Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Photo of Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

How Much Mileage For A Prodigy?

Last weekend there was a piece in the New York Times on 16 year old Alana Hadley who is running more than 100 miles per week in hopes of breaking 2:40 for the marathon.  Her story is the most recent chapter in a long running debate about heavy training in general and marathon running in specific for teenagers and even younger kids.   I had several e-mail exchanges with Terry Laughlin and Amby Burfoot on the topic and here are some thoughts that might be of interest.

  • Is this a good idea?  Who knows and who knows what motivates young people to do these things.  Everyone worries about parental pressure, but this is probably true for prodigies in any field.
  • Would this be a big deal if she were a swimmer, a golfer or a tennis player?  These sports are full of teenage girls who have won at the highest levels.   Some of the early winners go on to long successful careers while others are one hit wonders.
  • There is a general rule of thumb that most people can only really train at the highest level for perhaps 6-8 years.  This might be getting stretched with the emergence of financial opportunities, but eventually people get injured or choose to focus on other things.
  • For younger runners is it best to focus on shorter distances and move up later?  In other words train for the mile or 2-mile (3,000m) and let the longer races come.
  • This has happened before.   The best example was Wesley Paul who broke three hours when he was 9 years old.   Paul still runs but was never world class.  The link below is  what looks like a pretty good list of year specific records for the marathon.


Don’t forget Gerry Lindgren

In 1964, 18 year old Gerry Lindgren “beat the Russians” in the 10,000m in the USA-USSR track meet held in the Los Angeles Coliseum.  At the height of the Cold War this was seen as a David and Goliath like accomplishment. His high school 5k record stood for 40 years and is still probably the best ever if you consider is was run on a dirt track.  The brief video clip below shows Lindgren at age 19 breaking the world 6 mile record as he is nipped at the tape by the legendary Billy Mills.   Lindgren competed at the 1964 Olympics, and then went on to disappear and appear several more times and is a now you see him now you don’t collection of urban legends.   Perhaps the greatest ever and greatest never all wrapped up into one person.


click here for video

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