In Budhia’s wake the question remains: Should children run long?

In the decade since Budhia's record-breaking feats, marathons have grown popular, drawing ever-younger runners.
In Budhia’s wake the question remains: Should children run long?
In Budhia’s wake the question remains: Should children run long?
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As Budhia's story comes to the big screen with "Budhia Singh: Born to Run", we take a look at the young runner's life, and that of a few other athletes who hope to represent the country's hopes for sporting success.

The sight of a waif-like boy just about a third of the size of the adults around him, running marathon distances and more, was one of the iconic news images of the mid-2000s. In the ensuing debate that arose around four-year-old Budhia Singh’s feats, the most persistent question being asked was how wise it was to encourage a child to run such massive distances.

In the decade since Budhia’s record-breaking achievements (he entered the Limca Book of Records with a 65km run from Puri to Bhubaneswar), the sport has grown in popularity and drawn participation from ever-younger runners, making the question as pertinent as ever.

Orthopaedic Surgeon and Specialist in Sports Injuries, Dr KL Praveen Kumar says that while encouraging young children to physical activity and sport is important considering the high rates of childhood obesity, he is alarmed by cases like that of Budhia. “It breaks all rules of safe sport in kids. Though there are not many studies with distance running and children, there are several studies with other sports like gymnastics, baseball and soccer, where doing too much leads to growth plate injuries.”

Even as Praveen sounds a note of alarm and caution, he also hits on a significant point: the lack of research. While there are studies that have looked at particular impacts of long-distance running, a comprehensive picture is yet to emerge. This leads to a widely divergent set of opinions including that children below the age of 18 should not be running longer distances than 10km.

Santhosh Padmanabhan, a running coach part of the Bengaluru runner’s community Runner’s High, which works with children from disadvantaged communities on long-distance running, says that the physical and physiological stresses on the body are undeniable. “In a child’s case you have to be a lot more sensitive because the body is still developing,” he says, pointing out that one of the most common injuries seen among children running cross-country in the US is stress fractures.

There is also the strain on the respiratory system and effects on the digestive system, excretory systems and so on, he explains. Without proper knowledge of the science behind running and proper management of nutrition and hydration, long-distance running could easily throw up a host of problems.

Sports Physiotherapist and barefoot marathoner Dr Gladson Johnson sounds somewhat more optimistic. “We generally don’t suggest that children should pick up long-distance events. But everything squares down to how you train the body. Because the human body can respond to any kind of stresses that you subject the body to.”

A martial arts practitioner for 17 years, he finds martial arts to be the perfect example of how much even children’s bodies can adapt when provided with a well-designed training programme.

“If you look into martial arts, they train from a very young age. They gradually increase the intensity of the training so that the body can absorb it on a gradual note, and even at a very young age such bodies become agile, strong and really flexible. If that level of specificity can be induced into a training, then age is no bar.”

The main problem with most approaches to training, he argues, is that they try to do too much, too quickly. “When we put timelines to these things we are usually on the losing end. That’s the reason we get to see a lot of injuries among even a lot of adult athletes: doing too much, too fast.”

Most however agree that someone like a Budhia can only be an exception to the rule. And finding an exception like Budhia involves a great deal of risk says Santhosh. “This is true across sports. When they aspire for the child to do more, parents or sometimes trainers push them beyond the limits of what is supposed to be reasonable.”

What makes the issue so difficult, he says, is that it is impossible to actually verify the consent of the child. Children may like the adulation and attention they receive. “But we as adults should be able to pull them back when required and tell them not to overdo it,” explains Santhosh.

While the physical aspects of endurance sports are to be considered, it is important to take account of emotional well-being of children.

Developmental Paediatrician, Dr Nandini Mundkur, points out that often in the pursuit of excellence, children are pushed to the point of emotional instability. “You have to be mature emotionally to take success or failure. For a child you can push them physically to a certain extent. But when they break down mentally or emotionally, that’s the time everything just goes.”

Agreeing that conventional educational systems are far too regimented to recognise the range of talents and skills children may possess, she points out that such regimentation can also occur if the training of a particular skill becomes too intensive and formal.

“My own take on anything in life is that you should be happy to do something and only then you will do it excellently. If that child is unhappy how is he or she going to do something?”

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