Age Requirements to Run a Marathon

Marathon runners running on urban street
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Encouraging young people to run is an excellent way to promote a lifetime of exercise and healthy living. Young runners may want to take their passion to a new level and participate in a marathon, but age restrictions may get in the way. How old do you have to be to run a marathon? 

Marathon Age Requirements

Most marathons have age requirements. The minimum age is typically 16 or 18 years old. Marathons that have a lower age minimum do exist.

The Honolulu Marathon, for instance, has had kids as young as 10 in previous years. The Chevron Houston Marathon allows runners as young as 12 years of age. And the Marine Corps Marathon allows you to participate if you are at least 14 years old on race day.

The best way to determine if a race in your area allows younger runners, check the race website FAQ or eligibility page.

Age requirements for the marathon vary. Some races allow runners as young as 10 years of age, but most require that runners are at least 18 years old on race day.

Age Requirements for Shorter Races

Runners who are too young to run a full marathon may choose to participate in a shorter race. A 10K, 5K or half marathon provides a more reasonable challenge. But there are also age requirements for shorter distances. Again, these requirements vary so it is important to look at eligibility requirements for the race you are interested in running.

As an example, the popular Walt Disney World Marathon has shorter races where younger runners can compete. Runners in the Walt Disney World Half Marathon must be 14 years of age or older. 10K runners must be 10 years of age or older and those running the 5K must be 5 years of age on race day and must be able to complete the 5K on their own.

The New York Road Runners (NYRR) also sets age requirements for the races they produce. 5K and 8K runners must be 8 years of age. 10K runners must be 12 years of age. Ten mile and and half marathon runners must be 16 years of age.

Reasons for the Age Requirement

Quite often, a race will set the minimum age requirement based on the recommendations or requirements of their liability insurance provider. Nobody wants to be sued by parents when something bad happens to a minor during a race, and this could result in higher settlement costs or sympathetic jury awards. As a result, race organizers tend to err on the side of caution and set the age requirements accordingly.

There are also documented health concerns that may play a role in the decision to set an age requirement.

Health Concerns

Marathon training requires a substantial physical commitment for a long period of time. Most marathon training programs build mileage over the course of roughly four months or more. And most plans suggest that you have a running base established—that is, that you are already running 10-15 miles per week.

Because of the extended physical strain, most experts would recommend waiting at least until kids get through puberty before running a marathon. There are different reasons cited for the recommendation.

Bone Health

Doctors typically recommend avoiding extreme distance running for kids and young teens because the repetitive trauma may cause damage to bones that are still growing. 

The International Marathon Medical Directors Association (IMMDA) stated that long distance running places high mechanical loads on the skeleton. In their Advisory Statement, they cited research and other clinical evidence indicating that children and young adults are at higher risk for skeletal injuries. For this reason, they recommend marathons for runners 18 years of age or older.

Aerobic Capacity

In their book Training Young Distance Runners, authors Larry Green and Russell Pate explain that younger runners may not have combined aerobic and anaerobic systems fully developed enough to withstand the range of training necessary for marathon. They write, "Although many children have naturally high levels of aerobic fitness, making them physiologically capable of performing low-intensity endurance activities, they are limited in their capacity to generate energy for high-intensity activities."

Heat Stress

Most marathons require some or all training during summer months. For a young runner, training in the heat may be problematic. The IMMDA cites numerous pediatric sources that explain the risk to young runners. They conclude that young adults and children have a decreased ability to withstand climatic heat stress and may overheat more easily than an adult.

Psychological Factors

Health experts, coaches, and pediatricians have expressed concerns over the time commitment and mental focus required to train for and run a marathon. While an adult can dedicate the time to the sport, an adolescent may not be able to given the other more important activities in his or her life such as school. Training may also isolate the child during a time in their life when developing relationships is key.

The IMMDA report advises that when younger athletes are pushed too hard they may experience emotional burnout and loss of self-esteem.

Lastly, the report suggests that young female runners may have additional issues. Girls are at higher risk for female athlete triad. The triad consists of three interrelated conditions: disordered eating, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis, and is directly associated with intense athletic training.

Health experts and researchers have suggested that the substantial physical stress on the body required for marathon training can have negative physical, emotional, and social consequences for young runners.

Science That Supports Young Marathoners

Despite the concerns cited by some health experts, others are in favor of allowing young runners to participate. And in fact, many young runners have completed the distance with impressive times.

There have been record-setting marathons completed by 8-year-olds boys (3:34:30) girls (3:13:24). And for 11-year-olds, record setting races include a 2:47:17 time for a boy and a 2:49:21 finish for a girl.

Research Studies

A study of marathon finishers aged 7 to 17 years old who finished the Twin Cities Marathon found that only four out of 310 needed medical attention at the race. All of these were minor in nature. However, this study didn't cover the long-term effects that distance running and training had on these youths. But it might be a reassurance to race directors who are considering what the minimum participant age should be for their marathon.

One small study looked at the effects of marathon running on teenagers and found no evidence of liver or kidney injury.

Another study looked at cardiac troponin levels, a sign of damage to the heart that can be seen in myocardial infarction. These are often elevated with adult marathon runners, and they were similar in the teenage marathon runners. They quickly returned to normal as they do with adults. However, the fact that a marathon has this effect on the heart is one reason it is considered an extreme sport and should be done with caution.

Is a Marathon Right for You?

Before you consider participating in a marathon (or allowing your child to do so) there are some key factors to take into account. This long-distance event isn't right for everyone.

For example, have you or your child successfully participated in some 5Ks or 10Ks? Completing one of those distances would be an incredible accomplishment, especially for a young person, and doing so will definitely prepare you for a future marathon. Plus, you'll have something to look forward to in the future.

Next, consider the time commitment. Training for a marathon is extremely time-consuming, exhausting, and tough, both physically and mentally. At such a young age, it's bound to have a big effect on other priorities in your life, such as school and spending time with friends and family.

Lastly, think about whether this will be a solo or team effort. You may need parental permission to participate. Perhaps your parent(s) will be participating as well.

Discuss your desire to do a marathon with your parents. It's a big decision because training for a marathon is going to take months and it will have an impact on your family life and social life.

A Word From Verywell

Running when you're young is great, but there are many things to consider before deciding to run a marathon. This is not a decision that you should make on your own, so be sure to have a conversation with your parents. It's best to talk to your family doctor to get his or her opinion on whether you should train to run a long-distance race such as a marathon.

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