Eileen Muma is proudly raising two young runners.

The 49-year-old corporate event planner and avid runner from Ellicott City, Md., has run three marathons and seven half marathons but is even more proud to have happily shared her passion with her kids.

Son Jake, 14, started as an 8-year-old in second grade. Daughter Lauren, 16, began at 10 as a fourth-grader. When they first started running, Eileen took them to her local boot camp classes for some basic conditioning and light running. They enjoyed that, so she began taking them to a local running club’s series of weekly races, which varied from 1 to 3 miles. Muma says neither child began running with the goal of making it their main sport, but both are still at it today, running cross country and track at their high school and with a local running club.

Each of her kids runs three or four times per week, logging a modest total of about 15 to 20 miles per week with a long run of 6–8 miles. The longest race they’ve done is the Annapolis 10-miler when they were in the seventh and ninth grades, respectively.

There are no plans for either of the kids to run a half marathon or marathon like their mom, but maybe someday they’ll follow in her footsteps.

“Both my kids started running for general fitness and to enhance their chosen sports at the time, but it evolved into something more for both of them,” Muma says. 

Getting Kids Started

Muma’s approach with her children contrasts sharply with the many stories about kids younger than 14 setting age-group world-records for a variety of distances from 5K to the half marathon and even the marathon, not to mention other amazing running feats at very young ages.

Just when and how kids should begin running—and how far—is a subject that draws constant debate. Many running parents want to pass on their passion for the sport to their children, but aren’t quite sure how to do it. While the guidelines are fairly clear with adults, that’s not the case with the younger generation.

One thing most youth running coaches say, however, is that the key to raising children who run, and stick with it, is to keep it fun.

That’s definitely the philosophy of Mark Cucuzzella, MD, a noted running coach, educator and father to two budding runners from Shepherdstown, W.V. “Fun first is our approach,” says Cucuzzella, a professor of family medicine at West Virginia University. “If your kids see you enjoying it, they’ll want to join in.”

That’s also the take of youth running coach Phil Lang of Columbia, Md. Lang, who has mentored young runners for more than 20 years, has also raised two daughters who run at the collegiate level. “Each kid is different and there’s really no right or wrong way to bring them into the sport,” he says. “But usually kids are going to want to try it at some point if their parents are runners.”

Still, Lang cautions against making it too much of a parent/child activity.

“The tendency is for kids to want to please their parents, so they might do it because they think it makes you happy,” he says.

He has a better idea: allow kids to engage in running with kids their age, just as they do with other sports and playground activities.

“Have your kids do some running with their peers,” he says. “Just like with any activity, when kids are involved in it with others their same age, they’ll discover whether or not they truly like it.”

Healthy Running

Lang recommends letting them try local kids’ fun runs and untimed races, or perhaps dipping their toes into youth running programs. His own Bullseye Running/Howard County Jr. Striders program has both fall cross country and spring track sessions, and is open to kids from kindergarten through high school. “Our program tailors the training to the specific age group of each kid,” he says.

As a general rule of thumb, Lang doesn’t like to see kids run more miles than the grade they are in. This was the approach he took with his own daughters. “When my younger daughter hit fifth grade, for instance, we finally let her run an 8K that she had been wanting to do,” he explains. “At these younger ages, I’d rather see kids work on speed than distance.”

Cucuzzella isn’t so fast to define specific mileage guidelines. “Kids are great at self-regulating,” he says. “Most won’t choose to do too much anyhow.”

When your kids want to start running, experts suggest keeping it fun and relatively unstructured. Photo: Todd Straka

He points to his own childhood running as an example. “My brother and I decided to jump into a half marathon when we were 13 and 11,” he says. “No one got hurt doing it. Kids will walk [in a race] before they will get hurt.”

As youth running participation continues to increase, it’s important to be aware that children can be susceptible to injuries as their bone, cartilage and growth plates are still developing and growing, says Dr. Stephen Pribut, a podiatrist and sports medicine doctor from Washington D.C. The most common of which are epiphyseal fractures, greenstick fractures and osteochondrosis.

“Children are not small adults,” cautions a position statement in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine titled “Children and Marathoning: How Young Is Too Young?” “Their anatomy and physiology are developing and not fully mature.”

Cucuzzella believes it’s both intense training and single-sport specificity that will lead to injuries in children. He’s all for kids starting to run shorter distances before they turn 10, but he’d also encourage them to participate in other sports—soccer, basketball, softball, gymnastics, swimming or football—at an organized or completely casual level.

“Kids need to stay involved in whole-body physical activity,” he says. “This movement toward specializing in one sport at a very young age isn’t healthy.”

Lang agrees and points out that until high school, both his girls kept themselves involved in several other sports. “Parents should encourage other activities for a long time,” he says.

Muma’s children both began running in support of their other sports. “Lauren wanted to play lacrosse so she started doing some short runs to get in the right condition for it,” she says. “Jake was a football player and ran to help that.”

As time went on, Jake in particular began gravitating toward running.

“He hated it at first but he was also competitive and so he pushed himself to win,” Muma says. “Eventually, he caught the bug.”

As a high school freshman, Jake remained dedicated and disciplined with his running.

“He likes the structure of the training and the validation he gets from finishing well,” his mother says. “Lauren chose field hockey as her main sport, but if you asked her what her favorite physical activity is, she’d say running.”

The Muma kids are in good company, which is why having some parameters on kids and running is a good idea. Lang’s programs have enjoyed steady growth over the years and continue to expand each season.

“These days we’ll have a good 300 kids in the programs—and at the last track meet, there were over 600 kids competing,” he says. “We’ve had to divide our program into two categories: those who want to compete and those who just want to stay in shape.”

However, you slice it, parents need to let kids keep the lead, Cucuzzella says.

“Parents are the most powerful influence in their children’s live, so it’s important to keep your desires about their running in check,” he says. “Empower your kids to make the decisions about their sports and their training on their own and everything will fall into place.”