12-Year-Old Boy Runs Marathons Around the World: Is It Healthy?

Nikolas Toocheck, a 12-year-old from Pennsylvania, has run a marathon on every continent. Toocheck started running marathons when he was only 9. His goal is to run a marathon in each of the 50 states.


Toocheck certainly sounds like one heck of a kid -- he competes in four other sports besides running, gets straight A's, and uses his marathons to raise money for charities. But how much endurance running is too much for a young body?

Unfortunately, there has been little research done so far to answer this question. In one study cited by the New York Times, Dr. William Roberts from the University of Minnesota is quoted as saying:

"What we found in our study [is that] with proper training and planning, the marathon distance can be safe for certain highly motivated children. That does not mean that I would encourage most children [to run a marathon]"; the Times piece said we do not know "if there might be long-term, undesirable consequences. [However], the possibility seems remote."

In an article in The Atlantic, however, some doctors noted that children's bodies are less able to absorb the impact of running than adults' bodies are, and that:

...The health implications are worrisome: Like a car with bad suspension, less absorption equals greater impact to bones, joints, and soft tissue, possibly leaving children more at risk for overuse injury.

One doctor in the article even recommended that children under the age of 16 not run any farther than a 10K (a little over 6 miles). Dan Hollingsworth, a physical therapist and member of the CrossFit Kids Seminar Staff as well as the CrossFit Endurance Seminar Staff, agrees:

... There are no cut and dry answers ... [but] my personal belief ... is that middle school kids should not be doing things like half-marathons, at least, not on a regular basis ... I believe their focus should be on shorter events, such as 5Ks.

More from The Stir: Kids and Organized Sports: Don't Push Them Too Early

Without the science to confirm that running and other rigorous sports are bad for children's health, however, parents are asked to use their common sense and do what they believe is right for their child.

Writer Alyssa Royce's 16-year-old daughter is a weight lifter who leaves tomorrow for the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Though Royce admits to being nervous about the emotional and physical aspects of competing in the sport, she has also seen the tremendous benefits it has had for her daughter:

As a teenage girl, it's been awesome to see her focus on food as fuel, and really listen to her body. Her focus is on being strong and happy, which has helped us avoid a lot of the traps of 'teenage girlhood.'

In a post on her blog in which she talks about what it has been like parenting a child athlete, Royce also recounts a time when:

In this day and age of women being packaged as tiny little sex-objects who need the approvals of others, [my daughter] gleefully told me that her quads didn’t fit in her skinny jeans. She rejoices at the sight of her muscles. Her strength.

As the mother of a daughter myself, I don't think you could ask for much better than that. And the lessons that sports teach kids about teamwork, perseverance, and discipline are hard to replicate in other after-school activities.

So what can we do? For one, we need to make sure our younger runners have shoes that fit and are tied well, and that the area they will be running in is free from obstacles, holes, or other hazards (younger children tend to injure themselves while running due to falls). Older kids should be monitored to make sure that they don't push themselves past their limits, and that they get the right amount of rest and proper nutrition.

It's also important that parents don't decide that a particular sport is going to be their child's "thing" and enroll them in classes year-round. Says Hollingsworth:

When a young kid expresses an interest or talent in something, the common thing to do is have them do that and only that sport, nearly year-round. That is an absolute recipe for injury and burnout. The best athletes are those who participate in a variety of sports/activities and who also place some emphasis on general strength and conditioning training. 

For now, parents who have a child who is in love with running or any other sport should feel free to encourage them in their pursuits so long as they are doing it safely and, of course, happily.


Image via Corbis

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