Running in the Family
by Doug Kurtis, RAC member since 2004
If you read the latest studies it appears that American kids are getting heavier everyday. More children prefer to watch TV, play video games or chat with their friends via email or cell phone. For the kids that are active, there is often too much emphasis on excelling rather than participating and having fun. Children like to play. Replacing play with hard training can create resentment and often they will quit completely. Exercise expert, Dr. Gabe Mirkin notes that adults should be concerned about overemphasis on winning that will cause children to hate exercising.
All in the Family
How many sports activities give families the opportunity to participate together? You've got baseball at family picnics, pick up basketball games in the driveway, bowling and maybe tennis or golf. But few of these sports have organized events where they can be in the same game together, except running. Running also reduces the "burn-out" factor because it allows the individual to determine his or her capabilities.
Although some parents are concerned about their kids running too much, Kenyan parents probably don't worry about their boys and girls running to school everyday. Running to school may not be a realistic option in the U.S. but parents can create opportunities for kids to participate in running.
With the huge growth of baby jogger usage over the last fifteen years, a ride along may be the initial introduction to running for some children. Joining a running club that has social activities also puts children around other runners and positive influences when they attend. When children accompany their parents to a race it reinforces their knowledge of the sport. As kids get older there are opportunities to volunteer at running events. Many schools require a certain number of hours of volunteering and for some this can also be their first entry into the sport.
Pros and Cons
The American Academy of Pediatrics has done studies on distance running for children. They found that the most common problem in young runners was overuse injuries. However, if we eliminate the push to excel at an early age, overuse injuries could be reduced significantly.
The AAP also worries about kids or their parents setting unrealistic goals and the mental damage that occurs when they fail to meet them. Again, parents can help avoid that stress by not pushing their kids too hard.
On the plus side, AAP recommends that if a child enjoys training and participating in events there is no reason to stop them. With one quarter of Americans under 19 years old overweight and obesity in children doubling over the last 25 years, it seems more attention should be focused on the psychological problems of children that don't have some form of exercise they can participate in.
Developing the physical side of our nature often has influence on many other aspects of our lives. People that are fit are generally more alert, have more energy, can concentrate more and are also happier overall.
Getting Kids Active
Guidelines to encourage kids to get active with you:
- Develop a routine. Having a routine will help adults and kids alike stay with a fitness program.
- Set a realistic goal. A weekly run as a family can usually be worked into a schedule easily.
- Assess a child's capability. Just like adults, some bodies are genetically made up to withstand a certain amount of stress. Some kids are cut out to run long distances; some may be capable of brisk walking. At shorter distances, children, especially teenagers, may be able to run with their parents or other family members.
- Find out how much interest there is in running. Focusing on one sport can help develop skills, but opening the door to several sports creates the chance to find talent or what a kid will enjoy.
- Lots of praise and support. These can go a long way toward encouraging young people and adults to stay with an exercise program. Rather than pressing children to set age records, look at accepting kids, perhaps unlikely to participate in athletics, into programs that can achieve greater self-esteem.
- Make it fun. Running on a track may provide an ideal environment for different levels of ability. Set up relays or obstacle courses. Trail or cross-country running in small loops can provide adventure and wonderful discoveries in nature if parents are willing to search out some of our wonderful state or metro parks.
- A weekly running regimen can take on many different scenarios. Our running buddies, whether they are adults or kids, promote camaraderie and social skills.
The Chapel Hill/Carrboro Pacers of North Carolina have programs with emphasis on family participation. Coach and lifetime RAC member Betsy Kempter has seen firsthand the burn-out rate of pre-teen runners. She attributes this burn-out to a common coaching mistake of treating kids like little adults. Says Kempter, "If coaches would approach the sport with more flexibility and allow more spontaneity, running skills would develop and commitment would ensue from their encouragement. Pacer kids are never pressed beyond their abilities or desires." Some participants have gone on to compete at the Junior Olympic level but more than half of the kids don't compete at all. The Pacers always welcome new runners (ages 8-16) and are seeking additional volunteer coaches for practices.
Girls On the Run is blossoming into an international program that develops individual character and emphasizes the benefits of positive self-talk verses critical voice. Girls on the Run was created by Molly Barker who began running at age 15 and struggled to fit into the ideal mold of other girls her age. Her background in counseling, teaching and research on adolescent issues helped in the development of a running program that can be found in over 80 locations in 29 states and in Canada.
The program fosters a life-changing experience for girls ages 8 through 13 years old. It sets goals that stretch beyond physical development and include encouraging positive emotional and social development.
Parents can support the ideals of Barker's program by creating an environment where children feel safe, supported and encouraged to take part in physical activity. Parents that run may serve as role models and can also be used as mentors especially for kids that are new to the sport.
KidsRunning.com is a labor of love for VIP member Carol Goodrow. Her site offers advice for combining running and learning via school and after school programs. She also lists training and nutrition tips and detailed questions and answers about getting kids into running. Plus she offers a place for kids to send stories and poems as well as an event calendar specifically for kids' events.
The Road Runners Club of America publishes an excellent pamphlet by noted authors Don Kardong and Jim Ferstle called Children's Running: A Guide for Parents and Kids. The guide encourages kids to join a team or club for the social aspect of doing something fun with their peers which is often more fun than the activity itself. They also emphasize parents leading by example. If a parent isn't a runner there are other opportunities like hiking and walking. They view running as one of the safest forms of exercise. Injuries are suffered more from improper training.
Run, Baby, Run
Parents, especially running parents, can offer encouragement and acknowledgement in their child's athletic desires. If we hope to stop the tide of obesity in the U.S. and improve the quality of our lives and those of our families, running may be one of the easiest sports to reduce this problem. Maybe it's time to start a "Take Your Kid for a Run Day."
About the author: RAC member Doug Kurtis is a Marathon World Record holder for most career sub 2:20's (76) and most marathon victories (40). He's a weekly running columnist for the Detroit Free Press, five time Olympic Trial Qualifier, course director for the Detroit Free Press/Flagstar Bank Marathon and an RRCA Hall of Fame inductee.