Here’s how to set your little striders up for long-term health and fitness success.

If you watch kids on a playground, zipping across the baseball field or just trying to catch the bus, you will notice they run with an easy, natural stride. After all, as soon as we learn to walk, we start to run. Although running offers an opportunity for much needed exercise and is beneficial to overall health, children require special attention when it comes to structured training. How long, how often and how many miles kids should run are hotly debated, especially when overzealous parents trying to do what’s best for their little ones are thrown into the mix.

Start Them Young?

You may have heard the name Caleb Barnes in the news lately. He set an age-group record at the Cambridge Half Marathon in Massachusetts last November, when he finished in 1:34:44, a 7:14-minute-per-mile pace. Although impressive, that finish time is not particularly astonishing—that is, until you realize that Barnes is only 9 years old.

Barnes’ parents, who are runners themselves, started bringing him to the track at the age of 3. When he was 4, Barnes ran his first 5K in 33:28. Although this obviously works for him and his family, will it work for yours?

Firm guidelines about kids and running are surprisingly lacking in the medical field. While there are set parameters from orthopedic surgeons on the dangers of too many baseball throws or soccer kicks, there is almost nothing to help steer parents who are raising mini runners. The longterm effects of distance running on developing bodies and minds simply haven’t been thoroughly studied. However, the resounding medical advice is basically, if the child is excited and interested and there are no major injuries, running any distance at almost any age is acceptable.

Science Shows…

Dr. William Roberts, medical advisor for the Twin Cities Marathon, has conducted several studies on young marathoners, a self-selected group of high-mileage youth. “Kids and mileage basically makes us nervous,” he explains, “but from all I’ve found, there is no harm being done; they are not getting hurt. If it is their choice, keep doing it.”

In fact, children as young as 7 have finished all 26.2 miles in Twin Cities. Roberts is starting a new study to further examine any advantages or drawbacks surrounding this choice. “We’re currently looking for people who ran marathons as kids and what their joint health is like now, specifically knee and hip issues like replacements or osteoarthritis.” The control group will be kids who ran cross-country in high school but delayed marathon running until later in life.

Kids Are All Right

Dr. Mark Halstead, a pediatric sports-medicine specialist at Washington University in St. Louis, has been a distance runner for most of his adult life, and his 6-year-old son is already out pounding the pavement.

“Usually children are ready to start running longer distances—5 kilometer (5K) races, for example—between ages 8 and 10,” says Halstead. “However, a child’s individual rate of development and desire to run matters more than his or her actual age.”

Halstead also drew the conclusion that soccer players have been known to log up to 5 miles out on the field, yet there are no concerns when a kid plays and practices soccer (at least not with the running portion of the game) several times per week. “It always comes down to whose motivation is it, the parent’s or the kid’s? If the kid has the proper approach and appropriate training programs, I think it’s fine,” he says, adding his golden rule regarding pain: “If the kid is having pain during the run, that is a problem, which needs to be addressed as soon as possible. Soreness afterward is usually not an issue but pain while running is a big concern.”

The bottom line is to consult your pediatrician or physician and watch for signs of stress or pain in your child if they begin a running regimen. The key is to run for fun, otherwise you may be setting your child up for failure or, worse, a chronic injury.

Good News

In an age of screen addiction and childhood obesity, kids may need to get out and go for a run now more than ever. Although you can start running later in life and increase your cardiac health, the same does not apply to the same degree when it comes to our bones. According to research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, running dramatically increases bone strength in early adopters and may ward off osteoporosis.

Other benefits to running early may include improved sleep, increased self-esteem and confidence (crossing finish lines!), decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes and lower blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels.

Next Steps

So what’s the best way to get your kids up and running? Check your school for programs like mileage club or your local town parks and recreation department website on running clubs or races.  Running is a great way for families to bond, to teach young kids about what the body and mind are capable of and to instill a lifelong love of health and fitness.

Numbers Game

Try these age-appropriate running games to add more fun into your running sessions with your kids.

Kindergarten to Second Grade

Game: Follow My Lead

Start in a single-file line, at least an arm’s length away from the person in front of you. Everyone will start out walking. Next, the first person in line will call out a movement (skipping, sliding, galloping, hopping, jumping). Everyone will do that movement for 10 seconds. After 10 seconds, the person in the front of the line will run to the back of the line. Now it is the next person’s turn to call out a command. Repeat as many times as you want.

Third Grade to Fifth Grade

Game: The Dice Is Right

Divide up into teams of two and start each group behind a cone. Place six numbered markers for each team on the other side of the room or outdoor area—face up so you can see the numbers. The first player in each group rolls a die and runs to find the numbered spot and brings it back to the team. The next player rolls the die as soon as the first player comes back and goes in search of that number. The teams continue until all six spots are collected, re-rolling as necessary if numbers have already been collected. The first team to collect all of the numbers wins. (Vary the distance of number placement based on ability of the players.)

Sixth Grade to Eighth Grade

Game: Obstacle Course

Think outside the box on this and utilize household items or other sports equipment to create an obstacle course where you run, jump, side step and sprint. The person who completes the course in the fastest time wins!

Example: