record into the next century.
Kamal Jabbour runs and writes on the hills of Pompey, New York. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains The Syracuse Running Page and receives email at firstname.lastname@example.org.