Running is a sport you can participate in for the rest of your life. Long-term, football and baseball can wear you down with injury. Running is there with you. It’s the ultimate gateway and maintenance sport. The best way to get those long-term benefits is by introducing running early on in a child’s development.
Despite being so tiny, kids somehow have a great deal of energy to burn. Also, despite their lack of coordination, they tend to run everywhere and enjoy doing so. Yet, you don’t often see kids in running-centric activities like track & field very often. It’s more than a little surprising.
Now, I don’t have kids, but a number of my friends do. Their general philosophy is parents revolve around figuring out ways to exhaust their kids so they’ll sleep at night. So let’s just ignore the obvious health benefits of structured running activities for a second and really play-up the headline here: We have a new way to tire your kids out.
Also, yes, running offers great health benefits to the kids too.
Encourage Your Kids to Run (Among Other Things)
Of course, you don’t want to force things on your kids, but a gentle nudge in the direction of running certainly couldn’t hurt. They’re going to run around anyway, after all.
Running is the basis for all exercising and nearly every single sport. It’s also how most children get around. You don’t often see them walking when they aren’t forced to by teachers. They want to run. They need to burn off the energy. So, it’s best to lay the keel at an early age. Embrace the running as an investment in later health and activity. Every parent worries about gateway drugs; running is a gateway sport. It is, uniquely, a good thing to worry about.
One of the best ways to develop their interest in running is to apply it to other sports they play. Running is a great conditioning and weight-loss exercise. If your child plays football, baseball, or any other sport, they’re going to need endurance, strength, and speed. Running is an all-in-one approach to improvement. Learning proper footwork will allow kids both a lighter touch when striking the ground and better footing. They will run faster and with greater balance and maneuverability. Learning this at a young age will promote increased health in their feet, ankles, knees, and hips in the long-term.
Start them off by teaching them the correct running form.
Organizing the Ages
Working out can be taxing on the body. Since children are, well, kids, their bodies are in a constant state of flux and can be exerted to a limited extent. From the ages of three to nine, consider a loose exercise regimen; something more focused on fun than anything else. Brevity is also a key here. Not all kids are going to respond to structured running, even if it’s still pretty loose. If you’re set up at a specific track, only go from one end to the other. Swing back around only if the child is interested and not exhausted. If you aren’t using goalposts, run for about 10 minutes. It may not seem like a lot–kids can run around all day–but if they’re feeling boxed in by the structure and somewhat uninterested, keeping this short is for the best.
Starting at age 10 or so–and if they’re still interested–add more organization to it. Timed sprints or local mile-marathons. Nothing extreme, of course, but a bit more structured than before. Look up local races in your neighborhood or sign up for track and field programs in the community or at your child’s school. If there aren’t any, set up little relay races with your kid and his/her friends.
You always have to be careful when starting a brand new exercise. Even if this new exercise is working the same muscles you tend to work out anyway, inexperience can still be a factor and can lead to injuries. While children run constantly and uncontrollably, focusing them into exercise routines can run the risk of damaging muscles that simply are not ready to be worked. That can have long-term ramifications for the little ones. Trust me, parents get the blame for everything in the end anyway, but let’s try and keep the list as short as possible.
Be very watchful during these runs. Kids develop at very different rates; don’t overexert them.
Children under five should have an especially limited workout routine. That means low speed, intensity, frequency (only one or two days a week) and interval (10 minutes or so). The child should “dash” for around 430 yards (the equivalent of 1300 feet). Don’t worry too much about their form (but try to keep arm flailing to a minimum; it’s bad form and a waste of oxygen). This may sound like a long distance, but have you ever seen these kids play in their element?
They’ll be fine.
For children over the age of five, check out local fun runs for kids. It adds a social element to the workout and a great way for kids to make new friends. If there aren’t any in your area, you can simply do it on your own. In the five and over age group, running half a mile to a full mile is an appropriate range.
For the 12-and-over group, you can get into more exciting territory, but let’s make a special note first. The 12-year-olds should have decent running experience beforehand. A Johnny Come Lately shouldn’t leap into marathon-type runs without proper time and training beforehand. That said, there are 5K runs that accept children 12 and older. Of course, make sure your kid is interested in doing this first. 5Ks can be very exciting, but they’re not easy.
Running Exercises for Kids
I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but be careful when exercising your kids. These warm-up exercises are light and more about structuring how they should run rather than exerting them.
Stride Drill: Have your kid place their hands on a wall in a leaning position, while almost maintaining a straight line with their bodies. Once in a plank-like position, have them run in place–up with their heels, down on their toes. They will drive with their hips and knees, and over a longer period, give them greater stride-length. Do 5 sets of 20 seconds. Give the kid a good bit of rest in between sets. This isn’t Parris Island with Gunnery Sergeant Hartman.
Arm Drives: I mentioned earlier, and it bears repeating: kids love to flail like used car lot tube men. It’s a waste of energy and eats up the oxygen of the body, which is a bad thing during a run. This exercise is meant to introduce proper running form. Here, the kid sits on the floor with their arms bent at 90 degrees. Have them swing the arms back and forth quickly while keeping their backs straight. The pace of this must be fast enough for the kid to feel themselves bouncing up and down off the ground. Do 6 sets of 10 seconds while going as fast as possible.
Tag: Simple game every kid plays. Once they have their stride and arm exercises down, this game becomes great practice and a way to build endurance. Home base is the original rest area. Just make sure not everyone is on the base at once; the person who’s “it” can expel everyone at once and get an easy tag.
Swimming: Okay, it’s a little off-topic. However, swimming works nearly every major muscle group in the body. Development of the muscles helps runners build and tighten what they already have. Swimming is an excellent rest-day exercise, but for a kid, it’s also a great supplementary exercise. Considering a focus on underwater swimming. It will allow for greater lung strength and capacity, and the body will use oxygen more efficiently. This will come in handy during runs.
Sharks & Minnows: This is, oddly enough, adapted from a swimming game. It’s also related to a game of tag. If you’re playing the ground version, you’ll need a big patch of land. Mark a rectangular perimeter with clear boundaries. The shark is designated “it” and will stand in the center of the perimeter. Everyone else is a minnow, and if you’ve ever seen Jaws before, you can guess what happens next. That’s right: a drunken Robert Shaw sings naval songs.
But you could do that if you want, for what it’s worth.
Anyway, the minnows line up at the edge of the perimeter. They have to make it from one side of the other without being tagged by the shark. Anyone who gets tagged becomes an additional shark in the next round. The winner is the lone surviving minnow. Kinda dark, now that I think about it. There’s only one thing we can do: cue Robert Shaw.
Solve the Puzzle: Here’s a great way to introduce distance running to kids (and a way to scam them into learning and working together too). Again, you’ll want a large swath of land for this one. First, find yourself a good 40-piece puzzle (approximately, and depending on the age-group of the kids). Place each piece in an envelope and scatter them across this land. Mark each envelope with a number so you can keep track and make sure none are missing. Now, send the kids out looking for them. They’ll have to cover a perimeter and will have no choice but to work together to make sure every piece is recovered. Once they return to you, have them put the puzzle together. This way, by the end, they’ve worked their bodies and minds.
Water Balloon Relay: Remember summers as a kid? Remember when water balloons blew your mind? Now add that to an activity, and the kids won’t even realize they’re doing an exercise. This game is pretty self-explanatory. It’s a relay race using a giant water balloon instead of a baton. All relay races should adopt this policy, but that’s just my two cents.
Anyway, break the kids up into groups as you normally would for a relay race. If the balloon-baton bursts during a race, the runner has to run to pick up a new one from a bucket of balloons and restart the race from the place their balloon burst. The winning team then gets armed with one water balloon per person, and they have 30 seconds to pelt the losing team with them.
Of course, there’s the caveat that once armed with enough water balloons, the children will rebel and attack their parents with it. I say that’s just a foreshadowing of their adolescent years.
And that’s about all for now. Enjoy parenthood.