The parkrun paradox
WITH ALMOST 500 EVENTS AND 1.4m RUNNERS HAVING TAKEN PART, PARKRUN IS A RESOUNDING SUCCESS. BUT IS IT HELPING THE PROGRESS AND PERFORMANCE OF YOUNG ATHLETES? PETA BEE REPORTS
THIS WEEK our club secretary received an email from the parent of a prospective junior member which read: “My son is interested in athletics and has completed 44 5km parkruns. He is 10 years old.”
If your club is anything like ours, such correspondence is not unusual.
Applications for junior membership now invariably come with a CV-style parkrun pedigree, parents detailing how quickly their child has covered the 5km distance and how many times they have completed the events.
Such enthusiasm for running is encouraging, but should it also be a cause for concern that children as young as eight and nine are clocking up so many miles?
At a recent England
Athletics coaching course, the lunchtime conversation revolved around the issue of weekly 5km parkruns and their benefits or otherwise on the development of young athletes. Are they a blessing in that they introduce more youngsters to the sport, or a curse because they become an obsession in themselves?
Most agree that parkrun and events like Great Run
Local have done wonders for mass participation, but opinion is divided on whether their burgeoning popularity is helping or hindering the performance progression of young athletes.
So, what factors are at play? We canvassed the views of coaches to find out where they stand on the parkrun paradox.
The competition factor
Phil York, a team manager at Ealing, Southall and Middlesex AC, is a fan of parkruns in general, but thinks that some juniors do too many.
“I do notice that our club has certain young athletes who do parkrun in the morning but don’t show for the more traditional club competition – cross country, track and field – in the afternoon,” York says.
“The purist in me finds this rather sad, especially if the club struggles to put out full teams in the various leagues.”
York suggests convenience plays a part in the decision to opt for a 9am run. “It’s almost as though the athletes are happy to get their run completed as early as possible in order to free up the rest of the weekend for other pursuits,” he says.
“It’s also the case that too many parkruns tend to leave you a bit ‘stale’ and I think younger athletes would be better testing themselves at other disciplines for their competitive development.”
“The bones and joints of the 11-17 age group are growing rapidly and repetitive strain and impact on their tendon insertions and growth plates from 5km on tarmac paths is not desirable,” says Guy Ogden, a sports osteopath and middle-distance coach at Highgate Harriers.
“There are several overuse lower limb injuries that specifically affect this age.”
Among them are chondromalacia patellae, caused by an imbalance in muscle strength on either side of the kneecap which can require youngsters to wear heavy strapping until muscles are re-educated and Osgood-Schlatter disease, in which the growth plates at the top of the shinbone (or tibia) become inflamed when the tendons attached pull hard on it during high-impact exercise.
In extreme cases, treatment can involve setting the knees in plaster for up to six weeks.
York suggests that long-term athletic development might be hampered among 11-15 yearolds who repeatedly run 5km every week.
“The issue is not whether young athletes can complete the distance or even whether they enjoy doing it,” he suggests. “It is absolutely not recommended that athletes as young as 11 run the 5km distance competitively and frequently.”
One of the primary reasons stated by most coaches is that too much focus on the 5km distance means development of speed and primary movement skills are overlooked. “At this age, there is a unique physiological window of opportunity to develop basic speed which is the key performance factor in all events,” Ogden explains.
“Excessive distances whether trained or raced will inhibit the development of this vital performance factor.”
The social factor
There’s no denying that parkruns have introduced an additional dimension to running, one in which the entire family can engage in the same Saturday morning pursuit.
Many coaches lauded this initiative, stressing that the benefits of the ‘fun’ aspect of parkruns should not be overlooked.
“I would suggest that under-11s doing a 5km parkrun once a week or once every two weeks with parents and family is not fundamentally damaging but actually a nice way to get outside, exercise and spend time,” suggests Hannah Viner, a coach at Highgate Harriers.
“It can be argued that the enjoyment and mental wellbeing aspect is almost as important as the child’s health and development.”
Some clubs, including my own, use parkruns as occasional social outings where juniors and seniors come together in a ‘training environment’ two or three times a year.
Geoff Hawes, an endurance coach to Thames Valley Harriers’ 50-strong 10-17-yearold group of middle distance athletes, highlights the fact that parental pressure to participate in parkruns can be an issue.
“It’s the downside as I see it with the parental approach sometimes being: ‘I want to do the run, what am I going to do with you kids? Oh you can join me, see if you can keep up!’,” Hawes says.
“Or the other common thing I overhear is parents saying: ‘I know you’ve been doing tennis, rugby, hockey at school but you need to keep up your running’.”
Ogden says athletics clubs have a role to play in advising parents about the impact of doing too much, too young. “The parkrun programme does a great job of promoting running for the general public,” he says. “However, children are not little adults and should have a completely different training/ racing programme not a watered down adult one.”
How it can work
There are many ways in which parkruns can be used to further the development of young athletes.
The growth of junior parkruns, which are held over 2km, was widely considered a positive move. Even two years ago, the junior versions of the event were few and far between with many held monthly rather than weekly.
Now, organisers of new junior parkruns are encouraged to stage them every Sunday and many coaches suggested they were more appropriate than the 5km option.
Tom Lavender, manager of Great Run Local events, says their 20 events offer a 2km distance alongside the 5km. “It means that younger runners can run 5km if they wish but we encourage them to only do this once a month and enjoy running the 2km distance,” he says. “Over 40% of our runners take part in the 2km distance.”
Hawes says he encourages using parkruns for training runs and advises under-13s to do the junior 2km version. “It’s safer and better than them pounding the pavements,” he says.
Paddy McGrath, a junior endurance coach at Cookham Running Club in Berkshire, says both junior and senior parkruns can be useful fitness markers after a summer break and “an occasional one is an enjoyable way to see where you are”.
As York says: “Parkrun is whatever you want it to be.”
What’s your view? Email email@example.com
Some youngsters joining athletics clubs arrive armed with a CV-style parkrun pedigree
Parkrun children: too many 5km runs at too young an age can store up problems