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How to Grow a Runner

Learn how to encourage kids to take up running for fun, fitness, and long-lasting health and well-being, from Marc Bloom, author of Young Runners: The Complete Guide to Healthy Running for Kids From 5 to 18.

The effects of very early activity can pave the way for physical expression later on, according to Daniel Gould, Ph.D., a sports psychologist at Michigan State and director of the school’s Institute for Study of Youth Sports. He likens it to children who read better if parents read to them when they’re young. Before kids can even walk, engage them in play on the floor, suggests Gould. Dance with your child. Use physical activity toys. Buy plenty of balls. When the child reaches toddler age, play chasing games in the backyard. Get kids jumping, running, hopping, and throwing, says Gould.

TODDLER TROTS
While age 3 or 4 is too young for any real running — kids’ bodies are not developed enough and they don’t have the attention span — they can still participate in the Toddler Trots or Diaper Dashes of up to 100 yards that are sprouting up at family-oriented running events. Just point them in the right direction, get your cameras ready…and watch them go! Children will start learning good habits and pick up family cues that running is something to do and has rewards, whether a medal, hug, or ice pop. “As long as the child is capable of running without falling down, it’s okay to run in brief spurts,” says Dr. Teri McCambridge, a Baltimore pediatrician who chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics Sports Medicine and Fitness Committee. Don’t let a 3- or 4-year-old run loose without supervision because their vision is not yet mature, making it difficult for them to track and judge the speed of moving objects.

FIRST STRIDES
At school age, 5 or 6, kids are developed enough, physically, emotionally, and intellectually, to get into the practice of running. They have some ability to focus and a short but adequate attention span — enough to follow basic instructions and function in a group. They learn by trial and error and need “space” for learning. Have them join with other children in running. Play tag games. Have kids run around cones, flags, soccer balls, or stuffed animals. They should run in short bursts. They’ll go fast, peter out, then want to sprint again. Have them run like animals with movements of rabbits, horses, or butterflies. Set kids up in relays in which they slap another child’s hand as a “pass.” Have kids run through hoops or from tree to tree.

In his City Sports for Kids track program, under the auspices of the New York Road Runners Foundation, head coach Bob Glover (co-author of the best-selling Competitive Runner’s Handbook) has the youngest kids play Road Runner, in which they run a couple of laps of a 200-meter track, then hide behind a coach. Or the children will run a lap or two, then sit down for a running-related story like one in the Berenstain Bears series.

If children tire and want to stop, let them. Walking is fine too. Just don’t let kids get bored. Don’t have them run in a straight line for long. When I ran years ago with my young daughters, at corners I would put out my hand to indicate left or right turn. They pleaded embarrassment, but I think they liked the bit. I also sang songs and played games in which I asked them to guess what I was describing, which could be a friend, a fruit, or anything in between.

Think outside the box. The Big Sur Marathon’s Just Run kids’ program in California has a “principals’ challenge,” in which school kids chase the principal around a track or field. “The principal gets a 50-yard head start,” says program founder Mike Dove. He’s learned that when you send kids around a path for a certain number of laps, instead of just calling out, “Lap three…two to go,” tell them they will get a hand stamp after each lap with an animal or star on it. It’s a great motivator and source of pride. “Kids go home and tell their parents, ‘Look, I got five stamps on my hand,’” says Dove.

Dove, 61, a top masters runner, has learned other devices in nurturing the youngest athletes. When kids run relays on a loop around a soccer ball 40 yards downfield, he finds that about 80 percent of them will run around the ball from the right side. He has the children alternate right and left to promote agility and balance and to strengthen different muscle groups. And the kids enjoy changing directions.

PUNISHMENT TABOO

Never use running as a form of punishment, not even in the most subtle, implicit way. No extra laps or whatever for a child not paying attention or some other misdeed. Have your radar set for your child’s soccer or basketball practice, where coaches tend to dish out such nonsense. If necessary, be ready to convert a negative into a positive by reinforcing all the happy talk your running child should already know.

DRESS FOR SUCCESS
Kids are fussy about what they run in, especially as they get older, and should not be held to adult standards of running attire. They can run in extra-long shorts and goofy shirts; they don’t always need the “right” fabrics and styling. Encourage kid-pleasing getups, even costumes, if that helps get them out the door. Unless it’s hot, don’t fret over something heavy tiring them out. There’s a children’s run in East Lansing, Michigan, the Dinosaur Dash 5K, in which the kids run or walk in dinosaur headdresses. A Brontosaurus Blitz 3K youth race in Tustin, California, drew 2,458 participants in 2008, making it the third largest children’s event in the state. You can’t go wrong with kids and dinosaurs.

PUSH, PULL, PROD
Experts say not to push kids to run but instead let them decide, let them ask — but is that always the best strategy? There are many things that children like and need but don’t jump at; they can often do with a little prodding. Some kids are shy and may not welcome the idea of joining other kids in running. But running is also a way to break that shyness and make new friends, a huge incentive. As Deena Kastor, the 2004 Olympic marathon bronze medalist, once told me, “I was a painfully shy child; that’s why my parents pushed me into running. It made all the difference with socialization and self-esteem. For me, running meant going to practice to be with friends.”

Find a middle ground between taking your lead from the child and prodding, says Gould, the Michigan sports psychologist. He cautions adults not to let prodding become an excuse to push kids too far. In his studies on what he calls the “professionalism of youth sports,” Gould has found large numbers of “over-involved” parents interfering with their child’s development as an athlete or person.

BEST PLACES TO RUN
While it’s usually easiest to run from the front door, paved roads are hard on children’s legs, and sidewalks and traffic limit options for fun and games. Still, for time-pressured parents, there’s nothing wrong with taking young ones around the block a few times. Dr. Bill Roberts, past president of the American College of Sports Medicine and medical director of the Twin Cities Marathon, measured a quarter mile from his house and had his kids at 5 and 6 (after they asked) run out and back, a half mile, a few times a week. When kids are older, you can run the roads as transportation, to an ice cream parlor or, in the case of Albuquerque coach Adam Kedge, to a bagel shop for Sunday brunch. Kedge and his sons, 8 and 9, do a 2-mile “bagel run,” eat, then run 2 miles back, all the while calling themselves by the names of local running stars.

But out on the roads, there’s always risk that parents running with children will “carry” them too far, beyond their enjoyment and what’s good for them. Most 7-, 8-, or 9-year-olds should not be doing an adult-level 5 or 6 miles at a clip.

Try going to parks, fields, and tracks. At parks, grass surfaces, dirt trails, and wooded paths are great for varied loops and distances, seeing other people, animals and wildlife, getting shade from the sun, finding water fountains and bathrooms, creating imaginative running games, and running hills, which kids love. Pushing up is a challenge (and teaches kids to coordinate arms and legs); flying down is a game. Soccer and ball fields are simple but serviceable. Kids can do laps, cut across, stop and sprint, run the bases; a little open space goes a long way.

Tracks offer precise distances, and running laps does not have to be tedious, as some say. They’re ideal for relays, for alternating walking and running, for motivating kids with distance goals like running a mile and hitting certain times. Always vary the distance, and use time goals sparingly. Most tracks circle a football or soccer field, so you have a grassy area for more variation. It’s easy to reward laps covered with ribbons, stickers, bookmarks, and such, or use the Just Run hand-stamp idea.

One school in the Just Run program, Carmel River Elementary, has a two-lane, 200-meter track that kids use during PE class and recess. It’s easy to keep records of laps run and distance covered and integrate all the calculations into classroom teaching, says the principal, Jay Marden, a former national-caliber 10,000-meter runner.

In New York City, Public School 102 in East Harlem, part of the New York Road Runners Foundation Mighty Milers program, benefits from having a track a block away. PE teacher Steve Sloan takes students from pre-K through fifth grade to the track for laps. Each student runs a mile or more at least twice a week (some walk). In the 2007–8 term, the youngsters averaged over 200 miles per student for the school term. He says, “One day a fourth grader told me, ‘This is getting easier every time I do it.’ I told him, ‘That’s what I’ve been waiting to hear.’” Sloan says he has some youngsters up to 10 laps, more than 2 miles.

While tracks can inspire children to improve, they can also call attention to the slowest kids, who need to know that there are many measures of success, not just a lap count or time.

When Dr. Jennifer Sluder, a pediatrician at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, observed schoolchildren running on a track for a research project, she found one excited boy who came up to her and said, “Last time I finished last. This time I wasn’t. I’ve been running with my grandmother two times a week.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Marc Bloom, author of Young Runners: The Complete Guide to Healthy Running for Kids From 5 to 18 (Copyright © 2009 by Marc Bloom), has been a leading figure in track and field, running, and the health and fitness movement for nearly forty years. The author of several books, he served as editor in chief of The Runner magazine from 1978 to 1987 and has been a senior contributor to Runner’s World since 1988, covering events worldwide and writing articles on health, fitness, and training. He lives in New Jersey with his family.

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