Changing Landscape of Youth Distance Running: Boom!

We are experiencing another distance running boom and what is exciting is that our youth and teens are very much part of what is happening. State and national records continue to fall across middle school and high school (and of course, college and elite) events and distances in track & field, cross country and road racing. Youth and teen distance running has become super competitive over the past few years with more participation and events, better coaching and training, and faster times. What is driving this growth? Is it the baby boomers running with their kids? Or running is the new cool sport at school? Or Olympians are the positive role models that other sports may lack? Or something else or all of the above?!

I have witnessed this boom through the lens of a parent/coach of an 11 year old and a 16 year old who are competitive runners, and being a recreational runner myself. First, let me say that this is all good. For teens and youth, greater participation should have many benefits, including improved physical and mental health, better academic achievement, development of leadership and social skills, and so on. For those that have aspirations of running competitively and achieving excellent results, success in the sport requires a sound approach, long-term commitment, and a high work ethic. And often overlooked: having fun and staying healthy. Parents, coaches and runners who want to learn more, I recommend Mick Grant’s book “Youth and Teen Running Encyclopedia: A Complete Guide for Middle and Long Distance Runners Ages 8 to 16”.

I ran the St. Patrick’s Day 4 mile road race in Fairfield, CT with my 11 year old son this past Sunday morning, and once again I was reminded of the trend in youth distance running. Two years ago, my son (then 9) ran 30:03 for the 4 mile race to place 3rd in the male 12 and under age group (missing 2nd place by 2 seconds). That’s a 7:31 mile pace. This past Sunday, my son (now 11) ran 27:22 and placed 4th in the same age group. He ran a 6:51 mile pace, 40 seconds improvement per mile over 4 miles and did not finish in the top 3! Although trophies and medals are important for kids, he understood that he ran a great race, had a lot of fun, and continues to improve.

The analytical runner in me wanted to look at whether or not what my son and I experienced in this race supported the trend among youth and teen distance running that I write about above. The table below shows the 5 year history for the St. Patrick’s Day 4 mile race for the male and female 12 and under age groups. WOW! Among the boys, the average mile split for the top 5 finishers has dropped from 9:11 per mile to 6:45 in 5 years. The winning time 5 years ago would not score in the top 5 times this past Sunday. Among the girls, the improvements are not quite as dramatic but solid nonetheless, with mile splits dropping from 8:39 to 8:02 over the past 5 years (actually 7:57 last year). Similar to the boys, the winning time 5 years ago would not have placed in the top 3 this year. Greater participation, better training, faster times!

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4 comments

  1. not sure about better training. don’t have data to support that. lots of racing could give the impression of improvement, but that is short term-and the long term result is burnout. conclusion, could be better training or could be kids running more races at a young age or could be natural year to year variations. i only care about long term development

    1. I don’t have data to support my theory either. I look at the results. I have scored the top 5 like a cross country team running the same 4 mile race over the past 5 years, which shows an improvement from 3:03:47 to 2:15:01. For someone who is 12 or under to competitively run 4 miles and show that type of improvement requires better training. Probably mostly aerobic training – most reasonable explanation in my opinion. I am open to other interpretations. Thanks.

  2. I’m seeing more younger kids participating over time as well. You can pick any race that’s been around awhile, look at historical results, and see the same trend. Naturally, the more participants you have, it’s going to become more competitive over time, and times will come down. I’m more inclined to believe in the baby boomer theory. People are bringing along their kids and it’s becoming less taboo to think young children can’t or shouldn’t run longer than 1/4 mile. My only hope is that Hershey Track and Field will get out of the dark ages and realize this. They’re still limiting participation to kids ages 9+ and even then only allowing them to partipate in the shorter sprints. I think that’s why more and more parents and children are considering USATF and AAU as alternatives. I don’t necessary believe it’s better training though, although a child that runs semi-regularly with their parents is going to be better conditioned for a race, even if they don’t know anything about proper form, warm up/down, stretching, etc. Plus, soccer is bigger than ever in CT, so you get alot of athletes that use the occasionally 5k or two expressly for conditioning. My two cents…

    1. Thanks for sharing. Agree kids are starting younger. Both my sons started age 5 and myself a baby boomer I encouraged them to come along for my runs. My comment about better training is that many kids are cross-overs from other sports and therefore benefiting from cross-training (not specializing too early), coaching quality is improving from middle-school through high school (with Alberto Salazar and others reaching out to talented teens), and I think that over time we should see more emphasis on aerobic training vs. anaerobic at early ages (check out Mick Grant’s book “The Youth and Teen Running Encyclopedia: A Complete Guide for Middle and Long Distance Runners Ages 8 to 16”, which I review here https://runningwithkids.wordpress.com/2013/01/22/book-review-the-youth-and-teen-running-encyclopedia-a-complete-guide-for-middle-and-long-distance-runners-ages-8-to-16/). As an illustrative example, our middle school running club just added a strength and conditioning coach, who is a former professional athlete now pursuing a degree in Exercise Science.

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