Junior School

How to make your children full of beans for running, without becoming a pushy parent

Posted: 18 June 2003
by Dagny Scott

This section is adapted from the Runner's World Complete Book of Women's Running by Dagny Scott. Buy this book!

The Right Start

When should you encourage your child to become active? The earlier the better. A 1989 study showed that if a girl does not participate in sports by the time she is 10 years old, there is only a 10 per cent chance that she will be active in athletics when she is 25.

This may be changing slowly with the greater numbers of women discovering sports and the greater acceptance of older women in sports. But clearly, the earlier your daughter becomes active, the better off she is physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Physical activity for children needn’t be—shouldn’t be—structured until they are at least in secondary school. Instead, sports should remain play. That way, it becomes a regular part of daily life.

Here are some ways to incorporate healthy pastimes into your child’s routine as she grows.

The Preschool Years

  • Play outdoors. It’s important to get your child into this habit early on. Setting this pattern early might help to avoid a video-game habit later. Be creative with the type of activities that you prescribe.
  • Encourage natural child’s play. Child’s play is, after all, pretty much running around.
  • Engage in low-key contests. A backyard can be the perfect training ground for building lifelong active habits and sportsmanship. Races, tag, ball games—just about any outdoor activity that entails moving around is all the running that a young child needs.
  • Play with your children. Ask them to teach you the outdoor games that they play in school. Invite their friends over in order to have a baseball or touch football game.
  • Begin lessons if your child wishes. Let your children participate in organized league sports or lessons if they wish, but don’t force them. At this point, it’s best to let them choose the sport.

Secondary School

  • Combine sports with community work. Encourage your child to walk a race for charity, earning money from sponsors in your neighborhood.
  • Let your child join a sports club or team. A team atmosphere will help to develop cooperation and sportsmanship. At this age, children are old enough to handle greater training structure and competition.
  • Continue to encourage healthy pastimes.
  • Fight the video habit with active family recreation. Teens enjoy fun activities such as swimming and Frisbee throwing without even realizing that they are getting exercise.
  • In addition to encouraging your children to be active, there are things you can do to make sure that they get off to the right start.
  • Here are some tips to make sure that your own behavior is supportive of physical activity:
  • Be a good role model. Experts say that one of the best ways you can ensure that your children get exercise is by setting a good example. Seeing you include running, cycling, or walking in your day will help your children think of physical activity as the norm.
  • Provide positive feedback. Negative criticism can turn your child off to sports altogether.
  • Listen to your child. If he or she is feeling pressured, take action by talking to the coach, switching to a league with a different emphasis, trying a new sport, or making sure that you are available to offer support and guidance.

The Shift to Competition

There is no magic age when your child can or should start focusing exclusively on training for one sport. Most experts, however, recommend that you keep your children involved in a variety of activities for as long as possible. This keeps things fun and prevents boredom. It also helps children to develop a variety of skills at an age when they are most easily able to learn.

Runners especially, Dr. Bar-Or points out, can be “born” at any age. Unlike gymnastics and figure skating, which require specific skill development at an early age, running does not need to be mastered early and does not require early specialization for later success.

If your child wishes to concentrate solely on running—or on another sport—follow these guidelines to ensure that he or she will have a positive experience.

Get her involved in numerous athletic events. Most coaches agree that, even if your child shows talent, you shouldn’t focus exclusively on running too early on. Standout runners of all ages have “disappeared” after promising high school or college careers, quitting the sport altogether or never living up to early expectations.

The syndrome is referred to as burnout, and it’s all too common in an intense sport such as running. What has happened to these promising youngsters? They have exhausted themselves prematurely—sometimes physically, sometimes mentally, often both.

Life benefits...

Beyond the obvious physical impact, girls in particular benefit from physical activity in ways that can affect the rest of their lives. According to the Women's Sports Foundation in New York, girls who participate in athletics are:

  • less likely to become involved with drugs
  • less likely to engage in sexual activity
  • less likely to get pregnant
  • more likely to graduate from high school and college
  • more likely to have higher than average grades

"Girls who do sports are able to look at their bodies in a different way," says Lynn Jaffee of the Melpomene Institute, which specializes in girls’ and women's health.

"Instead of viewing it as a question of How thin am I? or How pretty am I? it's, How strong am I? How fast am I? They view the body as a competent thing rather than only as an object of attractiveness."

Those benefits continue beyond the teen years. The Women’s Sports Foundation also reports that women who participated in sports as girls demonstrate higher than average confidence, self-esteem, and pride in their physical appearance. They are also less likely to suffer from depression.

This section is adapted from the Runner's World Complete Book of Women's Running by Dagny Scott. Buy this book!

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Discuss this article

does anyone know if there is a recommended limit on how far children should be running ?
Posted: 10/07/2003 at 21:06

How old are the children Jo?
Posted: 10/07/2003 at 21:24

There are age limits on the length of race they can enter. I think for a 10k you have to be 16. 18 for a marathon. Our local 5k we're organising can go down to 12.

Get them down to a local club and they'll make sure they train appropriate to their age.

I have kids at school who want to run longer distances but they get reined in and made to concentrate on speed and sharpness, not endurance.
Posted: 10/07/2003 at 23:50


There was a similar thread on this sort of thing a few weeks ago.

What barnsley runner says is right.

As the parent of a quasi elite athlete I'd say its not wise to allow youngsters (ie under 18's) to run long distances on roads or other hard surfaces. Young joints and muscles should be given time to form properly.

At a good athletics club they will be exposed to a wider variety of events, and the coaches will be certified and will work within very strict guidelines. The idea is to have good adult athletes not child prodigies. Also they'll be in a safe environment on a kind surface (track)> Not running along uneven pavements next to lunatic drivers.

If they want something a little more adventurous and challenging, theres always the schools winter cross country leagues. Again well controlled with as much mud as you can shake a stick at.

Posted: 11/07/2003 at 08:22

My daughter - Mini-womble (9) - had been badgering me for ages to come along to running club with me. I relented and since Easter she has been coming along on Monday evenings, covering between 1 and 5 miles with our slowest/beginners' group. To put this in perspective, I make it clear every week that it is up to her whether she comes or not and then how far/how long she does. With the light evenings we can run off-road. Another member's son (11) has started coming too so the two of them kind of run along chatting together and then stop, wait etc. The important thing being they are both enjoying it.

My son (13 tomorrow eek) came for the first time this week, said he really enjoyed it and we're going to Sweatshop this weekend to get him some proper running shoes.

Mini-womble first ran a RFL when she was 5, and has now progressed to completing the Bournemouth RFL a couple of weeks back in 28.32 when she set the pace and I kept up. She's also done a 7.03 mile.
If they enjoy running they'll keep doing it.

Posted: 11/07/2003 at 13:36

thanks for all the advice.
Posted: 13/07/2003 at 18:53

Lets revive this thread, I want to pick other's brains and offer my own experiences.

My 5 and 7 year olds have just started running, either with my wife or me.
We try to keep them running slowly for short distances up to a mile so far and take walking breaks when needed.

So far they are enjoying it and the oldest has developed a way of thinking about her legs getting tired as a signal to her brain to grow them stronger when she's asleep that night, this also leads onto conversations about her eating healthy and being good at trying and perserving with things that are hard. This last one we have been developing for a while as she finds spelling difficult but has been very determined at improving this.

In some senses I think the most important task is to start of healthy attitudes to excercise and ways of thinking about it that allow them to preserve and see this as a good thing.

I would be interested to hear what others have done re shoes, at the moment they have cheap trainers from the local supermarket.


Posted: 26/04/2005 at 11:23

Sorry my spelling is also not good its perserve not preserve
Posted: 26/04/2005 at 11:24

I started running when I was 10 and and still running at 54. Running is a natural thing for kids to do - but done their way. They run fast, they walk then they run again. Think the worst thing is to see a kid limited by an adult - like running 10 min miles when half of them could take off and leave you for dead. I don't think running long hurts a kid either - it's the racing that takes it out of them. If they are good they run for their schools and for their clubs and soon they don't enjoy it anymore. I just think they need the racing restricted a little. Cross country is fun for kids.
Posted: 26/04/2005 at 11:54

My daughter is 10 and ran the Race For Life 5K with me last year- we did a better time than I had done on my own the year before! She's young, fit and healthy, but I still made her go through the run/walk training ( tailored for her of course).
Posted: 26/04/2005 at 13:15

I take one of my sons out running with me,and he does the junior gnr every year and absolutely loves it..however,he's really disappointed he cant join harriers until next june when he's eight.I was taken out running with my dad from being 5yrs old and it hasnt done me any harm!
Posted: 26/04/2005 at 13:24

My son is 5 and after a run I often take him around the block for a cool down run. He then enjoys stretching out with me. I see it as a part of a healthy start in life...
Posted: 26/04/2005 at 14:13

My 5 year old loves running too and wants to get a 6 pack (don't ask me where he got that from, I don't have a clue) so tells me about all the fruit and vegetables he has to eat to get strong :)))
Posted: 26/04/2005 at 20:01

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