Born to Run
by Bob Cooper
The running boom shook the continent nearly three decades ago and continues to make converts of adults seeking health, fitness and weight loss. But this long-running enthusiasm has largely passed over America's youth, who need to embrace a lifetime fitness sport even more than mom and dad.
Nearly half of all children from five to eight have at least one cardiac risk factor, juvenile obesity is on the rise and about two-thirds of school-age kids don't meet minimum fitness standards. With most elementary and secondary schools no longer offering daily P.E. classes, parents need to get their kids moving.
Running is both practical and affordable, requiring no pool fees, court reservations or volunteer coaches. Just pair a child's energy with a pair of shoes and watch them go, right?
Ah, if it were only that simple. Some kids do love running immediately, but others put it in the same category as a visit to the dentist. The trick is to turn running into play for your kids - which is why the most successful kids' running programs emphasize fun, variety and rewards.
Survey after survey of kids show that their number one reason for participating in sports is fun. (The second reason they list is "to be with friends," while "competition" and "winning" don't even make the top 10.) How can a parent keep it fun? "You don't have kids run laps," insists Jacqueline Hansen.
The former marathon world-record holder initiated a youth running program that reaches 5,000 kids in 60 Los Angeles County junior high schools. Like many around the country, L.A.'s program consists of every-other-day running as part of a broader health curriculum. The program culminates in a 2K weekend fun run in a city park. Although it's optional, nearly three-quarters of the kids take part. "Have them run an obstacle course, do push-ups along the way, run relays - anything to break it up," Hansen suggests.
Other possibilities: Have kids throw a football or kick a soccer ball back and forth, conduct a whistle run around a field (one blow means walk, two means jog, three means run) or just have them play tag.
Simple rewards keep kids motivated, encourage goal setting and build self-esteem. In 1,800 schools nationwide, kids who complete a multi-week "Mileage Club" running program earn shoelace "toe tokens." In Spokane, Washington, 5,000 kids in a two-month program earned prizes ranging from pencils to water bottles for accumulating distance levels of 7.5 to 50 miles. Any reward will do.
A record of progress is another motivating tool. Some youth running programs have kids track class mileage, plot a course on local maps during geography lessons (to give them an idea that they're "going somewhere") and write journal entries after each run in English class. You might have your child tally the city blocks he or she has run, with a reward after each 10 blocks.
Keeping Mind and Body Running
"Running is a very healthy sport for kids," maintains Harvey Dulberg, Ph.D., a sports psychologist who has worked with U.S. Olympic athletes and coached young runners. "It gives them the choice of competing against each other, against themselves or not at all. They can set goals or just run down the path and let their mind wander."
Dulberg's dissertation studied the effects of a running program on the self-esteem of adolescents at a psychiatric treatment center. "There were phenomenal improvements," he notes. Yet he acknowledges that youth running has its pitfalls. "Kids run while they're injured, parents apply too much pressure, kids get addicted to running - it all happens. The key is that kids balance running with many other activities so it doesn't get out of control."
"When a child is running too much, they're usually doing it for their parents," insists Susan Kalish, executive director of the American Running & Fitness Association and the author of Your Child's Fitness.
"Kids know when to back off," agrees Dr. Barbara Sniffen, a pediatrician and children's running advocate. "They listen to their bodies far better than most adults. Problems arise only when a child is pushed beyond the point where it's fun for them."
Often the culprit is a running dad who wants to see his offspring become a star. If you can avoid "Little League parent syndrome," running yourself is the best thing you can do if you want your child to run. As with any aspect of parenting, role modeling has a powerful influence on behavior.
In order for kids to reap the long-term health benefits of regular aerobic activity such as running, the exercise habit should be instilled early. An active childhood predisposes kids to active adulthoods, with an eventual payoff in the form of lowered risks of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, hypertension and even clinical depression.
Can the little ones hold up to the physical rigors of running? You betcha. "Kids' muscles are very flexible, so they're less vulnerable than adults to most running injuries," says Dr. Sniffen. "It's a safe sport for kids."
Kids do dehydrate faster than adults, so they should take frequent water breaks during warm-weather runs.
The only other significant caveat - and this is a point of dispute among sports medicine specialists - is that the growth cartilage in kids' bones could make them more susceptible to overuse injuries, especially chondromalacia ("runner's knee"). But if you don't step over the line between encouragement and pressure, it's unlikely your child will want to exceed three miles or 30 minutes, which is universally considered safe for preteens and sufficient to meet the fitness quota. "Kids usually enjoy a modest amount of running," notes Charlie Kuntzleman, co-founder of Fitness Finders, a youth fitness consulting firm, "because it's something they can do without fear of failure. If they strike out or lose a game, they fail, but noncompetitive running doesn't permit failure."
Every Child's A Winner
Noncompetitive youth runs, spurred by the desire of running boomers to see their kids follow in their footsteps, have blossomed in the last decade. There are thousands of such runs. Most are small, low-key events held in conjunction with larger, adult races, but some have grown to grown-up proportions.
The granddaddy of all kids' runs is America's Kids Run (April), where about 8,000 kids run a half-mile (ages 5-6), one mile (7-8) or two miles (9-12) in Spokane, Washington. Many of them keep running and "graduate" to the adult counterpart, the Bloomsday 12K, as shown by its 7,000 runners between ages 13 and 18.
The Walt Disney World Marathon and Half Marathon in Orlando, Florida adds a FamilyFun Magazine 5K Fun Run through Epcot Center and Kids Foot Locker races on Saturday morning of race weekend, to make their event a true family outing.
The Lake Tahoe Marathon (October) in California has a week's worth of events including a 5K and Kids Fun Run. Like Disney World, Tahoe is a great place to vacation with the kids after the race.
Junior Bix (July) in Davenport, Iowa drew an astounding 5,000 kids in its first edition and now limits entry to 3500 kids.
Also producing 2,500 to 3,500 beaming finishers are youth runs in suburban San Diego (Junior Carlsbad in April); Albany, New York (Freihofer's Run for Kids in June); Fort Worth (Cowtown Run in February); Rockville, Maryland (Halloween Young Run); and Atlanta (Peachtree Jr. in June).
Rewarding participation is the hallmark of youth runs. At many such fun runs, all runners wear #1 and finish times aren't even recorded. Kids go home with a t-shirt, a ribbon or certificate and a heap of pride.
"We don't want any child to feel they're better or worse than anybody else," explains Peachtree Jr.'s Penny Kaiser.
Kaiser recalls one little boy "so proud of the four t-shirts he'd won that he wore them all one year and peeled them off to show me."
As long as parents don't take the "fun" out of these fun runs by pressuring their kids to cross the line first, the kids can't lose. Some may be so motivated that they'll eventually want to try timed races or join a local youth running club, but if all they want to do is to keep running, they're ahead of the game.
Step by Step
- Running Around: Preschoolers run almost constantly, but physical activity is typically cut in half between ages 6 and 16. That's precisely the age range where the fitness habit should begin. Kids over five can start by walking and running for 10-15 minutes and gradually increase the amount of time to 30 minutes. The standard prescription for cardiovascular health (a half-hour of sustained exercise three times a week for kids and adults) can be met by any combination of sports, such as a soccer or swimming practice, a bike ride and a run/walk each week.
- Warming Up: A warm-up loosens the muscles and increases blood flow, which can be accomplished by brisk walking for two or three minutes. Equally important is a "cool-down" after running, which returns the body to normal. Again, walking is all that's required, which may be followed by gentle stretches.
- Learning Pace: "Kids don't know their limits," says Charlie Kuntzleman of Fitness Finders, "so they usually start too fast and get exhausted after a short distance. That's discouraging for them, so I tell parents to run alongside the first few times until the child finds an appropriate pace." Also, tell your child about the "talk test": For any distance beyond a sprint, run slowly enough to talk without gasping.
- The Right Shoes: Parents may think, "They'll outgrow them so fast, it's pointless to buy an expensive pair." Resist the temptation. You don't have to buy a $120 pair, but you should spend at least $40. Buy a brand name (most running shoe companies have kids' models from size three). It should fit for both width and length to prevent discomfort, blisters and injuries. Adequate cushioning is also important - some studies show that children don't disperse shock as efficiently as adults.
- Where to Run: The distances kids cover are short enough that, with the right shoes (see #4), they're unlikely to get injured. A grass or dirt recreational field (if the footing isn't too soft or rutted) is ideal. A bike path or quiet streets with wide shoulders and no crown (tell them to run facing traffic!) are also good choices. You may want to run with them a few times to ensure that they follow safety rules. Sidewalks are the worst place to run, because cement is hard on the joints and cars pulling out of driveways are a hazard.