I was in my 20s before I discovered running, so Im always amazed to see young children keeping up (or passing me by) when Im out for a jog. When I was a kid, no one ran as a sport itself; rather, we played basketball, softball, or soccer. Running laps is what you didreluctantlyto be better conditioned for the games.
But in the last decade, theres been a boom in children running races that were once strictly for adults. Kids as young as 5 and 6 are running with school groups, and tweens and teens are entering 5- and 10-kilometer racesand even mini-triathlonswith their parents, running clubs, and even on their own.
Active.com, an online source for races around the country, lists more than 230 running events for kids and more than 30 for families in the month of September alone.
Getting kids outside and active is obviously a good thing. We live in a society where childhood obesity is at an all-time high and studies suggest too much television time may contribute to behavior problems, poor grades, and even depression later in life.
But are the physical and mental demands of long-distance running safe for children? At what age is competition appropriate, and what do parents need to keep in mind?
Increase kids distance with age
Mark Halstead, MD, a pediatric sports medicine specialist at Washington University, in St. Louis, has been a distance runner for most of his adult life. His wife is also an avid runner, so its no surprise that their 6-year-old son is already out pounding the pavement as well.
In fact, Dr. Halsteads son completed a marathon earlier this yearalthough it took him nine months to do so. This marathon was broken down into half-mile intervals run over the course of nine months. It was part of a school program called Read, Right, and Run, which encourages kids to also read 26 books and perform 26 good deeds during their “marathon.”
Dr. Halstead fully supports these types of organized events, assuming that parents take common-sense precautions and monitor their child's well-being as they train.
"The distances set up for these races are generally very appropriate for kids; theyre distances they would typically spend running around in the yard with friends,” he says.
Usually children are ready to start running longer distances5 kilometer (5K) races, for examplebetween ages 8 and 10, says Dr. Halstead. However, a childs individual rate of development and desire to run matters more than his or her actual age.
Advantages over other sports
“Running by itself sometimes gets a bad rap because people worry that its too much stress,” says Dr. Halstead. “But then you have kids 3 and 4 years old out on the soccer field taking soccer lessons. And research shows that a soccer player can run up to 5 miles in a single game, so its really not so different.”
Plus, running can offer something to kidsespecially kids who arent athletically inclined or who are overweightthat a lot of other sports cant: The chance to be physically active at their own pace.
“Team sports, especially youth sports in the last five or ten years, tend to be highly competitive,” Dr. Halstead says. “With running, you can make it as intense or as casual as you want. Its a good place for kids who are obese, who may not feel comfortable in a team sport environment, to start out to lose weight.”
Runners of all ages, in fact, embrace the sport for its accessibility and relatively low price tag: Instead of having to learn complicated rules or buy lots of expensive equipment, all you really need to get started is a good pair of shoes and a desire to put one foot in front of the other.
More than just physical benefits
Carol Goodrow, a teacher and childrens author and illustrator in Sturbridge, Mass., knows firsthand how running can have an impact on kids livesboth physically and mentally.
Shortly after Goodrow became a runner in the 1990s (inspired by her grown son, who regularly competed in triathlons), she began incorporating running into her first- and second-grade classroom curriculum.
The kids collected runners bib numbers from around the world, and used them in math and geography lessons. As part of class, they ran outside almost every day and then wrote in their journals afterward.
“I noticed the kids who were reluctant writers were suddenly writing after their runs,” says Goodrow. “They had something new and different and fresh in their minds, and they wanted to express it.”
Shes also seen how running can bring children and parents together, especially as the sport has become more popular in the last decade. When she started a weekend running club for her students in 2004, parents showed up to the end-of-season fun run but didnt participate.
“Now, I am hard pressed to find one parent who is not running with their kids,” says Goodrow, who has also helped design and edit kids' running websites presented by Runner's World and CoolRunning.com. “If I want one volunteer to direct traffic, Ill have to beg someone to sit out. And the kids really get a lot of joy out of exercising with their parentsthats what really keeps them going.”
Amy DeVita signed up her son Michael, 9, for a kids once-a-week running group in their hometown of West Orange, N.J., because “he has an awful lot of energy,” she says. Michael originally hoped the practice would make him faster on the basketball court, but now that hes run two 5Ks with his father, he enjoys running for other reasons as well.
“Hes the kind of kid who has trouble really concentrating on one thing, but he concentrates on this,” says DeVita. “Sometimes he complains that hes tired or his legs are sore, but when he sees the finish line, hes psyched. You can tell he feels a real sense of accomplishment and a real sense of commonality with his dad.”
For safety, let kids set the pace
Of course, kids arent always going to want to run, and parents should use common sense when deciding how hard to push their aspiring athletes.
“Some days my son would rather play Wii, so we let him play Wii,” Dr. Halstead says. “But then we make sure we go out and run tomorrow instead.”
In fact, running every day probably isnt the best way to train. For young, developing bodies, encouraging activities that work different muscle groupswhether its playing softball or basketball, bike riding, or swimming once or twice a weekis important as well.
Parents also should watch for signs of exhaustion and dehydration, especially during hot summer months, and should always take a childs pain seriously: Stress fractures and overuse injuries can occur, and ignoring them will only make them worse.
The most important thing is letting kids set their own pace and giving them the support they need, rather than expecting them to adhere to an adults training schedule, Goodrow says.
“Some parents tell me they want their kid to train for a half marathon with them because they dont want to give up their training time, and thats just not responsible,” says Goodrow. “The worst thing Ive seen is the kid who cant keep up with the parent during a race and the parents are disgusted, or the parents who leave their kid behind before the kid is ready to be left alone.”
Get your family involved
If you're looking to get your children more involved in fitnesswhether you're already a runner or notthere are no shortage of organizations and events to get you started. Active.com has information on family and kids' races all over the country, and even a page for the active toddler.
IronKids.com lists children's triathlons, which are usually offered in three different distances for three different age groups, 6 to 15. Triathlons, as daunting as they sound, can actually be a very safe choice for children in as long as they're well organized and appropriate lengths (two concerns voiced by a recent New York Times article): Because you have to practice for three separate sports, there's built-in cross-training and less worry about overuse injuries.
If you're already signed up for a 5K or 10K race, talk to event organizers to make sure the event will be kid-friendly and that there are no time limits or age restrictions. And if you're training for a half marathon or marathon, see if there's a shorter fun run being held the same weekend that your son or daughter can train for at the same time.
For ideas about how to make running fun for kids, visit PECentral.org or CarolGoodrow.com. Goodrow has authored and illustrated several books and a 2010 calendar for children about the joy of running.
The best way to get children excited about running is to set a good example yourself, by showing them how good it makes you feel. By emphasizing fitness and family time over distance, speed, and competition, you can help your kids develop a healthy habit that can last a lifetime.