The parkrun para­dox


Athletics Weekly - - Contents -

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.”

Phys­i­cal 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.

Ath­let­ics progress

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.

Parental in­flu­ences

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 havey­our­say@ath­let­ic­

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

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