Children’s Running: Are the Kids Alright?

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I went to support a few club mates in a local 10K recently and watched the kids' fun run before the main event. What struck me as I clapped and cheered 100m from the finish was that all the children - fast, slow, fat and thin - crossed the finish line with huge grins on their faces.

The same could not be said for many of the grimacing, wheezing adults striding along the home straight, eyes focused firmly on their GPS watches or the finish clock. Perhaps there's a lesson in there for some of us, I thought.

A fun pursuit

Running, whether it's a zigzagging meander or a breathless sprint, comes naturally to children. But if we want it to become something more than a playful pastime (and ensure it doesn't get usurped by video games, where the only working muscles are in the thumbs), how do we best encourage kids to run without taking away the simple joy of it?

"When children are really young, the emphasis shouldn't be on competition or covering specific distances, but on having fun," says Carol Goodrow, founding editor of KidsRunning.com and author of Kids Running (£6.76, Breakaway Books). "If they start and stop, or speed up and slow down, let them."

Susan Love, director of Just Run (justrun.org), a free web-based running programme for children aged five to 12, agrees. "The earlier children start developing the concept that running is fun, the better," she says. "Variety is essential.

"The Just Run programme, which can be implemented by schools, parents or youth groups, incorporates fun games, drills and relays that develop not just endurance but agility, balance, strength and teamwork."

Playground antics

Running was certainly fun in my primary school days, when it mostly involved playing kiss chase or British bulldog (both of which, I hear, are now banned in school playgrounds).

But by the time I was at secondary school, it entailed endless dreary laps of the playing field, which I wriggled out of as often as I could. I wasn't all that good at running, which meant that I was of little interest to the PE teacher cherry-picking for the cross-country team.

"The philosophy has changed over the years from uber-competitive to anti-competitive, and perhaps now we are starting to get the balance right," says Chris Donald, a UK Athletics Level 3 coach and director of 'running camp' coordinator Purple Patch Running (purplepatchrunning.com).

Skills for life

These days, good coaches and teachers know that while there's nothing wrong with a little healthy competition, helping kids set and attain their own personal goals is more likely to keep them motivated.

And we should do everything we can to foster their enthusiasm: research shows that physically active adults are more than twice as likely to have been active when they were young than sedate people.

As active adults, we runners are in a great position to encourage the children in our life to follow in our footsteps, whether they are our offspring, pupils or the sons and daughters of friends and relatives.

But don't let your enthusiasm get the better of you. "A parent or coach needs to keep a close eye on their kids to check they are really enjoying it," says Donald.

Under pressure

"You need to get the balance right and back off when necessary. You also have to remember that some children will say they enjoy it because they   know that is what Mum, Dad or the coach wants to hear."

A local race or fun run can give children an insight into the enjoyment and excitement of racing; but again, it has to be led by them, not you.

"Don't drag your child out to run or make them participate in an event if they don't want to," warns Goodrow. "And if you do run together, your child shouldn't just be a tag-along - you'll need to take time out from your own training to help and encourage them."

On the next page: Find out how running could boost brain power and a wide range of movement skills.