It makes sense – you as a parent love to run and want to share that experience with your kids. And with their boundless energy it only seems natural to encourage them to wear themselves out on a run. But kids are not adults, and therefore have not fully developed their bone and muscular structure, so it is important that you train kids specific to their needs – not one of an adult.
Let me be clear: a child aged 5 to 14 can most likely smoke a well-trained adult in a race – but that doesn’t mean they should! Historically (like original Olympic games historically) 8-year-olds would easily run sub-three hour marathons. Their oxygen capacity (VO2 Max) is higher than an adult, and their recovery time is faster. But they are also significantly less coordinated and at higher risk for injury, so while they may be able to place first in a road race – it is at a risk of an early overuse injury, stunted growth, and ultimately it doesn’t equate to their ability to run later in life. For young kids I would recommend a more varied physical activity program that incorporates multiple disciplines and muscle groups (which playgrounds naturally do – no need to get fancy). Running can definitely be a part of their activity – but running long distances over as sustained amount of time should not.
So how can you get your kids into running? Here are five tips to making sure you are keeping kids safe and having fun on the run:
Tip #1 Focus on fun
The best running form should almost feel like you are falling forward effortlessly. We have overridden this natural tendency as an adult, but kids do it naturally. When you watch a young kid run, it almost looks like they are about to tip forward. This is GREAT! Don’t try to correct their natural form at this point and instead focus on how fun it is to get out and run.
Kids are impressionable – and they will mimic your emotions and beliefs as they are still learning to form their own unique opinions. If you talk about running as a form of punishment (which a lot of sports do – go run laps if you make a mistake makes running out to be the bad guy), then they will learn to dread running. If you make it fun, and hide your own grimace when they are running at a full sprint and you are barely keeping up, they are more likely to learn to love running and maintain it as a lifetime sport.
Tip #2 Mind the distance
Kids under the age of 12 should use caution when running further than a 5K. There is a ton of bone growth that happens at this stage, and the constant pavement pounding can actually stunt growth (similar to how gymnasts often experience stunted growth from constant weight bearing activity). Though it can be tempting to sign them up for a half with you – hey it would make it easier if they could train with you! – stick to a 5K or mile fun run or less until they are a little older.
You should also talk to their pediatrician to make sure they are able to maintain appropriate growth when they are running young.
As a Girls on the Run coach, we trained eight to 12 year old girls to run a 5K, and only did that distance once over 12 weeks before running the race (and even then we mainly did a walk-run). Keep perspective and save the long distance runs for when they are a little older.
Tip #3 Fuel their runs
Kids are little calorie burning machines – so now is not the time to restrict eating! Make sure that you encourage eating a light snack before the run (think dry Cheerios) and a snack immediately after such as a banana and chocolate milk. As a mom of three I can attest to the fact that a hungry kid is a hangry kid. Make sure they have the sustenance they need and that you are replenishing their energy after running.
Tip #4 Let them lead
Don’t rush them – if they want to sprint for 100 yards, then skip, then stop to pet a dog – let them. Getting your kids into running won’t happen overnight – and they are only little once – let them experience it in the way that motivates them – and maybe even learn how to stop and smell the roses a bit yourself.
Tip #5 Have a bail plan
Whether you are going on a run in the neighborhood or doing a race, having a plan to let your kiddo bail is important. That can be as simple as you bringing the stroller along just in case, or having a friend or family member available at the halfway point who is willing to take over kid duty from there.
With any activity you are getting your child into at a young age – some days they are just not going to do it. You may have trained for months – hyped it up – and thought they were ready to run. Then race day comes and they won’t have it. Take a deep breath – remind yourself that it is ok – and if needed run the race solo or offer to let them ride in the stroller chariot instead. The worst thing would be to force them to run and have them associate road races with negativity.
Ultimately, it is safe to bring your kids along for short distance running until they are around 14 and can handle longer distances. Just remember to stay under a 5K, keep them fueled, and most importantly make it fun!