If you've been a runner for as long as your child can remember, there's a good chance that, at some point, they'll ask to come along. She could be a budding track star gunning to get her first taste of the sport. Or, he might just want to come see what the fuss is about. But if your child does end up showing real interest in distance running, are their bodies prepared for it?
In short, yes. Doctors used to fear that if kids ran too much while they were still growing, they'd risk stunting their growth, be more prone to injuries throughout life, and wind up with arthritis in their knees or hips down the road. But according to Dr. Joel Brenner, immediate past chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness, research shows none of these risks are real.
Brenner says there's no set age at which it becomes safe for a kid to start running. "The biggest thing is that the child, whether he or she is 7, 10, or 13, needs to be one who wants to do it," he says. "Parents shouldn't push their kids to take up running." That's not to say you shouldn't encourage them to be active, though. "Developing physical literacy — learning to jump and kick — is so important for young kids," says Brenner. "Along with running, you want to make sure children are doing other activities that build strength and flexibility."
But just like you, your kid needs to work their way up to 5K, 10K, or even a half-marathon. You first have to ensure he has the proper shoes, does the appropriate training, and gradually works up to the given distance. "Generally, children should start with a fun run such as a half-mile or mile," says Beth Jordan, an ACE-certified personal trainer in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, and expert in children's physical development. "But with every kid, you first have to cover the preliminaries: What is his fitness level? What is his goal?"
Once you've discussed these questions, you should map out a training strategy — even for the shortest of races. "Running is a repetitive-stress sport," Jordan says. "Both kids and adults tend to get tendinitis, shin splints, and other injuries early on because they do too much too fast without a strategy."
"We usually do a 12-week training leading up to race day, even for shorter runs," Jordan says. "The general rule is to increase mileage by 10 percent each week." All the while, you want to be teaching her proper hydration and form, making sure she's getting enough rest, and showing her how to do core work and squats. If you're not confident about your abilities to train your kid properly, Jordan suggests finding a coach or trainer who's experienced at working with children.
Besides preparing your child's body for the rigors of a race, pre-event training is also key to determining whether or not he really wants to do this. "Sometimes kids get so pumped about the race itself because that's the fun part," Jordan says. "But then when it comes to training, they lose interest." If you're not seeing that drive, and he's not willing to do the preliminary work, Jordan says you'd be wiser to pull the plug on his race dreams — at least for this go-around.
Like all aspects of parenting, the most important thing is to keep the communication lines open. Jordan suggests continually asking your kid whether she's still having fun and if the training is too much. Also make it abundantly clear — especially if you are a runner — that if she decides this sport just isn't for her, that's okay too.