While watching kids on the playground, it’s easy to notice how running comes easily to them. They’re having fun!  Running can provide children with a great form of exercise as well as help develop a healthy lifestyle and habits for years to come. As the frequency of gym classes offered per week in schools decreases, coupled with the growing percentage of obese children in our society, encouraging an active and healthy lifestyle is becoming ever more important.

An appropriate running program can prove to be very beneficial for children. Considering safe practices and training for running is also beneficial for young athletes to avoid sports-related injuries and maintaining healthy bones, joints and muscles.

When could my child safely start a running program?

Younger children under the age of 5 should not start a specific running program. Running during play activities is fine, however. At very young ages, children have not yet achieved a mature gait and running pattern, and a structured running program is not appropriate.

ImageChildren around the ages of 5-8 have developed more mature gait patterns and the mechanics of running become easier for them. Running in terms of sprinting on the playground and games of tag should be encouraged. Some children around this time may develop an interest in a more structured form of running. Training for a 5k is not appropriate, but training for half-mile fun runs may be considered. Walking when tired and having fun should be encouraged.

Pre-teens ages 9-12 may choose to start running long distances up to 1-3 miles. Pre-teens shouldn’t focus solely on running, and other sports in addition to running should be encouraged. The Vermont City Marathon offers a fun run for young runners.

During the early teen years, kids have the opportunity to begin running on organized sports teams such as track or cross-country teams in school. The focus on training and competing starts to become a little more serious. There should be an emphasis on good form with stretching and strengthening exercises with the intention of injury prevention.  Starting good habits now will help with injury prevention with running into adulthood as well.

Can any old pair of shoes be worn?

A well-fitting pair of running shoes is important. For kids who are ready to begin a running program of any distance and intensity, it is time to graduate from those blinking, cartoon inspired shoes to an appropriate sneaker. A proper sneaker can help with injury prevention from the ground up, including preventing shin splints, ankle pain, knee pain and hip pain. Local specialty running stores are often a good resource for proper shoe fitting and can help in the selection of the right shoe.

What to do if there is an injury?

Any complaints of pain should be taken seriously. Trying to continue running through the pain is dangerous and can only lead to increased injury. Unfortunately injuries can happen. Injuries can happen for different reasons including an acute onset, such as rolling an ankle, or the result of wear and tear on our muscles, joints and tendons over time. If your child is experiencing pain or irritation, here are some tips to help them feel better:

  • Rest! Take some time off from running and activity to recover.
  • Ice the affected area for 10-15 minutes 2 or 3 times a day, especially after exercise.
  • Applying compression can help with inflammation.
  • Elevate the affected area.

If your child isn’t getting better or has a more serious injury, such as a bad ankle sprain, call your doctor. Physical therapy is also very helpful and can help your child feel better and get back to sports and running with a decreased risk of re-injury.

Any steps to take in preventing an injury?

With starting any exercise program, including running or joining a sports team, an easy-does-it approach is best. Avoiding overdoing it with excessive running and remember that gradually building up tolerance and endurance is important. Participating in various sports and recreational activities also plays an important role in injury prevention by helping to strengthen and train muscles to react and be strong.

Appropriate shoe wear as noted above is also very important in injury prevention.

Stretching is very important. Stretching our muscles after working out decreases the risk of injury, helps our muscles feel better and decreases muscle soreness. Stretching on a regular basis helps improve flexibility, which is an important part of being able to run well and injury free.

Alexis Hannigan, DPT, is a physical therapist at the UVM Medical Center Rehabilitation Therapies Orthopedic Specialty Center.

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