Running with your family is one of life's real pleasures. Squabbles over bedtimes and who'll be paying for Sugababes tickets are forgotten as you eat up the miles. Training has important long-term health benefits for children – studies show that positive health-related behaviours acquired in childhood are more likely to be carried into adulthood. Importantly, running together also gives families time to talk. There are risks, though; over-training during childhood can lead to injury, even in later life.
To help you combine your first loves – your family and your running – we've spoken to professionals who have given us expert advice on running with children, and with two families for whom running together is a part of daily life.
Most Local Authorities encourage running for children of all ages. They recognise that running has important benefits, promoting health and making children more alert at school.
Becky Evans is a Sports Development Officer with South Shropshire District Council. She says youngsters are encouraged from primary school level." We encourage youngsters through TOPS programmes. TOPS Play is a sports programme which runs across the UK. At primary school level, we look at developing children's core skills like running technique. We look at a young runner and encourage him or her to run properly. We also give them basic coaching. Other authorities have mini-athletics events, inter-schools championships and county events for different age groups."
Young runners who want to pit themselves against others of their age – or simply train in company – can join a local club. Clubs are more child-friendly these days, as coaches have become increasingly aware of the differences between training young athletes and training adults.
One of the UK's most enlightened clubs is Trent Park Running Club in North London, where the emphasis is on enjoyment." Trent Park's young athletes, just like their senior counterparts, put the emphasis on enjoying sport. We develop the idea of fitness as a habit and also provide a range of activities to complement the young athletes' PE curriculum," says Ian Turner, the club's junior secretary.
Like most UK clubs, Trent Park welcomes runners of any standard or experience and simply asks for a little enthusiasm, a pair of reasonable running shoes and supportive parents. Children must be at least 8 years old to join, and with nearly 80 junior members it has a spread of ages from 8 to 16 with a wide range of abilities.
Juniors are assigned to a training group depending on their current ability but if they feel like an easier session they're free to change groups. Activities are varied and change depending upon the time of year. During autumn and winter, the emphasis is on endurance running and that often means getting muddy. All runners of 11 and older can compete for the club in a local cross-country league and on the last Saturday of each month TPRC holds its own time trial over a 2.25km course. "This event rewards improvement, not necessarily the fastest runner," says Turner.
Much of the juniors' training is through games and team relays, says Turner. "Our qualified coaches are very aware that the sessions must be fun, and that good practices will form the habits of the juniors' future sporting lives."
Top of the class
Former Commonwealth 5,000m Champion and European silver medalist Rob Denmark is hoping to unearth teenagers good enough to win gold at the 2012 London Olympics. Denmark is a Talent Development Manager with UK Athletics and works with some of the UK's best teenage athletes. He says that the youngsters who go furthest have a balance of physical ability, concentration, mental strength and dedication." The ones who will do best are the ones prepared to do things that they don't like doing. They will be able to deal with adversity and push on. A lack of commitment is one of the biggest obstacles to young runners. Many of them skip sessions to see a film, go out with a friend or watch TV. The most important part of a training session is turning up. You can't decide you want to go shopping or meet your friends, you have to be there."
Children need to be good listeners, he says. "We look for children who listen to advice, take on board constructive criticism, can recognise weaknesses and then improve. Children shouldn't always rely on their strengths; they need to improve their all-round ability. They have to hate their comfort zone and be mentally strong; the ones who are willing to persevere will do best of all. If they are not prepared to train hard, they won't achieve results."