Last week, legislators in Hawaii proposed a bill that would ban minors from running what the bill calls “long distance” races. Legislators didn’t specify what length that means, but they do explicitly mention half and full marathons. As justification for the ban, the legislation cites this 2010 study in the Journal of Athletic Training that had 11 boys and seven girls running on treadmills. During tests, researchers found that children were less able than adults to absorb shock impact while running. For a repetitive impact sport over long distances, that could mean greater risk of injury to growing bones, joints, or soft tissue.
Some marathons already have a minimum age requirement, presumably due to liability. The Boston Marathon requires registrants to be older than 18; at the Los Angeles Marathon, it’s 16. There’s just one problem: There’s little other evidence that running long races is bad for kids’ health.
This 2007 article in Sports Medicine, which reviewed expert opinions as well as medical injuries from marathons, concluded that “children who choose of their own accord to participate in marathon training should be allowed to do so as long as their social, academic, psychological and physiological development is not disrupted.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees. Its policy on intensive training and sport specialization states: “There is no reason to disallow participation of a young athlete in a properly run marathon as long as the athlete enjoys the activity and is asymptomatic.”
Experts do agree that more research is needed to study possible long-term impacts on young marathoners after they become adults. But provided that parents are mindful about how their kids train—not increasing mileage too quickly, participating in other sports to avoid overuse injuries, and maintaining a healthy diet and enough rest days—an outright ban seems unnecessary. Kids as young as five have been participating in half or full marathons for decades. Hawaii’s bill seems more likely to hinder young aspiring runners than help them.