Kids and Running

Family having fun running
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It's hard to beat running as a family hobby: It's easy to learn, requires little equipment, can be done almost anywhere at any time, and helps everyone get some of that all-important daily physical activity. Plus, fun run events are motivating, plentiful, and yes, fun! 

Benefits of Kids Running

When kids run, especially as part of a special program or a consistent family routine, they create a regular exercise habit. That's something that will benefit them both mentally and physically for life. They also learn the power of perseverance and practice: That they can stick with and succeed at something, even when it's hard.

Running is also a good option for kids who don't care for or struggle with traditional team sports, like soccer, football, or baseball. Success is individual, yet running can still be a social activity, especially if the child joins a track team. So kids can work on both their confidence and their social skills at the same time.

If Your Child Has a Health Condition

Running also helps kids manage chronic conditions, such as depression, ADHD, obesity, and diabetes. Exercise is critical for both physical symptoms (such as weight gain) and emotional ones (such as anxiety). Running builds stamina, strength, and self-esteem, all of which can be important for children facing health challenges.

Injuries

Like any sport, running does carry a risk of injuries. Runners can suffer both overuse injuries, like tendinitis, and traumatic injuries, like sprains or fractures. To lower the chance of injury, make sure your child has good running shoes and knows the importance of warming up, cooling down, and stretching, as well as letting the body recover between runs. It's also important to make sure they understand the difference between discomfort or soreness and pain. A little soreness is fine and expected, but kids shouldn't run if they are in pain.

Asthma

Some kids with seasonal allergies and asthma will experience asthma symptoms when they run. And other kids without these diagnoses may still have symptoms such as shortness of breath. This is called exercise-induced asthma. Kids with any kind of asthma can and should exercise (although perhaps not in very cold weather, outdoors when air quality is poor, or if they have a cold). They just might need treatment before, during, or after exercise. Talk with your child's doctor to make a plan.

When and How to Start Kids Running

Three-year-olds are natural runners. Some parents may sometimes wonder how to get their preschoolers to ​stop running. But structured running in a race or alongside an adult is different than just bouncing around the playground or backyard.

So what's a safe age for kids to start running as a sport? Age 3 is a little young for kids to start a formal running program. They may not grasp the concept of running a race, and one bad experience might turn them off from running in the future.

Instead, encourage 3- and 4-year-olds to run by playing tag, doing an obstacle course, even chasing after the dog—anything, as long as it doesn't feel like a formal, structured program. Try playing some running games to get them moving and having fun. You'll help instill in them a love of running that will hopefully develop into a lifelong running habit.

If your child shows an interest in running, kindergarten is a good time to look for youth running program or enter your child in a local kids' race (usually short distances of 100 to 400 meters). If you decide to start your child in a running program, just make sure it isn't too regimented or intense. The idea is for kids to get some exercise, have fun, and learn to love running.

Children this age can also start running informally and joining in community fun runs. Very talented kids under 8 can participate in the Junior Olympics. That program offers events for kids in 2-year age groupings, starting from 8 and under and continuing to age 18. Most kids start competing in cross-country running in middle school or high school.

Best Distances for Kid Runners

Let your child set the pace. This applies whether they're 3 years old or 13. Constantly feeling like you're falling behind is no fun! Instead, set small goals so kids feel successful. These goals don't need to be about running fast. Some could be about adding distance, experimenting with a new type of run (intervals on a track or visiting an unfamiliar trail, for example), or playing a game, like trying to spot all 26 letters of the alphabet on signs you pass.

Running together will help you gauge your child's pace and ability. Don't underestimate how far they can run and how fast. By around age 8, some kids are capable of running a full 5K (3.1 miles), but you know your child's strengths and limits best. If she is already active—swimming, biking, playing soccer, and so on, four or more days a week—she probably has enough endurance to go the distance. If not, work up to it together. Don't run every day, and remember to keep drinking plenty of water, before, during, and after exercise.

Running Shoes for Kids

Just about the only piece of equipment kids really need for running is shoes; any comfortable, not-too-bulky clothing suitable for physical activity will work. For shoes, shop at a specialty running store if you can. You're looking for shoes that are supportive and well cushioned and that fit well. Err on the side of a slightly bigger shoe vs. a snug fit, since your child's feet may swell when running. It's also important to:

  • Try on the shoe for fit and comfort. Don't just buy the last pair your child had in a bigger size. Have him move around in the shoes in the store to see how they feel.
  • Avoid choosing a shoe based on looks. Your child may think a shoe looks cool. But if it doesn't fit or won't last, it's a waste of money.
  • Replace running shoes frequently, about every four to six months. Even if the shoe still fits, its cushioning will break down.

How to Find Kids' Running Programs and Races

Check with your child's school or your town or city's recreation program. Some churches offer running teams or clubs that are open to kids outside of the congregation.

Some programs are very informal and just have practice at a local track once or twice a week. Others are organized track and field teams that compete in youth track meets, where kids participate in events such as the 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, relay races, as well as some field events. Most youth track meets require kids to be at least 7 years old to participate.

To find a local kids' race, look on sites such as Active.com for events in your area. Many local 5Ks have a shorter kids' race before or after the 5K event. Check the race's website to see what they offer. The exciting race atmosphere may get your kids even more interested and excited about running.

Kids and Competition

If your child will be running races, you'll need to talk regularly about competition. (Running programs, such as Girls On the Run, incorporate this into their curriculum.) Don't compare your children to others, or let them do it themselves. Instead, focus on fun and setting achievable goals.

Your support and encouragement will be very important to your young runners. Be sure to offer specific words of praise: maybe for beating their best time, but maybe for setting a pace and sticking to it, or for cheering on a friend.

Running can certainly be its own reward. But you can also boost the kid appeal with some motivating activities, such as tracking their mileage, finding new places to explore, or participating in a fun run together. During a run, point out accomplishments: "You've gone 2 miles already!" or "Look at that hill you just conquered!" Make small goals, like running to an upcoming stop sign or other landmarks. Never push too hard or you risk turning kids off for a long time to come.

More Ways to Run

Games that incorporate running are great for building endurance, in addition to being fun. Or maybe your child would prefer a sport that incorporates running, such as soccer, lacrosse, field hockey, or even tennis.

It's also motivating for kids to watch or volunteer for running events. Take them to see a track or cross-country meet, at a middle school if possible so they can identify with runners who are close to their own age. Volunteering at a water station during a fun run or charity 5K can help your child feel important and part of a community of runners.

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