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What You Need to Know About Running and Your Child

from Claudia Piepenburg - Road Runner Sports Run Today Newsletter

Kids love to run. That's what they do. Watch a group of kids on a playground or in a park. They're seldom sitting still. When kids aren't sitting in front of the TV or a computer screen, they're in motion. Babies want to learn to crawl and once they've discovered crawling they want to walk. Then they become toddlers and they want to run. (The better to run away from mom when you've put something you picked up off the ground in your mouth!)

Kids should run. It's natural, it's fun and it beats the alternative…those often useless hours spent watching the tube and playing computer games. That said, it's important for parents to realize the importance of not pushing their children into competitive running before they're ready, either physically or mentally.


Keep Running Fun!
Games and Fun Runs
When Running Gets Competitive
Running at School
Kids Clubs and Programs
Running Gear for Children
Nutrition for Child Runners

Keep it Fun!

Because kids naturally love to run, it often looks like they're running a lot more than they really are. The average adult would probably get tired following a six-year-old during a typical day. Running up the stairs. Running down the stairs. Chasing after the family dog. Playing with a ball. Running to mom or dad for a big kiss when they come in the front door after they've been away. It seems like they're running seven hours out of eight. But running across the back yard to pick on the family poodle and running up the stairs to wake a sleeping sibling isn't the same thing as racing a 5K or even a mile. Kids, especially youngsters under the age of six, should run for two reasons:

  1. Running is the easiest and quickest way to get around
  2. They're playing games

The joy, freedom and sheer fun of running are unique to youth. Youngsters always enjoy running, it's an everyday activity, as natural as eating or even breathing. Adults usually lose that sense of fun and spontaneity somewhere along the way. There are moments: great runs that make you feel alive and one with the whole world, but hammering out a twenty-mile training run on a Saturday morning after a tough work week often doesn't fit that description! Your child's future may hold many long, tough runs. But their young years should be filled with running strictly "for the fun of it."

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Fun Runs and Other Games

Kids ¼ mile, ½ mile and one mile fun runs are a terrific way to introduce your child to organized, but non-competitive running. Kids runs have become a ubiquitous ancillary event at most road races during the past decade or so. Here're some tips to guarantee that the experience will be fun and rewarding for both you and your child.

  • Remember that spontaneity is key. Children don't plan anything days and weeks ahead.
  • If your child is under the age of five, you'll probably want to run with them. In fact, many race directors encourage parents to accompany their younger children on the course.
  • Celebrate the fun of the day. Pack a picnic lunch and share it as a family once you've finished running your race. Take photographs, not just of your child finishing the fun run but during the entire day. Bring a Frisbee to toss around.
  • If your child is three or under, remember that they don't have long attention spans and they'll probably begin to tire after a few hours of activity. Be aware and take them home before they start getting cranky!

If your kids are under the age of six, try playing running games with them on occasion. Unlike soccer, or other field games that involve a ball or other type of sports equipment, the purpose of these games is simply to run and have fun. Try these games with your child:
Catch Dad (or Mom)
Let your child chase you for short distances (no more than 200 feet). Listen for the sound of them coming up behind you and slow down so they can catch you.
Tag Me!
Run for a short distance, let your child catch you and tag you. Once your child has tagged you, he or she starts running and you try to catch them to tag them. You tag them, then they try to catch and tag you again.
What Animal Am I?
Run and then have your child guess what animal you are. If you're pretending you're an elephant for instance, swing your arms down in front of you like you have a trunk. If you're pretending to be a lion, roar once or twice on the run! Then have your child run and you guess what animal they're pretending to be.

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Getting Competitive

Eventually your child will want to run a race. Particularly if you or your spouse races, they'll want to emulate mom or dad. Most races start breaking down age groups with the 14 & under category. A few begin age group categories with 12 & under. Most marathons don't allow anyone under sixteen to compete. Although a child of seven or eight could compete in the 12 & under category, some physicians believe that it's best not to encourage competitive racing until a child is at least ten or older.

Unfortunately, there hasn't been much research done on the subject of children competing. Medical professionals and coaches often base their opinions on anecdotal "evidence". Mary Decker (nee Slaney) may have been an anomaly. On the other hand, so were a family of talented young runners from Southern California named Garritson. For a few years during the mid-80's the amazing youngsters ranging in age from six to their early teens raced nearly every weekend on the West Coast. They set incredible age group records; several are still standing. Many people in the running world thought that the kids might go on to collegiate and possibly Olympic success. Sadly, they seem to have disappeared.

If Decker hadn't started training hard and racing as a youngster, would she have gone on to become one of this country's most successful middle-distance runners? No one can know for sure, but there's a good chance that her exceptional determination coupled with her enormous talent, set the stage at an early age for her future achievements. And if the youngest Garritson children had put off racing until they were older would they still be competing and breaking records in the 21st century? Again, we'll never know. Everyone is different. All children are different. What works well for one child may cause problems with another.

As a parent of a child who wants to race you should focus on:

  1. Avoiding the little-league parent syndrome. Many communities around the country are asking parents to sign a form stating that they'll control their behavior at little-league games or run the risk of being tossed out. Don't try to live out your athletic ambitions through your child.
  2. Set a good example. Remember you're the best role model for your child. They want to emulate you. Keep that in mind when you're setting up your own racing schedule. (Do you really think it's a good idea to run a 10K on 10 miles a week? Don't give your child the impression that it is.) "Do as I say, not as I do" isn't necessarily the best way to teach your child life's lessons. Sensible training and racing applies!
  3. Define the differences between competition, winning and fitness. Competition doesn't have to mean competing only to win. In a road or track race there's only going to be one winner. Don't put pressure on your child to win. Teach them the joy of competing for the sheer pleasure of doing the very best you can possibly do on that particular day. And don't discourage your child if he or she clearly is going to be at or near the back of the pack when they race. Running is terrific exercise. Running will make them feel better. Kids develop strong bones when they run. They develop strong, healthy cardiovascular systems. Teach them that running is not only fun, it's good for them too! Of course, children often don't want to do what's good for them. (Eating vegetables is a good example!) But if you've avoided putting pressure on them to compete and win they'll enjoy running so much that they won't care if it's good for them!
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What about School?

Sadly, more and more schools around the country are dropping physical education programs around the country. And unfortunately running is still too often used as a punishment (i.e. football players who are "forced" to run several laps of the track because they were late for practice.) If you want your child to grow up healthy and strong, it's your obligation to carefully nourish their natural love of running before they become school age. Don't presume that your child will be lucky enough to attend a school where there are highly trained coaches and instructors teaching small, intimate groups.

In many areas of the country budget cuts have forced instructors and coaches to double their responsibilities. It's not unusual for the football coach to also be the track coach. At the middle school and high school levels, the coaches are nearly always teachers, as well. They're usually too busy to provide individual attention to any one child. Sometimes they aren't even trained in the discipline they're coaching. This often occurs with track and cross-country. And even if your child's track and/or cross-country coach is trained in exercise physiology, anatomy, sports psychology and track and cross-country rules and regulations, he or she will probably concentrate on the "stars" on the team. It's human nature to focus on the child who stands out; it occurs in the classroom too.

Keep all this in mind as your young runner goes off to school. If you've nurtured your child's love of running and taught him/her that running is a lifetime activity that should always be fun, he/she will have a solid perspective on where running fits into their life.

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Kids Organized Running Clubs & Programs

There are organized running clubs and programs that cater specifically to children located throughout the country. For more information on these groups contact the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) national office at 703-836-0558, www.rrca.org or United States of America Track & Field (USATF) at 317-261-0500, www.usatf.org.

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Shoes, Clothing and other Accessories

Children are lucky. They can get away with wearing a traditional "work-out" shoe for running. Tennis shoes, cross-trainers whatever they wear for gym classes will work. Shoes shouldn't become an issue until a child reaches the age of ten or twelve since young children are usually biomechanically efficient and don't run long distances.

Shoe companies do make running shoes in children's sizes. At some point in time your child will want a pair of their own. Make sure they fit your son or daughter properly. A good fit is crucial. For vanity's sake an adult will wear a pair of shoes a size too small. Don't force your child into a pair of uncomfortable shoes. Kids won't run if their feet hurt! (You might want to check out our selection of Boys and Girls Running Shoes. We also carry smaller sizes in adult shoes if your child is a little older - starting at women's size 5 and men's size 7 in many styles.)

You probably let your child wear your old cotton race t-shirts. When kids are small and running "diaper dashes" and "toddler trots", it looks cute to see them running along on their tiptoes with a shirt hanging down below their knees. But as with shoes, they're going to reach the age when they'll want their own running singlets and shorts. And of course if they're running on a middle school or high school track or cross-country team, they'll need the proper clothing. Comfort is key with clothing as with shoes. Very few adults wear heavy, bulky sweats to run in anymore. If you'd be miserable and cold running in the winter in a pair of heavy sweatpants and sweatshirt, so would your child. Conversely, because of their size children may not dissipate heat as well as adults. For that reason, they shouldn't wear heavy and hot cotton shirts and shorts, particularly if they're running further than a mile. The wonderful cooling, "wicking" fabrics on the market will keep them dry and comfortable.

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Eating & Drinking

Some kids like to eat. Others have to be coaxed through every meal. Running burns up a lot of calories. Don't set your child up for an eating problem later in life. Young girls particularly have a tendency to avoid foods in an attempt to stay slender or lose weight. Children as young as nine or ten can exhibit signs of an impending eating disorder. Watch for early warning signs:

  1. Picking at food.
  2. Moving the food around on the plate so it looks like it has been touched.
  3. "Too tired" or "no time" to eat.
  4. Eating only certain foods.

Since young children, especially those under the age of six, often need coaxing to eat, you'll have to determine what's normal behavior and what's not. By the time a child is in first or second grade, he or she should be eating three meals and several (healthy) snacks a day. If they show an interest in running and have started competing in an occasional weekend fun run, they'll need to maintain or even increase their caloric intake.

Don't let your child drink too much soda. Many people in the medical community now believe that soda may prevent calcium absorption. If your child doesn't absorb calcium, they won't develop strong, healthy bones. Limit your child's soda intake to one or two a week. Instead encourage them to drink water, milk and fruit juices. Set a good example: drink a big glass of water before your run and another when you finish. Be particularly careful if your child is running a race in hot weather. Because they have less skin surface, children don't sweat as much as adults. When they run in hot weather, they need to drink frequently.


Run Today contributor information: Claudia Piepenburg has been running for over 20 years and is the current editor of Peak Running Performance. She holds or has held state age-group records in Michigan, North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Virginia. In 1990, she was ranked 18th fastest master's woman in the world and 8th fastest master's woman in the U.S. in 1990 and 1991. She competed in the 1988 Olympic Marathon trials, placed 20th woman overall in the 1987 Boston Marathon and women's winner of the 1986 Virginia Beach Marathon. Claudia is also the editor of Running for the Soul. She can be reached at cpiepe@roadrunnersports.com.

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