What You Need to Know About
Running and Your Child from Claudia Piepenburg -
Road Runner Sports Run Today
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
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.
Games and Fun Runs
When Running Gets Competitive
Running at School
Kids Clubs and
Running Gear for Children
Nutrition for Child Runners
Keep it Fun!
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:
- Running is the easiest and quickest
way to get around
- 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." back to top
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:
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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- 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.
- 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!
- 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!
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. back to
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.
Kids Organized Running Clubs &
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. back to top
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. back to top
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
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
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
- Picking at food.
- Moving the food around on the plate so it
looks like it has been touched.
- "Too tired" or "no time" to eat.
- 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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.