Kids are made to move. Many of them sprint, frolic, jump, roll and climb without much prompting from adults. If you're a parent, you might see an opportunity to channel some of that energy into distance running. After all, wouldn't it be great if the whole family could participate?
You might be wondering if there are guidelines to follow to keep your little Prefontaine-in-the-making safe. How young is too young to start running?
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While there is no black-and-white answer, there are some ways to help your child start running and keep them healthy and motivated for the long haul. This guide will help make running a fun activity to share with your child.
Is Running Safe for Children?
Running is a safe and beneficial activity for children, as long as they aren't overtraining. While there's no chart to tell you that X age can handle X distance, there are ways for even elementary school–aged kids to train without going overboard. However, guidelines from the Cleveland Clinic state that the younger the child is, the shorter the distance they should run.
If you look at the Physical Activities Guidelines for Americans released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, it will tell you that children ages 3 to 5 need to be physically active throughout the day in a variety of activities. Kids and young adults ages 6 to 17 need at least one hour of moderate to vigorous activity daily to strengthen their aerobic capacity, bones and muscles.
"We're born as blobs, basically, and within two years we're running," Kendell M. Jno-Finn, PT, DPT, owner of M3Performance and Physical Therapy, says. "We're designed and built to move. Running is a self-limiting activity. So if you're allowing the child's nature to control the distance, you're fine."
First, Assess Their Running
Running around the house is obviously different than lining up to run a 5K. So it's best to wait until your child asks to run a race or expresses a desire to run before you sign them up to compete.
Then, like adults, the amount they can handle is going to be very individualized.
"The first thing we have to do is assess what capacity they have," Jno-Finn says. "Now if you see them running and they look like a newborn deer, then they probably have no business running yet. You need to spend some time having them crawl, do bear crawls, panther walks and develop the big muscles along the spine that hold you upright."
If your child is running with control, then see how far they go to help determine the next steps. For example, if they want to run a mile fun run, see how far they can go without stopping. Maybe they sprint a quarter mile and then stop. You can help them develop proper pacing, form and breathing and work up to a mile slowly — just like when an adult starts running. As long as your child isn't forced to run a distance they cannot physically handle — and they enjoy running — they should be OK.
Next, Do a Mobility Screening
In addition to watching your child run, you can also do a mobility screening. You can check a few things at home to start. See if they can lift their knee to their chest while laying down and check their range of motion in a deep overhead squat.
If you find that your child of any age's movement is wonky, it's best to chat with a professional. While you might be able to design a program to help their movements at home, Jno-Finn recommends getting a physical therapist and/or coach to help develop your runner through the three phases of mobility, stability and function. By getting them to run properly, they will be set up to handle the force running creates, which will set them up for long-term success.
Running Form for Kids
To teach them excellent form, Jno-Finn again invites you to look at running through the lens of mobility, stability and function.
You can work on mobility through dynamic warm-ups and stretching. Have kids do moves like the 90/90 stretch, the frog stretch and runner's lunges to get their hips active. They can also do bounds, butt kicks, high knees, tip-toe walks, heel walks and tin man walks before starting to run. In terms of stability, work on strengthening their posterior chain (the muscles in the back of your body) as well as core strength and integration.
When you teach your child running form, show them what to do just as you would with any other sport. Demonstrate the ideal head placement, arm swing, knee drive, foot strike, etc. Have them mimic the correct running form while standing in place.
While running, give them specific cues, like "try to land softly so we can hardly hear your feet" and "shoulders down, head up." But don't overwhelm them with feedback — give them one thing to work on at a time.
Breathing while running is particularly important to show them while talking about form — and something many children are never taught. Have them take controlled breaths in and out. Maybe have them match their steps to each breath: in for three steps, out for two steps. When their breathing gets out of control, have them stop and walk to regain composure. As any adult runner knows, this will go a long way in helping them build stamina while keeping the activity enjoyable.
General Training Guidelines for Kids
For some kids, a modified couch-to-5K program will work. Mixing short running intervals with longer walking breaks will help them build endurance and stamina. It's safe and effective. But many kids will find that type of training boring.
Jno-Finn says there are tons of ways to make running fun.
"You may say, 'today we're going to run a mile.' But the mile isn't a continuous mile," he says. "If you have access to a track, you could run 100 meters, walk 100 meters or run the straights and walk the curves. You can also have them go fast when you blow the whistle then jog or walk when you blow the whistle again. So you're really trying to limit just running long distances especially if they don't have that capacity. You're building capacity slowly. And most importantly, the training session should be fun. They should learn something and have more confidence than before."
You can also find a local team in your community. For elementary school students, there might be an organized running club at your neighborhood recreation center. Most coaches working with younger kids will keep things interesting and limit continuous miles with activities like dodgeball, freeze tag and running relays. These activities will help build their endurance while keeping things fun and social.
Once children hit middle school, school-sanctioned track and cross-country teams will likely be available for them to join. Most school coaches are trained and certified, which gives them the knowledge to not only help children like running but also help the athletes improve.
If a child's end goal is a race, start with something small like a mile or a 5K, depending on their running capacity and motivation. There are many races for kids that you can run as a family, as well as programs like Girls on the Run that make finishing a race the end goal.
Of course, if your child hates running, don't force them to run. There are many more ways to keep them active and moving well.
A 6-Week 5K Training Plan for Kids
Here is a sample training plan to get your motivated child prepared to run their first 5K race. These workouts are guidelines and should be tailored to suit your child's fitness and motivation level and account for any other physical activity they did during the day. Keep in mind, it's best to wait until your child is about 8 or older to run a distance like this.
The goal is to have them "run" three days per week with a rest day in between each active day. Have them complete a dynamic warm-up and cooldown after each session.
Day 1: For an initial running assessment, have your child set the pace and tell them to run for as long as they can.
Day 2: Run slowly for 4 minutes, medium for 2 minutes and fast for 30 seconds, for a total of 20 minutes. Mix up the intervals to keep it fun and surprising. Walk as needed.
Day 3: Running scavenger hunt. Make a list of objects that will keep you and your child out and searching for at least 40 minutes. Run around until everything is found. Walk as needed.
Day 1: Run 30 seconds and walk 3 minutes for 1 mile.
Day 2: Run with a focus on breathing for 1 minute, walk for full recovery. Repeat for 1 mile or more depending on how they feel
Day 3: At a local track, run the straights and walk the curves. This can also be done at a soccer field. Complete six to eight loops, switching direction halfway through
Day 1: Run like a different animal (of their choice) for 10 seconds, followed by 40 seconds of running and 2 minutes of walking. Continue this cycle for 20 minutes with the animal and walking time staying the same but the running time getting longer and shorter. (Older or more serious children might want to do exercises in lieu of animal imitations.)
Day 2: Bike ride (indoor or outdoor) for five 10-minute stretches. After each 10-minute block, get off the bike and do a "Simon Says" exercise sequence (think: frog jumps, jumping jacks, stand on one leg, etc.) for 1 to 2 minutes depending on attention span and fatigue level.
Day 3: Run a quarter-mile, then rest. Complete this to make 2 miles.
Day 1: Bike ride, let them set the pace and the distance.
Day 2: Run 1 minute and walk 2 minutes for 2 miles. If they can stretch the running time longer, or want to walk less, that's great!
Day 3: Do the running scavenger hunt mentioned above with new objects for 40 minutes.
Day 1: Do another run assessment to see if they've improved their pacing and stamina.
Day 2: Run a half mile, then rest. Continue this to make it to 3 miles.
Day 3: Backyard or playground obstacle course. Create obstacles and exercise stations for them to complete as they run for 20 to 30 minutes.
Day 1: Slow, medium and fast running using objects they choose in the distance as markers (e.g., run fast to the mailbox, then slow to that tree) for 25 to 30 minutes.
Day 2: Bike ride with breaks for 40 minutes.
Day 3: Race day! Place the emphasis on finishing the race and having fun — there's no need to worry about running the whole way for their first time, especially if they are younger than 13.
Overuse Injuries in Children
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) estimates that 50 percent of sports injuries in children are from overuse. In running, that can be caused by kids running a forced distance without proper form and/or fitness.
"Some of the more common injuries we've seen are stress fractures in kids, as well as tendinitis and bursitis," Jno-Finn says. "Beyond that, if a kid is around a growth spurt, you can see Osgood-Schlatter disease. We also see growth plate injuries because as the child is growing, the growth plate stays open."
To keep growth plate injuries at bay, it's beneficial to have a long-term athletic development program, especially during the adolescent years.
"We must be continuously reassessing where that child is," Jno-Finn says. "When they hit a growth spurt, we actually slow them down, and that's because that's a time when we actually should be working on mobility and helping them figure out what we call joint positional awareness because when you're growing vertically, you're very clumsy."
Nutrition and Hydration
Your young athlete requires vitamins, minerals and healthy calories to keep them energized and alert. While it's true that your body will burn whatever you put into it — whether that be cheeseburgers and chicken fingers or apples and baked chicken — choosing the latter will improve performance and reduce the risk of injury. The same goes for proper hydration.
In a perfect world, we would have kids eat balanced meals and snacks timed around their activities. That would look something like this:
- Your child should eat a meal with carbohydrates and protein three to four hours before activity. Limit candy, desserts and sugary drinks. Drink water.
- Thirty minutes before activity, have them eat a light snack. Maybe an apple with a serving of peanut butter or a cheese stick with some whole wheat crackers. Drink water.
- After activity, eat something within 30 minutes. Two hours after activity, give them a larger meal.
But we all know that school lunch schedules, birthday cupcakes and the constant cry of "I'm not hungry" will interfere with this fueling schedule. That's OK. If child-athletes have access to healthy snacks throughout the day, are generally eating well-balanced meals and drink water, they should have the energy they need to run.
Just be aware that on days when they run more or have both physical education class and practice, they might need extra water breaks and additional carbs and protein. This is especially true in kids going through a growth spurt.
The Best Running Shoes for Children
Just like adults, children need supportive footwear for running. To start, take a look at your child's feet and check out their arches. You can also ask your pediatrician to help you assess if they have flat feet, high arches and any pronation. From there, head to your local sporting goods store and look for a shoe that will support your child's unique foot shape.
Some tips to find the best running shoes for your child, according to Jno-Finn:
- When sizing the shoe, go for roomier and bigger. You know how adults size a
half-size up to account for foot swelling? The same thing applies here.
- Try on multiple brands and styles and test the shoes. Have your child try on the shoes and walk, run and jump. It's
hard to tell if it's comfortable in such a short amount of time, but watch how
they move. Do they seem to run freely? Or is there a hitch in their stride?
Choose the shoe that they seem most confident and free in.
- Don't hesitate to change shoes. If your child loved the shoes in the
store but has shin splints after a few wears, see if the store will
exchange them. If not, donate them and buy new ones if you can afford to do so.
- Replace the shoes every six months. If they haven't grown out of them by then, assume they are worn down and toss them.
Our Favorite Picks
- Saucony Big Kid's Kinvara 13 ($34.95, Saucony.com)
- Asics Gel-Venture 8 Grade School ($39.95, Asics.com)
- Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 39 ($70.97, Nike.com)
- New Balance Fresh Foam Arishi v4 ($54.99, NewBalance.com)
- Adidas Ultrabounce ($65, Adidas.com)
The Importance of Cross-Training
Some kids simply love to run. If you have a child who has surpassed his or her peers in terms of distance and speed, you might be looking for ways to help them progress and stay healthy. When Jno-Finn encounters a kid with that kind of talent and drive, he encourages them to diversify their training to help them move well, develop multiple muscle groups and avoid specialization burnout.
"A coach or physical therapist has to say, 'I know you love running, but this weekend we're going to go rock climbing or try Taekwondo,'" he says. "You're trying to lay a foundation for your child to live a healthy, active lifestyle. That's the goal. So, my advice for a parent of a child who loves running or any singular sport is to give them something else to do."
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Physcial Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- Pediatrics: "Sports Specialization and Intensive Training in Young Athletes"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Born to Run: How Young is Too Young to Run a Race?"
- Journal of Sports Medicine: "Harvey D. Assessment of the flexibility of elite athletes using the modified Thomas test"
- AAP: "Overuse Injuries, Overtraining, and Burnout in Child and Adolescent Athletes "
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Osgood-Schlatter Disease"
- Kendell Jno-Finn
- Kenny: Transcript