It’s that time of year again in Vancouver. The time when the air temperature gets warm enough for shorts. The time when all the flowers start blooming. The time when schools start running — literally — Kilometre Club.
The concept is simple, and is designed to encourage kids to get some physical activity. Reward them for running around a track by handing them a popsicle stick. The objective is to have fun and collect as many popsicle sticks as you can. Total mileage is tracked, and at the end of the season — usually about six weeks — ribbons and medals are handed out.
But there’s a problem with KM Club. It’s not much fun. And it is not the best activity for younger kids who are in a particular developmental phase.
“This is boring”; the problem with KM Club
I remember the excitement my daughter had four years ago in Kindergarten prior to her first KM Club experience. The idea of being on the field, running around with her friends was intoxicating. She couldn’t wait.
And I was excited for the opportunity for the two of us to do something active together, so I could be more of a role model (and enjoy some time outside myself).
Five minutes into the first twenty-minute running session she was done. This wasn’t fun at all, and no amount of popsicle sticks, even if they were blue and red and yellow, would change that. She wanted to go play on the monkey bars instead.
Over the next couple of years, I was able to keep her engaged by using the reward as a motivator. She wanted to earn a medal, so we figured out how many laps she needed to run each day to achieve that.
It ended up being a good lesson in goal setting, but it didn’t make the running any more exciting. She still wanted to hang out with her friends, not practice her running.
So last year I did something different.
Forget about endurance, focus on speed
The size of the running space at the school is about 350 metres. I divided it up into roughly three sections of 100 m, just by making note of the plastic cones used to shape the track. Instead of running at a steady pace the entire time, Sadie and I jogged the first 100 m, then exploded into a sprint for the next 100 m, then walked for 100 m.
It became a game for us, to see who could win the 100 m speed race. We’d pick out someone in the crowd ahead of us who was running slower, and see if we could pass them before we got to the end of the 100 m.
The walk was a short recovery period for us, and the jog was getting our bodies ready for the next sprint.
The rest of the participants were doing the regular KM Club running, and I didn’t care that we were standing out from the crowd by doing something different. Sadie did. She wasn’t entirely comfortable with us calling attention to ourselves.
But after a couple of running sessions, Sadie’s friends started asking if they could run with us. By the time KM Club ended last spring, we had a group of about six in our Sprint Club.
The difference between distance running and sprinting
I’m not going to take any credit for coming up with the idea of sprinting instead of distance running, because I came up with it after a conversation with my Active for Life colleague, Jim Grove.
Jim is the person on the AfL team who understands and keeps on top of the science behind everything we do. Jim explained to me how distance running, for kids under the age of 10, is kind of pointless. At least, it’s pointless if you think it is helping them to develop a lot of endurance.
The reason has to do with how kids’ bodies develop.
In the early childhood years until about age 8 or 9, kids are developing the complex neurology and muscle fibres that drive speed. It is not the time when the body is developing a lot of aerobic endurance, so this is the time when you want to focus on activities that enhance speed development instead, Jim explained.
The best kinds of activities at those ages are fun things where they need to move around quickly in short intervals. It’s why 5-year-olds love to play tag and chase each other around.
Aerobic endurance, on the other hand, develops after the start of the growth spurt we know as puberty.
So having kids aged 5 to 8 run around and around and around at a slow pace doesn’t really do much to help their bodies. It could, actually, only serve to make them slower runners and sprinters in the long run, because research suggests that kind of activity does more to promote the development of slow-twitch muscle fibres than fast-twitch fibres.
It’s spring in Vancouver, and KM Club is about to start. When it does, Sadie and I, and Owen, who is now in Kindergarten, will be having a blast doing Sprint Club instead. It’s about doing the right thing at the right time in their development, and having fun doing it.