Running can be a great way to help kids get regular exercise and enjoy the fresh air. But there are definitely some differences between adults and kids when it comes to introducing and embracing the sport. Here are some kids running tips to keep it fun and develop a lifelong love of running.
Disclaimer: This post was written and reviewed by Chrissy Carroll, RRCA Running Coach and USAT Level I Triathlon Coach. It is for informational purposes only. Please consult a doctor prior to starting any new exercise program, for you or your child.
1. Make running fun.
Running is about enjoying the outdoors, feeling your heart beating, the rush of your breath in and out – it truly is an exhilarating experience for kids and adults alike. By keeping the focus of running on fun and freedom, you’ll help kids develop a lifelong passion for it.
Avoid linking running to punishment, which seemed to be the status quo back when I was a kid. You may know what I’m talking about (not listening at soccer practice? You need to run a few laps!). This association can deter kids from running for pure enjoyment.
2. Start slow with age-appropriate distances.
If your 5-year-old has never expressed an interest in running, the first introduction probably shouldn’t be challenging them to a fast one-mile run. You want to start with shorter distances and allow your child to build up their endurance (just like adults!).
It’s also important to keep it fun and recognize that kids bodies don’t work and adapt exactly the same as adult bodies. Running for them may just be having fun and playing games, and that’s OK!
On the flip side, there may be some kids that want to practice running so that they can do races. As far as distance, here are some baseline recommendations about the lengths of events to work towards – but remember that this varies widely based on the child:
- 2-4 years old – Dash events, like a race across a field or a lap around a track
- 5-8 years old – Dash events, 1 mile runs
- 9-12 – Dash events, 1 mile runs, 5K runs
- 13+ – Dash events, 1 mile runs, 5K runs, 10K runs
Of course, these are not hard and fast rules, but are good guidelines. We personally “broke these rules” when my son was 5 and had is heart set on running a 5K with us. He was pretty active playing outside in general, had run with us at the track before for fun, and we emphasized he could walk as much as he wanted. He did lots of running and walking in the race, and finished it just fine, with no pain or issues.
However, the important parts of this anecdote are that a) he came up with the idea to do the race all on his own, and b) was a fairly active kid to begin with. If either of these components were not in place, we wouldn’t have proceeded. We were also fully prepared to drop out of the race if he decided he didn’t want to finish; we kept it a no pressure situation.
On the flip side, maybe you have a 14-year old that has the physical capacity to start training towards a 10K, but does not have any interest in that mileage, and struggles with running in general. Training slowly to learn to run a mile straight might be a better goal. (I speak from experience as I was that 14-year old!)
3. Practice pacing.
Kids seem to have two paces – all-out like they’re being chased by a bear, followed by a sluggish tired walk. 😉
If your kiddo is hoping to build up their endurance for a certain purpose (maybe they want to do a mile race), work with them on slowing down at the beginning so that they can hold that pace longer.
Try running together with them at the track, where you can be the one to set their pace. Challenge your kiddo to stay with you and see how many laps they can do at that particular pace.
4. Don’t do structured running every day.
Kids should be moving their bodies daily in unstructured activity, like frolicking around with their friends, or playing on the swing set. But don’t implement structured running activities every day. Even teens in competitive track or cross country programs need designated rest days.
5. Mix it up!
While you may not get bored of that two-mile neighborhood loop, your kiddo may get tired of it after a couple weeks.
To keep their interest, explore different places while running. Try doing fun races at a track on day, then exploring a trail another day. Head to the beach and run around near the ocean, maybe dipping in to cool off afterwards! Visit the park and do an obstacle course run using the playground equipment for challenges. Get creative.
6. Grab some gear.
You don’t need to invest in tons of gear for a kid who wants to run. However, there are a few things that may be beneficial to grab.
First, stock up on a few athletic shirts and shorts that will be comfortable for your kids (especially during those hot summer months). Cotton can hold sweat and chafe, so avoid that and grab a few pieces of synthetic tech gear instead. No need to get crazy here – reasonably priced stores like Target sell these items.
Second, grab a water bottle. Any one will do, but it’s good to encourage kids to hydrate to satisfy their thirst while running (and just everyday in general).
Last comes shoes. This topic is a bit complex, as there has been little research on the impact of footwear across the broad spectrum of young children to teens. Some experts believe kids should run barefoot as much as possible, while others believe sneakers are the best option.
Several studies have suggested that barefoot running has different biomechanics than running with shoes among kids (source, source, source). This type of running may help to develop stronger feet and ankles in a way that aligns with natural foot changes as kids age. But running barefoot comes with it’s own set of challenges, like puncture wounds, and may not be practical wear you live.
Sneakers come in a wide variety of types and quality, and the right choice may vary based on your child’s age and running habits.
So what should you do? Because kids bones and foot structure are still growing and adapting, it’s thought that shoes for younger kids should be rather flexible to allow for the natural movement of their foot.
If you feel comfortable, you can also allow younger kids to run barefoot outside in the grass, provided you know the yard is safe and there’s no risk of puncture wounds from glass or metal.
As kids get older and start running longer distances, a more standard sneaker may be useful (especially if they grew up wearing sneakers). For kids who grew up mostly barefoot running, minimalist style shoes may be a good option.
7. Be cautious in the heat.
Children can accumulate heat faster than adults, and also may not cool themselves as efficiently. This puts them at greater risk for heat-based illnesses in warm temperatures. To reduce the risk of this, try these tips:
- Run with kids during cooler morning or evening times
- Run in shaded areas out of direct sunlight
- Take lots of walking breaks
- Encourage kids to stay hydrated by drinking water
- If the heat index suggests it’s dangerous to exercise outside, skip your run that day or play a fun exercise game indoors.
8. Consider a running program.
Maybe your kids have expressed an interest in running, but it’s really not something you enjoy. Or maybe you love it, but you have been caught up in a heavy work cycle and don’t have as much time to run with them. Or maybe your kiddos just need some more social activities with other kids.
All of these are great reasons to consider a specific running program. There are three examples that might be beneficial:
a. Girls on the Run – This after school program offers opportunities for girls in 3rd-5th grade as well as 6th-8th grade. The program helps empower girls to recognize and embrace their inner strength and unique attributes using a research-based curriculum with a physical activity focus. At the end of the program, girls tackle a non-competitive 5K race.
b. RRCA Kids Run the Nation – The goal of this initiative is to help establish kids running programs throughout schools and communities in the United States. The program is designed for kids in K-6th grade. If a Kids Run the Nation program isn’t happening in your area, consider volunteering to start one. They even have a grant program that can help organizations get funding for marketing materials and incentives.
c. Local kids track program – Be sure to also check to see if there are other kids track events or running programs local to you. For example, in the Boston area, Youth Enrichment Services offers a year-round track and field and cross-country program for kids of various ages. You may have similar programs near your area.
Keep in mind, this kids running tip should only be implemented if your child is interested in participating in such a program.
9. Try running games.
Running doesn’t have to mean pounding the pavement for 30 minutes straight. With kids, sometimes games that incorporate running are a great way to hold their short attention span while still engaging in physical activity. Here are six fun examples:
a. Go, Back, Jump!
Grab one of your parents to help with this activity. You’ll first create a starting point and an end point outside. Then your mom or dad can shout out one of these words at a time, alternating between them as they want:
- Go = Run forward
- Back = Run backward
- Jump = Jumping jacks
You’ve got to follow what they say until you cross the finish line!
b. Count Your Laps
Find a loop outside, like running around your house or up and down your driveway. Set a timer for 5 minutes and see how many times you can do it before the timer goes off!
c. Obstacle Course Race
You and your family can brainstorm different obstacles that you can create outside. For example:
- Zig zag through cones
- Jump rope 10 times
- Run through an open area backwards
- Carry a stuffed animal from one spot to another as fast as you can
- Skip from one spot to another
- Crab walk from one spot to another
- Crawl through a tent
- Run while jumping through a hula hoop
Come up with your own creative ideas, set up your course, and then see how long it takes you to do it!
d. Feet on Fire
One of your parents can shout out “hotter” and “colder” as you run around. When it’s “hot” you need to move your feet quickly – the ground is “hot!” When it’s cold, you can slow down into slow motion – it’s hard “walking through snow”.
e. You’re an Animal!
Come up with a list of animals and write each one on a different piece of paper. You can even draw a picture of them if you want!
Then, turn the papers over and pick out one at a time. Try to run or move like that animal would!
For example, if it’s a cheetah, you’ll need to run very fast. If it’s a crab, you’ll need to do a crab walk. Or if it’s a turtle, you’ll need to walk very slow.
f. Musical Hoops
You’ll need a few hula hoops and your parent’s help for this one. You’ll play it outside like you would play musical chairs. When the music is going, you can run, dance, skip, or hop around. When the music stops, you need to run as fast as you can and step into a hula hoop.
10. Don’t force it.
Last but not least, don’t force running. You may try all these tips in this article, and find out that your child absolutely hates running. That is OK.
Movement should be something that makes our bodies and minds feel good, and if running isn’t it for them, it’s important to respect that. Instead, think through other activities they might be able to try out to see if it’s the right fit, like swimming, gymnastics, or dance class.
Let them guide you as far as the right fitness activities for their body.
PS – looking for more family fitness inspiration? Check out five more fun fitness activities for kids.
Share: Do your kids like running? Or do they prefer other sports?
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