How old were you when you started running? I was 10. Today, I run every day. Simply put, I love running and I run various events from relays to ultra-marathons. This year, my next run is with the “Witness to Fitness” team at the Vermont City Marathon with a group of very different runners, from new to experienced.
Today, we’re seeing more and more kids running. Some of them are very young. Running is a wonderful activity for children, for many different reasons.
Yet, there are persistent questions I get from parents: How young is too young? How many miles are too many? Won’t they get hurt? The cultural context of our time is that kids “shouldn’t overdo it,” that 30 or 50 – or, even 70 miles — per week is an unusual running mileage for a teenager. We tend to think of running as a punishment, but never has it been more critical that kids get moving. Studies show that 17% of American children ages 2-10 are overweight and fewer than 6% of middle school kids attend physical education classes.
Here are some healthy ways you can encourage your child or children to run:
- Follow your child’s passion. First and foremost, a love of running should be driven by the child himself or herself — not the parent or coach. The parent or coach may encourage and promote excellence for sure, but bottom line is it needs to be fun for the child.
- Keep it age appropriate. As in adult training, if you progress too quickly you run the risk of injury. Running allows children to be physically active at their own pace. Respect that. Kids should not start running before kindergarten. At ages 5-8, running can be encouraged as part of play (remember the game of tag?). At ages 9-12, kids may start participating in races or running as part of a team sport.
- Mix it up with other sports. As with elite adult runners, it is also beneficial (and injury-reducing) to cross train. Keep it well rounded with your kids: try soccer, hockey, basketball, the list goes on…let them play it all and discover what they like.
- Get the right shoes. The great thing about running is that it’s a low-cost sport. Often times all you need to buy are a pair of shoes. That said, make the best choice for your child. Start early with a good pair of shoes (or even no shoe at all). This allows your child’s feet to develop intrinsic muscles and proper running technique. Barefoot Running at Harvard is an excellent resource for information on this topic.
- Align fitness goals with other goals. Is your child running his or her first 5K? How about also making it a goal to read five books, or do five volunteer activities while training? Being a well-rounded athlete also means being a well-rounded person. Find new and inventive ways to help your child develop.
What may be even more important than all of these tips is family activity. Set an example for your children by getting active yourself. There are a lot of local, community events that can help you get started. Try the Catamount Tuesday Night Trail Running Series: Families of all ages are welcome and you can trail race various distances. RunVermont is another wonderful resource for families as it offers running events for all ages.
See you out on the trail!
Sahmon Fallahian, MD, is a family medicine physician with the Colchester Family Practice.