Kids are born to run. At school playing chase, at the park playing hide and seek, at the soccer pitch chasing a ball. Do you really need to teach them how to run?
I was surprised to learn while running with my own kids that you actually do. Proper running technique, with arms bent at 90 degrees, for example, and not swinging across the body, does not come naturally, but can help kids run faster and avoid injury.
Young children ages 4–8 like to run fast and science has discovered that’s actually what’s best for them: at that age, their bodies and brains are developing power and speed. Until kids have gone through their puberty growth spurt, they can’t actually improve endurance (any performance gains are a result of improved technique).
But when kids get to be about 8 and older, they can start running for distance, which includes skills that kids don’t instinctively know and requires some practice to help them avoid injury and cross that finish line with a smile.
1. The right age
By age 7 or 8, kids can start with short, 1 km runs that they can finish without any breaks or much practice. Once they venture past the 1 km fun runs, its time to teach them a few running skills. By age 8, my three active kids were all doing fun family 5 km runs. They weren’t breaking any speed records, but they were getting used to longer distances, the race experience, running with a crowd, and crossing a finish line.
2. The right stuff
Kids need proper shoes and socks for running to avoid shin splints, blisters, and even knee or joint problems later on that can be caused by insufficient footwear. It’s worth a visit to a running store to get moisture wicking, anti-rubbing socks to avoid blisters, and even a quick check of their gait to determine the best running shoes for their growing feet.
3. Be the pace bunny
An even pace wins the race! Kids have no idea how to pace themselves. Teaching pace is valuable to being able to enjoy a distance run. A watch or smartphone app that measures distance and speed is handy and striving for a 6- to 8-minute kilometre is average for kids.
Start slow and watch how your child is reacting. If they’re short of breath, have a stitch in their side, or complaining of leg pain, take a walking break for one or two minutes and then run again. As you run more often, you can increase the speed, but only if the kids are able to run and still enjoy it! Going too far and too fast is one way to turn kids off the sport.
Related read: How to teach kids to sprint correctly
Always pack water. When you’re active, it’s valuable for more than just quenching thirst.
5. Increasing distance
Pick a route for the kids that will be fun. Run to the park, to their friend’s house, to the ice cream shop, or on some nearby trails. Focus on the time you spend moving, and not distance. Our goal is to keep moving for 30 minutes. We run/walk 15 minutes away from home and then turn around and run/walk back — always running the first 1 or 2 kilometres and then, depending on their energy levels, running until they need a walking break. Walk for a couple of minutes and then run again.
Each run will be different. Some days you feel great, other days you don’t — the same holds true for kids. Not every day is a great running day for them.
As with anything, you need to get the kids out a couple times a week over a few months to be ready for a 3 to 5 km race.
7. Race day – Let ’em go
You’ll be surprised what the power of a crowd can do to kids. For my daughter’s first 5 km race she had never run more than 3 km without stopping to walk. At the race she ran right past the 3 km sign, stopped to take a photo at the 4 km sign, and then sprinted to the 5 km finish line and beat me across! I’m not kidding.
Not a runner yourself?
You can still help your kids learn to run by riding your bike alongside and encouraging them while getting a bit of exercise yourself.