Revisiting the discussion: Teaching kids to sprint correctly

When I wrote about how to teach kids to sprint correctly in 2016, I had no idea the article would produce so much interest. In the years since its publication, this simple set of instructions for coaching basic sprinting has generated dozens of comments and inquiries from readers. 

Because many of the comments and inquiries have been the same or similar, I’m reprinting some of the comments and my responses here. The fact that so many readers raise the same questions suggests these are probably important concerns for many other parents who have children in sport and activity. 

Please note: When reading my replies below, please remember that I am not a physician, nor do I make a claim to be one. My remarks relating to human physiology and potential health issues are merely suggestions for parents to explore further with the appropriate medical professionals. Some responses have been edited for length and punctuation.  

Has the lockdown slowed my son’s running progress? 

Charles says: My eight-year-old is a bit slow when he runs. He tends not to extend his feet out in front of him when he sprints. He used to not hold his arms at 90 degrees, but that seems to be getting better. I think the lockdown has slowed his running progress as well. Any thoughts?

Answer: Without seeing your son run, it’s hard to say, but I think you’re probably right about the effects of the lockdown. In the preteen years, kids need to be running, jumping, and moving in general on a daily basis to fully develop their general muscle coordination and movement mechanics. If your son has recently gone through a mini growth spurt as well, that will also affect his muscle balance and coordination (but that will more than likely remedy itself gradually with a return to regular activity).

How can you tell if your child is a talented sprinter?

Mark says: Is there any way to say if a kid is talented in running? What would be a competitive time for 100 metres for an eight-year-old? My little one is eight years old and seems pretty fast!

Answer: It’s really not a useful question at age eight because “success” at this age very rarely translates into competitive success at older ages. Different children mature and develop at different ages. This means that some kids mature early and appear to be special talents, when in fact they’re simply maturing earlier than their peers. Usually there will be some peers who end up being faster later, once they catch up in development and maturation. Definitely continue to support and encourage your child in their running, and celebrate each success, but just be aware that you won’t be able to really know if they are talented or not until they are in their teen years. I recommend reading this article to learn more.

Following lockdown, my son runs like a T-Rex

John U says: My seven-year-old son has developed a new style of running over lockdown. He used to be a very quick runner, but now he runs on his heels and holds his arms and hands in the style of a T-Rex. We have just started to use the above process. How long should it take until we see progress? His football season starts again soon.

Answer: You should start to see progress within a week or two. The approach would be to do the exercise above as a warm-up prior to another running-based activity for about three-four minutes every day (sprint on the spot for five seconds, rest for 15-20). Do the exercise with your son at the same time, so he can see you as a model—this is important as visual reinforcement. After this warm-up, follow with a “real” play activity that involves running. You can pretend to race your son in a sprint in the park (e.g., “Race you to that tree!”). Once we get past COVID restrictions, you could also play tag with him and his friends.

My daughter wants to get faster in 200-metre sprinting

Marissa says: My 12-year-old girl runs 200 metre. She is in the top five usually, but it really beats her up for only getting in the top five. She has lots of practice time and wants to get better, but we have no idea how to start.   

Answer: If your daughter is running 100m and 200m competitively, you could look at getting some private coaching for her with an athletics club. If she is running top five in a large field of competitors, she’s likely at the point where she needs specialized coaching (at age 12 and older) to go to the next level of ability. I would not recommend private coaching for children under the age of 12, but the teen years are the time to look seriously at extra coaching if the child is very focused on getting better.

My daughter wobbles like a baby giraffe

Charlie says: My nine-year-old daughter runs so oddly—somewhat flat-footed with the lower legs sort of flailing out, and not lifting her feet much off the ground. I really want to help her, but when I try to get her to run more on the balls of her feet and lift her legs more, she teeters like she’s in heels or wobbles like a baby giraffe when her knees come higher. 

Answer: From what you’re saying, it sounds like your daughter needs to develop a little more balance and strength, in addition to getting her feet higher. Strength will develop naturally if she is doing even a modest amount of regular physical activity. I would suggest these simple things to start:

1) In the evenings at home, work on some yoga standing postures with her such as tree pose to develop balance, strength, and awareness. I don’t know if you’ve done any yoga, but it develops a remarkable amount of strength, and particularly in relation to muscles required for balance coordination. If you do it with her, you can make it a game between the two of you—challenge each other to see who can hold the tree pose the longest—you can find videos and illustrations of tree pose online. Practice doing the posture while standing on your left foot and while standing on your right foot.

2) Do some short stair runs with your daughter. Find a set of outdoor stairs—perhaps at a local park—and run slowly up the stairs—emphasis on slowly. This will reinforce the habit of getting the knees up and feet off the ground. It should also reinforce the habit of running on the balls of the feet. Walk down the stairs each time—don’t run down the stairs.

What is a good 100-metre sprint result for a five-year-old? 

Marko says: My nearly five-year-old son is starting to race on some 100m events (which find place alongside my 5 km races), and so far he has been doing really well and has even won some races, without any training at all. With using these tips, I will work with him a bit more and I am sure he will get even better results. And talking about results, what could be considered a good result for 100 metres for a five-year-old kid? 

Answer: A good result would be whether or not your five-year-old son is having fun—nothing more than that. Five-year-olds should not be running 100 metres competitively. At that age, first and foremost, they should be having fun when they run, such as playing games of tag. Even if we were to get kids this age to run competitively, a logical distance would be perhaps 30-40 metres for their physiology and level of growth and maturation. 

My son runs on his heels    

Sean says: My six-year-old son runs on his heels and it’s like it’s causing him to not utilize full leg muscles while running. He ends up being one of the sorest on his sports teams. Any advice on teaching betting techniques?

Answer: Simply follow the instructions—run on the spot with your son for a minute—and coach him to run on the balls of his feet (the front portion of the foot). However, also be patient with him—at age six, he is only beginning to develop the full musculature and coordination needed to run with correct mechanics. I don’t think you need to worry too much at this point. Watch how he progresses over the next two-three years. If he was eight or nine years old, I would be a little more concerned. Remember that all kids develop at different rates, mostly based on genetic differences.

My husband makes our son run on a treadmill

Portia says: I have an energetic seven-year-old son and he is quite active in sports and a sprinter too. My concern is that my husband makes him run on the treadmill with full speed for like 30 seconds or so, and when they’re done he will complain about his stomach and sometimes minor headaches. He does not enjoy it. I really don’t support the idea of the treadmill as I feel he’s not yet matured to train like that. 

Answer: There is no need for any seven-year-old to be training on a treadmill—not unless he lives in an orbital space station and there is nowhere else to run. If the objective is to develop your son’s speed, he simply needs to be playing different running games (soccer, basketball, athletics, and even tag). These games will do everything required to stimulate the necessary neurological and muscle adaptations. The biggest concern I can see with training on the treadmill is that it isn’t fun—this is a good way to ensure he develops a strong dislike for physical activity.

My son strikes his heels very hard when running, and his knees and ankles hurt    

Paul says: My 12-year-old son has developed a bad habit of striking his heels very hard when running in football and basketball. He’s now complaining that his heels and ankles hurt during and after the games. How can I help him to break this habit? 

Answer: I suggest that you have your son practice running on the spot, while you watch his form and make sure that he is landing on the balls of his feet (per the instructions above). Apart from using his arms correctly and getting his knees up, he may need to simply train himself to get accustomed to being on the balls of his feet. I also suggest that you get an agility ladder and get him to do agility drills with it. There are plenty of videos online that you can watch—simply search “agility ladder drills.” There are some ladder drills that are especially good for reinforcing the planting and pushing off from the ball of the foot (which is essential for sprinting, as well as directional change in sports such as basketball).

My son runs with his arm by his side

Sally says: My seven-year-old runs with his left arm straight by his side. He almost leans back slightly when he runs. He’s not particularly slow, but he could be faster with a different technique. Any advice?   

Answer: Yes, your son could definitely be faster if he learns to move both of his arms. I wouldn’t consider it a big “need” for him to be optimized for speed at age seven, but I would take this as a sign that he needs to learn to move with slightly better efficiency. You might start by simply showing him how to use both arms. You can run on the spot and show him how you are moving both of your arms, then ask him to imitate you. If this doesn’t work after a few attempts at reminding him, then you might simply mention it to his PE teacher or sports coach, and ask them if they do any basic running instruction in their programming. It’s really not hard to teach kids how to run, but very few teachers and coaches take time to do this, and running is an important movement skill.

My daughter has endured injuries that I think stem from gait issues

Kimberly says: My daughter is nine and plays quite a bit of soccer. She is pretty fast, and yet her gait seems too long. She has endured a couple overuse injuries (intense heel and foot pain, and knee pain) as well as a pulling a muscle in her lower back in the past six months, which I think stems from this gait issue combined with just being an intense player who pushes herself hard. Who can I see or what can I do to verify this and help it change? I don’t want her hurt, but I also don’t want to pull her from a sport she loves.

Answer: I think your instincts are right in regard to some sort of gait issue or other biomechanical imbalance. I would recommend that you take your daughter to a good sports physiotherapist or even a running coach for an assessment of her gait and movement mechanics. Also, has she suddenly grown a lot recently? If she has already started her pubertal growth spurt, and her rate of growth is particularly fast, this could have a substantial impact on her gait mechanics, posture, and muscle balance. If this is the case, then it is generally simply a matter of gently shepherding her through this growth period with lightened activity and a focus on maintaining good movement mechanics to the best of her ability.

My son has autism. How can we improve his running?

Chantel says: My son is 10 and has autism, which affects him physically in some aspects. He recently started track and field with the Special Olympics. He was timed today and runs the 50-yard dash at 11.2 seconds. He also plays basketball and is interested in soccer. I know running (and running properly) will help him in these sports, but I don’t know what areas can be improved and what areas cannot be improved (because of his autism). Any advice?

Answer: Every child is different in terms of their athletic abilities and potential, including children with autism, so it is difficult to provide specific advice for your son. If you have already tried to coach him using the instructions above, and if you find it’s not working well for him, I suggest contacting the Canucks Autism Network and seeing if they have any advice to offer you. They have been running physical activity and sport programs for children with autism for 10 years and they have excellent experience in this area.

Tony Langdon also replies: I’m an autistic masters sprinter, and I have some coordination issues, both perceptual and motor, so I may be able to offer some insights. First, the basic advice above is still sound. What may need to be changed is how to instruct the athlete, which is an individual thing, and where services that specialize in autism may be better positioned. In my case, it’s proven best to focus on one key issue or skill at a time and to keep self-monitoring of running form simple. Avoiding overload is critical while learning, but once a skill hits muscle memory, it can be built upon. As for what can and can’t be changed, don’t set any limits! I’ve taken an attitude of exploring my capabilities and seeing where that leads. If you had seen me run 40 years ago (I was 12 then), you’d never have expected me to be competitive at state level, where I am now in masters competition. Most important, whatever is done should be enjoyable, and in my book, that applies to all ages.

My son has hypotonia and his slow running upsets him 

Piper says: My almost six-year-old son has low muscle tone (hypotonia) and wears insoles to correct pronation. He runs much slower than his classmates and gets very upset about it. I try to help him practice but don’t know where to start. I don’t want to hard on him but I do want to help him since it bothers him so much. Where do you think is the best place to start?

Answer: As your son is only six, anything you do should be simply play-based. I would engage him with games such as tag, or other simple fun games that involve chasing, dodging, running and jumping. If your son has hypotonia, my understanding is that it is usually a neurological condition and your son may benefit from physiotherapy as well.

Key takeaways

When kids have difficulty with their running form, it is most often due to not having been shown how to run properly. A little basic instruction and practice in things such as arm position, knee drive, and foot planting can make a big difference in a child’s running ability and speed.   

Occasionally, however, there may be actual physiological issues involved. Sometimes problems with posture, coordination, and muscle strength may be congenital. Other times the problems may stem from old physical injuries that were never identified or treated, such as falling on ice or other hard surfaces as small children and impacting the tailbone or hips, resulting in problems with the pelvis or legs. It is worth talking with a medical professional to determine if any of these issues may be present.   

Thanks to all the readers who have contributed their questions and responses to deepen this discussion. If you have additional questions or thoughts on this topic, we welcome your comments below.    


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