The Lowdown on Running with Young Kids
Running is one of the country’s fastest-growing outdoor activities with more and more people, both young and old, getting into the healthy sport. My background is one of a military career, so running is something that I am accustomed to; albeit at times through compulsion. Whether you hit the trails, the track, or your suburban streets, running is a great way to not only stay in shape and maintain your health but to also reduce stress and enjoy being outdoors. As a parent, if you run, sooner or later either your children will want to accompany you or you will want to encourage them to a healthier lifestyle. When it comes to running, things can go from “fun” to “work” in a hurry if you’re not careful. There are many hazards on the road to getting young kids to embrace the joys and benefits of running, and if you avoid the common pitfalls then you and your family will not only reap the healthy rewards but also have another activity you can enjoy together.
The number one thing to keep in mind is the difference in capacity between adults and young children. Not only can their bodies handle less long duration wear and tear, but they also lack the ability to listen to their bodies as well and pace themselves. As the parent, you have to teach your child how to pace themselves properly. This is usually accomplished through a series of walking and running. Pointing out a distant waypoint such as a tree, road intersection, or light poles allows you to jog for a period of time or distance and alternate walking. As your child develops stronger lung capacity and leg muscles, these distances can be lengthened and shortened respectively. As you demonstrate a long duration pace, you can explain that the ability to maintain a conversation is a good way of ensuring that you’re not pushing yourself too hard. As an added benefit, carry on a conversation is a good way to take your child’s mind off of the running. Before long, they may even be amazed at just how far they have gone.
Along with scaling the pace and distance be sure to keep the pressure to perform low as well. In the beginning, the goal should just be in getting out there and trying it out. If that means that you get your normal run in on your own and keep the run with your children as supplementary runs, it’s better than making them discouraged from asking or expecting too much from them too soon. Remember, this is supposed to be enjoyable for them at this stage.
Gear is another great way to get children interested in running. Let’s face it, we live in a digital age of gadgets for just about anything and running is no exception. Fitness tracking watches and monitors are great tools that allow your child to set goals, monitor progress, and view digital representations of what they have accomplished. Fitbits, Apple watches, Garmin’s, and more all sync up to your smartphone or device and allow you to do things like map routes, measure distances, track speed, monitor heart rates, and more. Encourage your child to monitor their progress as they get better and they will soon find the value of competing with themselves for improvement.
On the same page as cool gizmos that children enjoy, treadmills are worth mentioning also. As adults we often look at treadmills with disdain, imagining the monotonous miles of punishment in a fixed location. In my experience though, children love treadmills. There’s something about the ability to run inside that just resonates with them. As a word of caution, however, always supervise their use and ensure they wear and utilize the appropriate safety features like the emergency kill-switch. Treadmills are also great tools to measure ability in a controlled environment. There has been more than one rainy day where I’ve hopped on my treadmill just to see how fast I can run one mile.
Kids are often surprisingly like adults in what motivates them. Setting long-term goals allows you to break down progress into smaller or shorter goals. Many schools and towns have competitive runs that are open to anyone willing to sign up. This accomplishes several things. For starters, signing up for a 5K competitive run gives you and your child something to “train” for. This will add some clarity and focus on your running. It also allows your child to experience the thrill and accomplishment of competition. In my experience with these types of fun runs, the likelihood that the average person would come in last is low, but even if you and your child do, you just have another goal to set for the next race! As always, just be sure to temper your expectations with reality. Unless your child is a physiological anomaly, the goal should be something like “let’s just finish the 5K race” rather than “we need to win.”
Sometimes one of the reasons our children choose to participate in activities with us is simply to enjoy doing something with together. A great way to encourage your child to run more is to create a team like atmosphere. Showing them that you are working towards your own goals and overcoming your own obstacles, (with them by your side), will make them feel like part of an overall effort or team. My oldest son is very sensitive to feeling like things are being set up a certain way just because he is a kid. If every time that we went out and ran I acted like I was bored and wasting my time, he would lose interest purely for my own benefit. Instead, I try different things like stopping every few minutes for additional exercises or sprinting ahead a short distance before waiting for him to catch up. In doing so I not only get a great workout in, but I look like anything but bored.
Ask any serious runner what they enjoy about the sport and one of their answers is bound to be experiencing different running locations. Likewise, your child will come to anticipate runs more if you change up the routes and locations. Taking a car ride for a good running route is well worth the gas money. 15 minutes from my house is a beautiful 13 mile stretch of paved running, biking, and walking trail that snakes along the Chattahoochee River. As it gradually meanders over slight rises and turns, I enjoy passing by the other runners and bikers out enjoying the fresh air like me. Sometimes, however, I am forced to keep my jogs more local and explore the local suburbs, but the change in the scenery is always welcomed. Another thing you can do to mix things up is head to a local hiking trail. Reducing the pace and distance is likely a good idea for these, but they offer a great off-road experience. Don’t be afraid to run some routes more than a couple times. If you keep track of performance, however formally or informally, your child will be able to see how much they have improved over time. As they see improvement in their running, it can encourage them to set new, harder goals.
Creating ownership is a method that can be used to elicit more dedication to any number of endeavors. If you’re always prodding your child to come on a run or setting their goals for them they will lose the sense of ownership that is so vital to keeping with something. Allow them to decide if they want to join you for a run or not. Some days I myself don’t feel like going out for a run. Either work has me swamped, the weather isn’t ideal, or I’m just plain to beat from a long week. Children are no different. There’s going to be days when they just don’t feel like running or they’d just rather do something else. Extending the invitation is enough; there’s no need to use guilt or bribes to get them to join along. It is, however, a good idea to remind them of time to time of their goals, go over their progress, or reward them for their effort with some new shoes or running attire. There’s no set formula for this, it’s just one of those type of parenting things that you’ll have to learn to strike a balance with. As long as you encourage them and provide them with the opportunity to grow and fail in a controlled, safe environment, progress will undoubtedly follow.
For some people running comes more easily than others. Whether they have a history with it or just a natural proclivity, there’s just folks out there that can seem to run with minimal effort. Understanding the limitations of children and instilling good health and fitness practices, however, mean that you need to check all of the appropriate boxes along the way. Proper warm-ups, hydration, nutrition, and the other aspects of a holistic approach to running are key in keeping your child’s running career safe and productive. Always be sure to set the right example, even if you don’t get as much out of it as they do. I know some guys who can seemingly run for 10 to 12 miles without me ever seeing a drop of water get drunk, whereas I pound water like I just came off of a life raft at sea for days. Kids can sometimes seem immune from the physiological limitations of older age that plague us, adults. About the only time, I believe my youngest son drinks water if either I make him or he eats BBQ potato chips. Likewise, he possesses the ability to take off in a dead sprint at the drop of a hat, whereas I need to take a moment to warm my old hamstrings up or I’ll spend the rest of the day laid up on the couch. Once they see and feel the benefits of running from a safe and proper approach, those lessons will carry with them later in life.
Getting out and spending time together as a family is one of the things that make being a parent great. I love passing down the things that I learned much later in life when it comes to health and fitness. One of the biggest lessons that I learned and try to instill in my own children is that fitness can be fun! So many adults step outside or onto treadmills day after day as if it were some dreadful chore; a thing to be done to prolong life by a few years. I enjoy running and exercise because it clears my head, relieves stress, allows me to plan my day mentally, and keeps me energetic. If my kids grow to embody those aspects of health and fitness in their personal lives and with their children, then I know I will have passed on something of great value.