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Born to Run—Or Are They? A Guide to Kids and Running

Here’s how to set your little striders up for long-term health and fitness success.

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If you watch kids on a playground, zipping across the baseball field, or just trying to catch the bus, you will notice they run with an easy, natural stride. After all, as soon as we learn to walk, we start to run. And when we do it in our youth, we usually do it for one reason: for fun. Keeping it that way is one of the biggest opportunities, but also can be one of the biggest challenges.

A Complete Guide to Kids Running

Like walking, dancing, jumping rope, riding bikes, or team sports, running is an excellent way to help incorporate the 60 minutes of daily activity recommended for children by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Here’s how to get your kids running safely and more regularly.

What Age Should Kids Start?

Research-based guidelines about kids and running are surprisingly lacking in the medical field. While there are set parameters from orthopedic surgeons on the dangers of too many baseball throws or soccer kicks, there is almost nothing to help steer parents who are raising mini runners. The long term effects of distance running on developing bodies and minds simply haven’t been thoroughly studied. However, the resounding medical advice is basically, if the child is excited and interested and there are no major injuries, running at almost any age is acceptable.

Erica Gminski, youth programs director for the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) agrees that as long as running is presented as fun and not overly structured for very young children, it should be fine at any age.

The RRCA’s Fundamentals of Youth Running gives general running guidelines per age group that might help parents understand how their running participation can progress:

  • Ages 3-9: Regular exercise is encouraged, including organized running that is fun.
  • Ages 8-12: Participation in a running group systematic training that lasts two to three months.
  • Puberty: Kids can slowly increase training distances and participate in competitive training.

These guidelines, however, can vary based on the individual.

“Usually children are ready to start running longer distances—5 kilometer (5K) races, for example—between ages 8 and 10,” says Dr. Mark Halstead, a pediatric sports medicine specialist at Washington University in St. Louis. “However, a child’s individual rate of development and desire to run matters more than his or her actual age.”

Allison Riley, Ph.D., senior vice president of programming and evaluation at Girls on the Run notes that GOTR programming starts at third grade for a very specific reason. “Research shows us that by age nine girls’ self-confidence begins to drop. In addition, physical activity levels begin to decline. By targeting this age group, we can change that trajectory,” she says. 

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Running can also be seen as a building block to other sports the child might be interested in like soccer, basketball, football, or tennis. Halstead notes that soccer players have been known to log up to 5 miles out on the field, with hardly any concern as to whether soccer practice multiple times a week could be harmful. “It always comes down to whose motivation is it, the parent’s or the kid’s? If the kid has the proper approach and appropriate training programs, I think it’s fine,” he says.

“Some kids aren’t interested in ball sports or team sports to begin with, so presenting running as an activity that they can participate in as an individual or on a team like track and cross country, may be attractive,” says Gminski.

Just like with adults, excessive training can lead to injury—which is why experts emphasize keeping exercise fun. “If the kid is having pain during the run, that is a problem, which needs to be addressed as soon as possible. Soreness afterward is usually not an issue but pain while running is a big concern,” says Dr. Halstead.

The bottom line is to consult your pediatrician or physician and watch for signs of stress or pain in your child if they begin a running regimen. The key is to run for fun, otherwise you may be setting your child up for failure or a chronic injury.

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The Benefits of Running When You’re Young

If you are a runner, you know that the activity has numerous benefits. And children see many of those same benefits like improved sleep, increased self-esteem and confidence, decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and lower blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels.

According to research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, running dramatically increases bone strength in early adopters and may ward off osteoporosis later in life.

Gminski adds that physical activity, like running, for kids can improve concentration, grades, and test scores. “Having confidence in trying something new, sticking to a routine, and the ability to set and achieve goals are lifestyle-improving benefits,” she says.

Statistically, the benefits are overwhelmingly positive. “An independent study conducted by Dr. Maureen Weiss at University of Minnesota, showed that 97 percent of our girls learned critical life skills that they use, not only in [Girls on the Run], but beyond the season,” says Riley. 

How to Make Running Fun for Kids

So what’s the best way to get your kids up and running? Check your school for programs like mileage club, your local town parks and recreation department website for running clubs or races, or look for programs like RRCA’s Kids Run the Nation or Girls on the Run

For kids that are generally inactive, Gminski recommends to start out walking with them and gradually increase time and distance. Eventually you can introduce running in short distances, like to the mailbox, the street corner, or a distant tree. If the parents are also runners, asking their child to accompany them on a run allows an opportunity to teach running etiquette and safety and opens up an opportunity for bonding and conversation.

Older kids may also enjoy joining their middle or high school track and field team. But remember, “not all kids are motivated by competition with others,” says Gminski, “but most are motivated by incentives.” This can include stickers, trophies, water bottles, or other proud displays of participation.

Running also doesn’t necessarily have to be about running. “Mix it up,” says Riley. “The focus doesn’t have to be on running all the time, even if that’s one of the focuses. Kids love to dance, jump rope, and play tag—tag never gets old. There are so many ways to get active.”

Riley also notes that running should be a safe space where social-emotional health is emphasized. “We say, ‘sport builds character,’ but this is not always the case. Playing sports can have the opposite effect in some environments,” she says. “But when intentionally designed, there is so much that kids can get from physical activity and running programs that positively impacts whole health.”

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Age-Appropriate Running Games for Kids

Relay races, tag (and all its creative variations), specially planned scavenger hunts, and red light/green light can add more fun into running sessions for kids. Or give the following age-appropriate drills a try.

Kindergarten to Second Grade

Game: Follow My Lead

Start in a single-file line, at least an arm’s length away from the person in front of you. Everyone will start out walking. Next, the first person in line will call out a movement (skipping, sliding, galloping, hopping, jumping). Everyone will do that movement for 10 seconds. After 10 seconds, the person in the front of the line will run to the back of the line. Now it is the next person’s turn to call out a command. Repeat as many times as you want.

Third Grade to Fifth Grade

Game: The Dice Is Right

Divide up into teams of two and start each group behind a cone. Place six numbered markers for each team on the other side of the room or outdoor area—face up so you can see the numbers. The first player in each group rolls a die and runs to find the numbered spot and brings it back to the team. The next player rolls the die as soon as the first player comes back and goes in search of that number. The teams continue until all six spots are collected, re-rolling as necessary if numbers have already been collected. The first team to collect all of the numbers wins. (Vary the distance of number placement based on ability of the players.)

Sixth Grade to Eighth Grade

Game: Obstacle Course

Think outside the box on this and utilize household items or other sports equipment to create an obstacle course where you run, jump, side step and sprint. The person who completes the course in the fastest time wins!

Example:

  • Lay hoops down on the lawn as an agility test.
  • Set up toys or soccer/baseball nets to climb or jump over.
  • Mark designated areas with cones to sprint back and forth.
  • Use a length of rope and do single-leg (or double!) lateral jumps over it.
  • Mark your driveway with sidewalk chalk to side-step or jump to designated points.
  • Create a finish-line banner for each participant to cross.
  • Take photos and post to social media to encourage others to do the same.

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