Running: How to teach kids to sprint correctly

August 14, 2016 11 Comments »
Running: How to teach kids to sprint correctly

Running — and sprinting in particular — is a fundamental skill that supports a multitude of other activities. If you know how to sprint properly, you’re more likely to enjoy a wide range of sports and activities that emphasize this form of running.

Have you ever gone to a school track meet or sports day for your kids? Have you noticed some kids are clearly better sprinters? They’re not just faster — they look better when they run. Same thing when you watch a kids’ soccer game or even a simple game of tag.

Meanwhile, some kids look like a randomized mass of flailing arms and legs, and their heads seem to waggle in the wind like dashboard bobbleheads.

Why the difference?

The kids with decent technique are not “natural born” sprinters. They have simply developed some good running mechanics at some point in their lives, whereas the other kids haven’t. Most kids are never taught how to run properly.

Basic mechanics of sprinting

Here are the basic elements of correct sprinting technique:

  1. Hold your torso straight and vertical.
  2. Hold your head still, but relax your face and neck.
  3. Bend your elbows at 90 degrees.
  4. Pretend you are lightly gripping a small bird in each hand.
  5. Pump your arms so your hands travel from “hip to lip”, and keep your arms close to your sides.
  6. As you pump your arms, keep your shoulders steady but relaxed.
  7. With each stride, lift your front knee high (“knee drive”) and straighten your back leg completely to deliver full power.
  8. At the start of your sprint, keep your strides short and quick. Lengthen your strides as you gain speed and momentum.

How to teach kids the basics

You can teach these basic mechanics to kids ages 7 years and older without lecturing them on human anatomy. Simply coach them through the movements while they run:

  1. Stand opposite your child (or children) and explain that you will run together on-the-spot to practice fast running.
  2. Begin by jogging slowly with them on-the-spot, and make sure they are facing you.
  3. Point out that your elbows are bent at 90 degrees. Make sure their elbows are also bent at 90 degrees.
  4. Talk to them about lightly gripping a small bird in each hand. Their hands should be more or less “closed” but not tight.
  5. Tell them to pump their hands from “hip to lip” (see mechanics above). Demonstrate the movement and make sure they are doing the same.
  6. Start to speed up your movements slightly, and bring your knees up high. Ask them to bring their knees up high as well.
  7. Finally, ask them to run very fast on-the-spot for five seconds (as if they are running a race).
  8. Watch their movements as they speed up, and give them reminders where needed (e.g., keep your head still, bend your elbows, pump hip-to-lip, lift your knees more).

If you teach kids in this manner, their eyes will see how it looks to sprint correctly, their bodies will learn how it feels, and their ears will hear verbal cues for remembering key elements of technique.

Congratulations! You have helped a new generation to run well. From playing tag to chasing a soccer ball, they will use this essential skill in more ways than you will ever imagine.

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11 Comments

  1. Mike July 25, 2017 at 1:34 am - Reply

    Hello, my son is 9 yrs old. He has played football since 5. A couple of years ago we noticed he runs on his heels almost like his feet hurt him when he runs. We have taken him to the doctor and a physical therapist. They did not point out any problems that my be causing this. We buy him quality cleats and as he is getting older he is a little faster but still lands on his heel and rolls onto his toes which makes him slow. I have been working with him this summer after a lot of reading and watching videos and having him watch the videos. I am seeing improvement but can you offer any advice that you have found really makes a difference? Thank You

  2. Nicole April 3, 2017 at 5:22 pm - Reply

    Jim, thank you for good reminders. My son is 11 and has the worst running form I’ve ever seen. He is athletic, loves sports but cannot run well. He is on his first travel baseball team this year but does not have the speed to steal bases or sprint to first, etc. He is a great ball player, but I’m afraid if I don’t get him some help soon, he won’t be able to continue what he loves. When he sprints, he looks like he’s about to trip forward or has 10 lb weights on his feet that he’s dragging along with him. His steps seem so big that he just can’t get any speed. My gut says something is off more than just speed/form (physiologically) that I would be unable to see without professional help. Something is holding him back as he runs because I can see him try but looks almost like he is unable. He was a toe-walker for years but after some PT, it was corrected. Can you refer me to some professionals who would be able to see what I am clearly missing? I want to help him and he wants to excel, but we are both at a loss for where to go for help. Any direction would be appreciated.

    • Jim Grove
      Jim Grove April 5, 2017 at 1:24 pm - Reply

      Hi Nicole,
      You ask an interesting question. There could be a variety of reasons why your son struggles with his running form, but I would suggest that you start by finding someone who specializes in sport kinesiology. Again, it’s just a starting point, but I would want to first examine whether or not your son simply needs some “coaching” in movement mechanics and some basic exercises to correct his form. Few health professionals wear the actual title “sport kinesiologist”, but there are physiotherapists and occupational therapists who include this domain as an area of special interest, and they probably have the best insight to help you. Check out a few websites and make some phone calls to see if you can find a “sporty” therapist with this area of interest and expertise–for example, a physiotherapist who is also a competitive or recreational runner. You could also try private coaching from a coach at a running club, but they might not have the expertise to identify more fundamental pathologies that may be present, such as pre-existing injuries or issues in biomechanics that may have gone undetected in your son. For example, it may be a simple case where your son (a) never learned how to run in the first place when he was small and then (b) has entered his growth spurt and now suffers the additional complications that come with rapidly growing bones and dramatic changes in fundamental biomechanics. Sport kinesiologists — or physiotherapists and occupational therapists with a keen interest in sports kinesiology — are best equipped to identify these issues or refer you to other professionals as needed. Best wishes!

  3. Neha February 23, 2017 at 5:44 pm - Reply

    Hai, I want to know how I make my son a good runner, actually he is very good on running he is toe runner or foretoe runner. He is 8years. Is it okay to be toe runner. From baby til 8 he is very fast on running . He stand first in running in all competitions , he love running can he persue as toe runner in future need ur advice Jim

    • Jim Grove
      Jim Grove February 28, 2017 at 2:08 pm - Reply

      Hi Neha,
      It really depends on whether your son is running distance or sprinting. The foot strike (heel, mid-foot, or forefoot “toe”) changes according to speed. Also, every runner is a bit different in size and limb length, and that can affect the foot strike. However, generally speaking, most distance runners will use a heel strike or a mid-foot strike, then roll forward off the toe. Sprinters use a forefoot strike and then roll off the toe. If your son is running distance, then you also need to consider the type of distances he will be running — long distance or middle distance? This can also make some difference. I hope this helps!

  4. Greg December 6, 2016 at 2:54 pm - Reply

    Good article.

    How young is too young for a child to learn these techniques? In other words, should a child be 6 or 7 before trying to learn proper running techniques?

    • Jim Grove
      Jim Grove December 7, 2016 at 10:56 am - Reply

      Hi Greg,
      Excellent question. Every child is a bit different in terms of their rate of growth and development, but generally speaking, you can “introduce” this kind of technique starting around age 7. Prior to that age, most children have not developed enough strength and muscle coordination (and cognitive understanding) to “get” what you are talking about or be able to apply it. I would say this: Introduce the technique with a simple short demo and exercise as described in the article, and then revisit it every so often. For example, as a soccer coach working with kids this age, I generally do a 30-second review of the technique every 2-3 weeks during warm-up at practice — and thereby gently build the players’ own body awareness without sounding like a broken record. It’s also important to understand and accept that not all (or many) of kids ages 7-8 will immediately be able to perform and master “perfect” technique. It’s a long-term process. However, by age 9-10, if kids have been active and running around for a few years, they should start to show signs of good mastery of the basic technique. By this age, assuming they have been reasonably active in childhood, they should have the requisite strength, coordination, and balance to run reasonably well. And by age 12 and 13, they should look reasonably “pro” as they go sprinting down the track or across the field. I hope that helps — again, very good question!

  5. Arjuna Hillman November 7, 2016 at 6:05 am - Reply

    Thank you Jim for explaining the mechanics of sprinting. It really helps to have a clear distinction of technique to talk about with my kids as they play & train in the various activities that they enjoy. As far as helicopter parenting (@ Kasif,) it’s clear that you don’t know what the term means. I mean, why are you even reading an article on improving technique if that’s what you think helicopter parenting is, & why help your kid understand anything at all? Working with your child on improving technique is no different than teaching them other life skills. We explain things to our children all the time so that they have an awareness to better understand the fundamentals of “whatever” they do for them selves. Thank you Jim for your help, I can also use the info to help kids on my kids soccer teams.

  6. Kashif Ansari June 13, 2016 at 4:26 am - Reply

    Can’t we leave the poor kids alone to their own devices instead of this helicopter parenting approach which drives them later on towards other unhealthier pursuits such as drug abuse, promiscuity, violence, obesity and mental illness. Free range parenting is the way to go. Kids need their space and some freedom to just be themselves and enjoy whatever they want in the fresh air, sunlight and great outdoors. To supervise them even in something which comes to them naturally and spontaneously such as sprinting is simply going too far. Can’t we just let them be instead of becoming such wise withered old judges that stand in judgment over their every move whether to the left or the right.

    • Jim Grove
      Jim Grove June 13, 2016 at 11:49 am - Reply

      Hi Kashif,
      I hear what you are saying, and believe me, I am firmly anti-helicopter parenting. My kids were free range kids to a degree that would terrify most Canadians. What I have outlined above is not helicopter parenting. It’s teaching. We teach our kids how to hold a fork or chopsticks, and similarly, we can teach them how to run. It literally takes about 15 seconds to show a child how to do this. However, if you pursue your child at every running and sporting event afterwards and try to “coach” them, then you are a helicopter parent. As well, the instructions above assume that the kids have been playing and running around for a long time (i.e. unstructured play), and now they have expressed an interest in track, or soccer, or some other sport that involves running and they have a desire to get better. My kids all did well in sports simply because I took a few seconds or a few minutes to recognize their interest and teach them things as children. The key is how you do it. Make it fun, and the kids love it and feel accomplished. Make it a coaching session, and the kids will resent it, for sure. The best teaching and coaching relies on recognizing the child’s interest and then gently feeding it. This is how all three of my children have become accomplished pianists without piano lessons. You can read my story about cultivating a Growth Mindset to see what I mean http://activeforlife.com/cultivate-a-growth-mindset/

What do you think?