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.
Like walking, dancing, jumping rope, riding bikes, or team sports, running is an excellent way to help incorporate the 60 minutes of daily activity recommended for children by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Start Them Young?
Research-based 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 long term 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 at almost any age is acceptable.
Erica Gminski, youth programs director for the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) agrees that as long as running is presented as fun and not overly structured for very young children, it should be fine at any age.
The RRCA’s Fundamentals of Youth Running gives general running guidelines per age group that might help parents understand how their running participation can progress: Ages three to nine regular exercise is encouraged, including organized running that is fun; ages eight to 12 participation in a running group with systematic training that lasts two to three months; around puberty kids can slowly increase training distances and participate in competitive training. These guidelines, however, can vary widely based on the individual.
“Usually children are ready to start running longer distances—5 kilometer (5K) races, for example—between ages 8 and 10,” says Dr. Mark Halstead, a pediatric sports medicine specialist at Washington University in St. Louis. “However, a child’s individual rate of development and desire to run matters more than his or her actual age.”
Running can also be seen as a building block to other sports the child might be interested in like soccer, basketball, football, or tennis. Halstead notes that soccer players have been known to log up to 5 miles out on the field, with hardly any concern as to whether soccer practice multiple times a week could be harmful. “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.
“Some kids aren’t interested in ball sports or team sports to begin with, so presenting running as an activity that they can participate in as an individual or on a team like track and cross country, may be attractive,” says Gminski.
Just like with adults, excessive training can lead to injury — which is why experts emphasize keeping exercise fun. “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,” says Dr. Halstead.
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.
In an age of screen addiction, 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.
Gminski adds that physical activity, like running, for kids can improve concentration, grades, and test scores. “Having confidence in trying something new, sticking to a routine, and the ability to set and achieve goals are lifestyle-improving benefits,” she says.
Make Running Fun
So what’s the best way to get your kids up and running? Check your school for programs like mileage club, your local town parks and recreation department website on running clubs or races, or look for programs like RRCA’s Kids Run the Nation or Girls on the Run.
For kids that are generally inactive, Gminski recommends to start out walking with them and gradually increase time and distance. Eventually you can introduce running, like to the mailbox, the street corner, or a distant tree. If the parents are also runners, asking their child to accompany them on a run allows an opportunity to teach running etiquette and safety and opens up an opportunity for bonding and conversation.
Older kids may also enjoy joining their middle or high school track and field team. But remember, “Not all kids are motivated by competition with others,” says Gminski, “but most are motivated by incentives.” This can include stickers, trophies, water bottles, or other proud displays of participation.
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.
Relay races, tag (and all its creative variations), and red light/green light can add more fun into running sessions for kids. Or give the following age-appropriate drills a try:
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!
- Lay hoops down on the lawn as an agility test.
- Set up toys or soccer/baseball nets to climb or jump over.
- Mark designated areas with cones to sprint back and forth.
- Use a length of rope and do single-leg (or double!) lateral jumps over it.
- Mark your driveway with sidewalk chalk to side-step or jump to designated points.
- Create a finish-line banner for each participant to cross.
- Take photos and post to social media to encourage others to do the same.