His eyes sparkled as he reached the finishing line, hugged his mother and checked the watch. He had just finished his first Marathon in 60 minutes and 12 seconds. The 10-year-old glowed with happiness as he stared at the medal around his neck.

For Abhinav, completing a 10-km run was dream come true. He had trained hard to prepare. His parents – both marathon runners – were proud. But there are others who say, he shouldn’t be running at all.

As India is slowly catching on the Marathon fever and children as young as four are participating in long runs, there are also controversies whether children should run marathons.

Juggling between the need to be fit, eating healthy and trying to be away from smart phones and computer games, more and more parents are pushing their children to physical exercise – playing soccer, cricket, tennis, and lately, running Marathons.

According to the World Health Organisation, children today suffer from inadequate physical activities and there is a sharp decline in cardiovascular and general aerobic fitness among adolescents. Hence obesity is on the rise too.

While there is deficiency in physical exercise and outdoor games, there is also a growing number of children who are playing sports in excess and often straining themselves.

Young athletes are training and competing in long-distance endurance events like Marathons and Triathlons. These are sometimes more than kids’ “fun runs” and 5 km runs — they clearly stress muscles and the children run the risk of overuse injury, according to some paediatricians. Surprisingly however, there is still not a definitive answer on how much is too much when it comes to children’s long-distance runs.

Paediatricians say that since the growing areas of children’s bones are vulnerable to injury in the formative years, they may be less capable of withstanding repetitive stress of marathon running or training when compared with adults.

In India, most major Marathon organisers and sponsors have an age limit for children to participate: usually 5K for children below 10 years and 10K for 10 years and above. Full Marathons are only for 18 and above. But there are collaboration runs organised by various running clubs and many other Marathons in the country that usually do not have such age limits.

The issue hit the international stage a few years back when India’s own Marathon boy, Budhia Singh became an overnight celebrity for running marathons from the age of three. He earned a place in the Limca Book of Records. But soon after, doctors found the boy had “high blood pressure and cardiological stress” and he was not allowed to run long distances anymore.

That raises the question, how aware and conscious are parents and organisers when they plan marathons for children? Are they sometimes being pushed too hard to prove a point?

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Saurav Bhartia, a running enthusiast, says that his entire family participates in the runs including his father and his seven and a half year-old son Vivaan.

The parents however, have consulted orthopaedics physician and physiotherapists and they both have said it is absolutely fine for him to run as long as he is enjoying it. Vivaan is a gymnast and is used to running and exercise. Therefore, five to 10 km runs are enjoyable for him.

With the onset of winter, a number of Marathons are lined up all over the country. However, not all of them are serious or stressful. Many are just meant to encourage running with a bit of fun.

While Tata Steel Kolkata 25k Marathon has a minimum qualifying age of 12 years (12 years for 10 k), another marathon scheduled next week has fun run categories where even mothers running while carrying children is fine too. In this marathon, the category below eight years is 1.25 km and 2.5 km for eight years and above.

Almost all paediatricians agree that a child cannot be made to run one fine day. They need to be in the habit of running and exercise.

Paediatrician Dr Abhishek Poddar says that running is definitely very good for children. But stress and distance are factors to be considered. He says, 10 years and above is a more suitable age for children to run in Marathons between five and 10 km. Of course, that changes for kids who are used to running and are physically active.

Therefore, the answer lies in the amount of exercise a child does on a regular basis.

Dr Arijit Banerjee, a specialist in orthopaedic rehabilitation and pain management says that children below 12 years are undergoing development that includes bone density, ligaments and tendons. Once they reach adolescence, till they are adults, they are more comfortable with their bodies and hence more suited to more strenuous sports activities. Also, children with subtle walking disabilities like flat foot, inverted foot, or clubbed foot (that may have remained undiagnosed) are made to run a marathon, it can result in serious injuries.

Therefore, this screening is mandatory, and thorough preparation including muscle strengthening, stretching and weight bearing joint mobilisation exercises are required.

Paediatrician Dr Soumitra Dutta spoke of the dangers of marathon running without adequate preparations. He is also worried about the pollution levels in many parts of the country. A lot more children are asthmatic than ever before. Children especially below five can suffer hazards from unhealthy smog if made to run in these conditions.

Prema Rajaram, a Kolkata based journalist who has completed many half and full marathons says it is good to start young as children are “natural runners”. However, it is important to understand your body as running is strenuous, she says. Arun Kumar Singh, the 69-year-old hurdler and Marathon runner – who has run marathons all over the country and abroad – said “Running should interest you. Children should be interested too. It should never be forced”.

The question remains, how can one participate in the health benefits and good lifestyle that comes with running and exercise among children without exposing them to the dangers? Experts agree that it comes with awareness, balance and education.

Marathons, if responsibly conducted, can bring in a huge change and prepare healthy children tomorrow.

[Photographs of Saurav Bhartia and his son Vivaan; picture courtesy: Saurav Bhartia]

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