“I am a 16 year old female. One day, I would love to run marathons. I’ve heard that if you start running too long when you’re young though that it is bad for you. My maximum mileage now is 10 miles (though I usually run about 6-7). When is a good age to start preparing for marathons?”
Well, to start with I like the fact that you say “one day” you would like to run marathons as opposed to wanting to run one now. In answering, this we have to separate what is possible from what is prudent and recommended for your long-term health and fitness.
I’ll cite a good example of a young man more than 35 years ago who set the age group record for the marathon – at the age of 10. He ran 2:57. He does still run as well as compete in cycling races and triathlons. He is still a very good and talented athlete. It appears he is none the worse for wear by running early and running marathons. On the other hand, did he develop into the best runner he could have been? We’ll never know of course. How many of you have heard of Reggie Heywood? How many Olympic teams did he make? How many NCAA championships did he win?
The overriding consideration here is that there are the trade-offs in deciding to run something like a marathon while you’re young.
There are two parts to the answer here: First, yes, you can run marathons at a young age and still may have a long athletic career. Second, in deciding to try to run a marathon at a young age you may be making big compromises for your future. The training for a marathon could “side-track” you from the training that will really help you develop into the best runner that you can be and you may never be able to get that training opportunity back again.
So to the heart of your question…
Human beings are capable of doing many things which many not be the best things for them – marathon running at an early age is one of them. Most young runners will end up injured, burned out or in the very least left never reaching their full potential by attacking this distance early.
In terms of your body, several things make running very long distances a bad idea. For one thing, the growth plates at the ends of your long bones are not yet fully developed and during growth often muscles and tendons have not strengthened enough to handle the stress of running so many miles. Girls and women in general also are more likely to have bone issues (like low calcium content or stress fractures). Long term damage is actually debatable and for the most part unknown as far as I can determine. But, short term issues are far more likely.
Like a doctor, a coach has to be careful to advise people against doing things that they may want to do at times. In that vein I would recommend not attemptiong a marathon until you reach your twenties. (Maybe you can make it your 20th birthday present to yourself?) Use the time in your teens to develop your skills and speed as a runner and racer. After you’re done growing phyiscally, and developing the youthful part of your athletic skills, then set your sights on extending out the distance that you’re running.
You should try to get good at all other distances leading up to the marathon first. Take it in stages. Get good at the 5k. Get good at the 10k. In your college years experiment with 10 milers and half marathons. Once you can train and stay consistent, and uninjured with the rigors required for these distances, move up to training for a marathon.
I hope that you clearly understand my answer here. I am not saying you CAN’T train for and run a marathon right now. I’m telling you I would never advise one of my runners to do so. Take this wonderful time of your young years to master the shorter distances and then move up to running the marathon.
By the way, I would give the same advice to all of my more novice runners regardless of their ages: get several years of running under your belt before venturing into the marathon world. And that advice I give to 30 and 40 year olds… it just goes double for youth.
Coach Dean Hebert, Tempe Arizona, USA
Contributing Editor, Running Advice and News
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