When JogAlong Founder Mike Dresher and his brother entered a 5K, Mike decided to take his niece, Coco, on her first JogAlong stroller ride. With her dad and uncle running on either side of her and immersed in the festive atmosphere of the event, Coco asked Uncle Mike several times if she could get out and run for a few bursts with him. A few times she asked if she could climb out and walk. After they had gone the full 5K, the three finished up the race together, with Coco in the stroller, cheering. In the coming weeks on the phone, Coco asked Mike when he was coming back to take her to another race.
As parents, we know kids want to be part of whatever we’re doing, so Mike’s bringing Coco to the race is a perfect example of introducing kids to running at a very young age. Most activities that build your bond with your child will interest them. Although not all kids are naturally athletic, most children with typical mobility have some inclination toward hurtling their bodies through space, and there are lots of ways to make running fun.
But first, why bother? Why is running good for our kids? Running has particular health benefits for young children. When kids run, they give their cardiovascular system a good workout, they improve their coordination, and their bones get stronger as well as their muscles and tendons. Running is good for many chronic conditions children experience including anxiety, ADHD, diabetes and obesity. Running outside gets kids off their screens and into nature, which improves sensory skills, increases attention spans, and boosts positive moods and immunity. Running can improve kids’ sleep and self-confidence and lower their blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels. Running is perhaps the least expensive of all sports; establishing a love for the activity early on will increase the likelihood that your child will continue through adulthood regardless of their socioeconomic status. And finally, running is a building block for many other sports your child might be interested in later on, like soccer, football, lacrosse, basketball, or tennis.
Keeping Them Safe
The American Academy of Pediatrics provides some parameters to make sure your child’s run is a safe one. Because children can’t regulate body temperature like adults, skip running when it’s too hot or cold out. Make sure your child isn’t running too long or too far because this can lead to overuse injuries like tendonitis and bone problems resulting in arthritis and future growth complications. Finally, make sure they warm up, cool down, and stretch to avoid injuries and soreness which could turn them off to running as well as hurt them.
Kids have different personalities, and therefore what motivates one won’t necessarily motivate another, but you should be able to find a few items on this list that help you help your child.
- Begin where they are. If they can only run down the driveway and back before tiring themselves out, start with that. A track might be intimidating, so custom-craft a route you can do with them.
- Invite them to volunteer in races and other events you’re running in. Generally volunteers are needed and when kids feel part of something, they’re much more likely to want to try it later on themselves.
- Be inventive. My son and I create outdoor obstacle courses with funny tasks included among the running. For example, we’ll have to run from one tree to another, swing on its lowest branch, run to the street corner and think of five words that start with a certain letter, then run to the front steps and run up and down them 3 times before turning around and singing the first verse of Oh Canada.
- Set short-term goals that are measurable and manageable based on where your child is right now. The idea is to excite and engage them, not to create anxiety and competition. Also, make sure if you have more than one little runner that they are always competing against their own scores rather than against one another. Emphasize a team goal so that when everybody meets their goal, the whole family wins.
- The Road Runners’ Club of America advises parents to emphasize good technique from the get-go. For example, I never learned young to breathe in through my nose, and learning that as an adult is so much harder than if I had learned it when I started running.
- Participate in kids’ running events if your child express an interest. There are bite-size events for the under-5 set like dashes and 400 meter stretches, and 1-1.5 mile events for kids over 5. There’s usually the choice to combine running with walking too in case your kiddos get tired.
- The Road Runner’s Club says that before kids go through puberty, it’s not a good idea to have children train for longer events because of adverse health effects. Run and Become provides this guide for maximum distances for kids: under age 9, 3K; ages 9-12, 5K; ages 12-14, 10K; ages 15-16, half marathon.
- Games are a great way to run without emphasizing the running part. Red light, green light, freeze tag, sharks and minnows, soccer, snowball fights in winter and anything with water balloons in summer all tend to make kids enthusiastic.
- Tell them they’re allowed to get as dirty as they want. Have special clothes on hand for this. Kids love mud and dirt and this can be a fun motivator.
- Make it social. Have your kids invite friends over who like to run and have them do relay races or play running games together. Again, it’s always better to structure play cooperatively than competitively so the kids won’t get discouraged comparing themselves to one another.
- Join a running club with other families. Kids love to belong and getting to train with other kids by coaches who specialize in helping young runners are big benefits.
There are so many great reasons to run and so many ways to enjoy the sport. Getting your kids involved early not only gives them a health boost, but it can also give you both a shared lifelong practice that will strengthen your family bond.