Running: How to teach kids to sprint correctly

August 14, 2016 21 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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  1. Vincent February 20, 2018 at 3:00 am - Reply

    Hi Jim,

    My 10 year old son loves playing soccer. He is good in techniques but struggles with sprinting. When he sprints, he seems to go fast. He has long legs and I wasn’t sure if that is the reason why he can’t sprint like his other friends. He seems to lose the agility with his long legs as well. How do i guide him to run the correct way so it can improve his sprinting? I have others say that he is still growing and his muscles are not fully grown yet that is why he is struggling. What are your thoughts ? Thanks.

    • Jim Grove
      Jim Grove February 20, 2018 at 9:27 am - Reply

      Hi Vincent,
      Your friends are most likely correct. I say “most likely” only because I am not present to evaluate your son’s running and physiology directly, but I can tell you that rapid growth, long legs, etc. are the problem 99% of the time. Your son is only 10 years old — if he is particularly long and “leggy” at this age, he could be 14 or 15 before he really starts to develop significant muscle mass and even barely starts to approach physical maturity. Remember — children are not miniature adults — they are children who are growing and developing, and every child grows and develops at a different rate (based primarily on genetics). He is obviously getting plenty of opportunity to run in soccer, so my advice would be speed and agility training — specifically on agility ladders. I am also very long and leggy, and a soccer player, and I saw huge improvements in my speed and agility by working with agility ladders. More importantly, I have used ability ladders in coaching hundreds of soccer players ages 7-18 years old for close to 20 years — I have seen that every player finds improvement depending on their degree of physical maturation (e.g. pre-pubertal, pubertal, post-pubertal). The only caution is don’t overdo it — keep the agility training sessions to 5 or 10 minutes per day with brief recovery breaks every 30-60 seconds. The key is to do a little every day — more than that can result in joint and muscle injury. Keep it short and simple. You will likely start to see improvements in his speed within 2-3 weeks. Thereafter, his greatest improvements will come after the peak of his pubertal growth spurt (i.e. development of muscle mass, bone growth, etc.).

  2. Michelle January 29, 2018 at 7:38 pm - Reply

    My son complains about his heals hurting after activity. He is a competitive athlete. I feel like it is the way he runs. Any thoughts to help him? We have used shoe inserts in his cleats and he always has good running shoes. He says his cross country coach said he should run heal to toe.

    • Jim Grove
      Jim Grove January 30, 2018 at 1:05 pm - Reply

      Hi Michelle,
      There could be many reasons why your son’s heels hurt after activity. If he is a competitive athlete and training frequently during the week, it could simply be related to overuse. Also, depending on where he is in his growth spurt, there could be mechanical issues due to changing bone length, muscle development, etc. With ages 12-14 especially, it is common to see aches and pains due to these reasons, especially if the child is “training” a lot. In 90% of the cases, it is simply a matter of reducing activity and putting less stress on the body for some time while the body “sorts itself out” in relation to growth and development. Having said that, you might want to consult your family physician and get a professional medical opinion. And as for heel-to-toe running, there are many different opinions on this, and it continues to be debated. Here are some articles on the topic of running form that you might find useful:
      “Pounding Pavement by Heel or Toe”
      “Heel striking — is it really the enemy of good running form?”
      “Facts on Foot Strike”
      Myself, I’m definitely a mid-foot runner when I run distance — if I do a heel strike, it hurts my knees badly. Sometimes I even experiment with a front strike, and I find it comfortable and more enjoyable, but I realize that I am apparently among the minority of runners in that regard.

  3. Jamie Hosmer January 8, 2018 at 7:42 pm - Reply


    My daughter is nine years old and is one of the taller kids in her age group but does not tower over everyone. She often complains that she is slow and does not want to play tag because she cannot catch anyone. She plays hockey and is a faster skater than runner but still on the slower end. I sometimes suspect it is effort based but not sure if this is me rationalizing her speed. She has never really been a kid to run around much. I always considered myself as one of the faster kids growing up and through high school and am having trouble coming up with good advice. I also do not want to make it a bigger deal in her mind and do not want to apply undue pressure. She is a bright kid a usually pretty receptive to instruction (although perhaps not from me). I would appreciate any advice you might have to offer regarding this situation.

    Many thanks for your time.


    • Jim Grove
      Jim Grove January 11, 2018 at 5:12 pm - Reply

      Hi Jamie,
      If your daughter is not usually tall for her age, then her “slower” speed probably doesn’t have much to do with an unusually rapid growth spurt (I’m just thinking out loud here). It could simply be her genes. Speed is a rather complicated mix of nature vs. nurture — genetics vs. the activity experiences (read: stimuli) that children experience during the age 6-8 years period of their physical development especially. We know that leg muscle is composed of muscle fibres that are commonly referred to as “fast twitch” and “slow twitch”. Some people are more fast twitch, other people are more slow twitch. Most of this appears to be unyieldingly genetic, but there is some research to suggest that early activity experiences (e.g. running around a lot at young ages, playing games such as tag) may help to spur the development of more fast twitch muscle fibres. However, unless your daughter was especially inactive or immobile from age 6-8 years, it is not likely that her development in this department was significantly compromised by her environment. In my experience coaching girls soccer players throughout ages 5-18 years, it is more likely that she is simply slower than average. Still, it is possible for anyone to make *some* gains in speed by training with agility ladders. I have managed to coax probably 10% more speed out of all my soccer players by training them on agility ladders for 10 minutes at the beginning of every practice. Agility ladders won’t necessarily develop more fast twitch fibres (especially after age 9 or thereabouts), but they will help to develop stride length and awareness around foot planting, balance, take off, etc. If you are not familiar with agility ladders, I recommend you check out some drills on youtube and see what they are about. I am not a fast-twitch person myself, but even I managed to gain some speed by training myself on an agility ladder as an adult! You might find the ladders are helpful to your daughter, but no matter what, take heart in the fact that even if she remains a bit slower than average, that’s perfectly okay — each of us has natural strengths and weaknesses, and sport performance is very much about playing to our strengths, even while we try to improve our weaknesses on a continual basis. It’s also about having fun and not overthinking things — in the end of the day, we all work with what we have, try our best, and try to enjoy ourselves in the process. Best of luck to your daughter!

  4. Joanne October 23, 2017 at 6:57 am - Reply

    Hi Jim,
    I have been searching for some ideas on how to help my son improve on his speed. I appreciate your insight and ideas and will try the technique provided in helping him to learn this. I definitely agree with the parent about “helicopter parenting”… much that my 6’5″, 208 lb., 8th grader just started playing organized basketball 2 seasons ago, while all of his friends have been exposed to organized ball since about 5. He has developed nicely as a ball player in just 2 years, but his speed clearly needs help. Yesterday, he played in a game, which was fast and filled with quality players, and afterward he said, “mom, I’m tired of being slow and always a second behind the other guys”. I played competitive basketball all my life and never had any trouble with speed, so this is new to me…..but I definitely want to help him. I never pushed him into organized sports, but instead, my husband and I constantly played all kinds of sports with him…..and just “played”. He got to the point 2 years ago where he just was ready to compete. I’m not going to beat myself up that I waited too long to expose him to “all of it”, but be good with my decision to allow him to enjoy being a kid. Do you have any other advice that would help a kid, who is this big, to run faster?….By the way, he grew 14 inches in a little more than 2 years (between 3rd and 6th grades)..and always the tallest kid in all of his schools, even now in 8th grade. I will appreciate any advice or insight from you……and thanks for the great advice so far.

    • Jim Grove
      Jim Grove October 25, 2017 at 5:41 pm - Reply

      Hi Joanne,
      WOW. Your son is 6’5″ in grade 8? And he grew 14 inches between 3rd and 6th grade? He definitely represents what we call an “early fast maturer.” As in, people can start to mature early and quickly reach physical maturation, or they can start early and take 15 years to mature, or they can start late and mature quickly, or start late and mature slowly, and all the various permutations in between. The challenge with early, fast maturers is that they somewhat “miss out” on a lot of the typical speed development that happens for kids between ages 6-9 years due to rapid growth and temporarily impaired motor coordination during that time period. That is, they are growing so fast that they tend to struggle in simple activities on the playground such as tag, for instance. As with all motor skill development, plenty of repetition is required, but the early fast maturers may not get as much time at this as other kids, so they often tend to lag behind in leg speed, etc. as they enter puberty. This is not to say that your son can’t catch up, but it will take work, and it could take a couple of years of thoughtful training. The best thing for training his leg speed is agility ladders. If he is ready to commit just 5-10 minutes per day on an agility ladder with various quick footwork drills, he could see his speed on the court improve very quickly, even within a few weeks. Also, he would do well to look at some videos online that demonstrate sprint technique — how to take off, short steps to accelerate at first, then lengthen the stride, etc. Beyond that, mature sprinters (and running athletes in all sports) should have good overall muscle development through the legs, the core, shoulders, and arms — because we run with our entire bodies. This is the advice I am giving for your son, as he has clearly entered his peak growth spurt, and may indeed almost be finished it, but I would provide different advice for a child who was still pre-pubertal, age 7-10, for instance. He can definitely improve his speed, no question — the only uncertainty will be how much and how soon. And assuming he makes time to do the ladders and learn some technique, much of his improvement will simply be determined by his genetics. Just don’t overdo the ladders — his growth plates are still soft at this age, so it is possible to “overtrain” and cause joint injury. If he starts to feel any lingering soreness in his joints, he should back off for a few days and give things a rest. One last thing: If you haven’t read it already, I think you will enjoy reading my article on Trainability:
      Best of luck!

  5. Kashif Ansari October 19, 2017 at 5:32 am - Reply

    Thanks, Jim. I really appreciate the mature and sensible way in which you answered my question. It shows that you have genuine know-how and expertise and can respond with response-ability to a query. Unfortunately, Arjuna Hillman seems to be rather miffed at my asking questions and questioning authority. Hey, Arjuna, isn’t that what we are all here for…to ask some difficult questions. Our children are the best philosophers and never stop questioning and being curious. It is this way by allowing the animated child to partially direct his or her own life within a loosely structured and safe environment of play that the child can progress through the milestones in his life. The child is like a sponge, he or she will absorb every little facet of the environment provided he or she is encouraged and given a proper liberal and all-round education which is rich in stimulation. Even today at the age of 44, I sprint outside my house in the sunshine. It sure beats being stuck inside the house in cramped conditions with one’s eyes glued to the computer screen. Anyways…I have said enough. Once more I would like to thank you Jim for the polite and well-mannered way in which you answered my doubts. I wish I could say the same for Arjuna…

    • Jim Grove
      Jim Grove January 11, 2018 at 5:15 pm - Reply

      Hi Kashif,
      You are very welcome! I am glad my response was helpful to you.

  6. 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

  7. 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!

  8. 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!

  9. 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!

  10. 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.

  11. 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

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