When your 11-year-old son discovers a love for cross-country running, how do you encourage his enthusiasm without overdoing it – and how do you prepare him for disappointment?
"My 11-year-old son is showing an interest in running. It all stems from a teacher establishing a cross-country running club at school about six weeks ago, and to my surprise David has not just shown an interest but real enthusiasm. Training sessions have been held once a week after school, sometimes when it's freezing, but always he wants to go. I'm impressed and delighted. He is proud of his stronger 'playtime' running now, and sees a difference in his own physique. He is asthmatic (mild), but treats and controls it well. His other sports are really playground games: football kickabouts, PE classes etc. I do some running myself and enter about 6-8 events a year, so I'm happy to jog along with David but don't want to push him. How much dedicated running should he do each week, and how often? Should he set goals and targets, and enter events? How do you help a 12-year-old through the low times and disappointment?"
– Raymond McMillan (by email)
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My two daughters aged 11 and 14 have come running with me – just light jogging. Their mum wants to lose weight and run a 10K in April, and the girls wanted to help out. Running has helped build the girls' self confidence, without the peer pressure, embarrassment etc of organised school sports. As a whole family activity, it can't be beaten. My daughters got to 5K by using the same techniques as their mother: run-walk a set distance, and build from there. Going for gentle jogs with my daughters after my own 12-mile runs is a perfect way to ease away post-long-distance aches and pains. They ran a 5K race when I did the 10K, and they thoroughly enjoyed it – taking it easy and enjoying the spectacle. Whilst I encourage them to come out as often as possible, I keep it relaxed. This builds stamina and makes the runs much more enjoyable. However there is a downside: I've just spent £190 on three pairs of trainers! – Mike Hawes
My 11-year-old son has social behavioural problems and is probably somewhere on the autistic scale – yet to be diagnosed. He struggles to interact with team events, but running has become a great outlet for him. He now trains twice a week with the children's group at my running club, and it's been great for him. (I have been a runner and a club runner for a fair few years now.) They have fun sessions to encourage the children to develop naturally, plus some local fun events and cross-country leagues. The club staff are very good with all the children and youth runners, and everyone is placed in groups according to thier abilities. He has the potential to be a very good runner; in his two cross-country races so far, he has come 5th and 3rd in the Wessex U11 League. If he wants to run with me, he can. I encourage him but don't put any pressure on him – and don't need to. ndash; RFJ
Look around for a local club that has a junior section. Runningteenbeanz has never looked back after going along to a series of introduction sessions at our club. In the first weekend of January there are county cross-country championships, so if there's still time it's worth going along to find out which local clubs include juniors. – beanz
My club started a junior club a couple of years ago, and we predicted that around 20-30 kids would turn up. Last year we signed up 120 junior members. They must love it or they wouldn't keep coming back. – slug
It's great that your son has shown this interest and has been encouraged by his school. I am asthmatic and have found running to be of great benefit. Very cold/windy weather bothers my breathing, so I use a scarf over the lower portion of my face so that the air I breath stays warm. This reduces my exercise-induced attacks. Tiredness can also cause my breathing to "kick out" at the most unlikely times. Asthma is a very personal condition, and I think your son will be able to tell you if he's having more problems today than yesterday, or that today was the greatest run ever. Let him set goals. Keep them realistic. And let him know that there are other asthmatics out there not letting the illness win! Good luck to you both. – Karen Meaney
I am an asthmatic 43-year-old who discovered running three or four years ago, and I wish I'd done so when I was 10. There is really nothing much to running with mild asthma. You just keep going, and if your chest tightens up you either slow down or stop for a little while. I can avoid wheezing by running slowly – and, as my fitness improves, my threshold for wheezing improves too. The key is to build up slowly rather than trying to push it. You cannot just 'run through' an asthma attack, in the way that some people do with muscle pain. You have to slow down, or you could get into trouble. I have also found the drug Singulair very good for exercise-induced asthma, though the inhaled steroids are pretty good as well. Using either of these drugs properly will really make a difference to your son's running. Also, don't be afraid of going out in the cold air too much. Just make sure that you have a Ventolin with you, and don't push it too hard.
– Mike Saunders
(Note from Jane: asthma is no bar to running, if Paula Radcliffe is anything to go by! Click here to find out what she told us about controlling her asthma back in September)
I started running at age nine, and am still running now – 19 years later. With my club as a junior, I used to train twice a week (Monday and Wednesday) and then race in cross-country or on the track in the summer, or go out for my own run. My parents supported me by providing transport and encouragement. They never expected me to come in a certain position; any pressure came from myself. I enjoyed the challenge and still do. Variety is important. But it is vital not to overdo the training at an early age. Everyone I know who was pushed too much at an early age became despondent and overly worried about their placing in races. They either dropped out in their teens or became injured through overtraining injuries. Don't overdo the milage either, as young bodies are still growing. Also, I think it is helpful not only to focus on running. During my young running years I was also on the school teams for hockey, netball, volleyball, basketball etc, which also kept me fit. – Speedy Snail
I think it's great that David is showing an interest, and you should certainly encourage it. I am sure that there'll be some school representation on the cards for some local events. I can't wait for my two to start showing an interest in mountain biking and running. But... just one word of caution. Years ago I used to do a lot of steroids and weights because I didn't think I was big enough. Before I met my wife, she was anorexic and bulimic because she thought she was too big. We're happily married and now well adjusted. But I can remember my dad giving me his old chest expander and a Bullworker when I was about 13, and reckon that might have been the start of my troubles. So I'd encourage the participation and health benefits, but play down anything to do with physique. My two are aged 3 and nearly 2, so I don't know how a 12-year-old thinks, but I'd guess it's more enjoyable when there's no pressure to perform. – Craig Llewellyn
Twelve years of age may be a time when he needs his own "thing" and own space, and he may prefer to run with the school or club that with you. Perhaps chatting about running at home will be as far as he wants you to be involved. Be careful you don't use your shared interest to crowd him and threaten his independence. – Repatriated Nessie
Running is supposed to be fun at age 11. Heck, everything's supposed to be fun at age 11. Give him space to make his own choices. Also avoid the cliquey competitive wannabe sporting parent trap. It's really difficult, I know, but the quickest way to put a kid off something for life is to do the pushy parent bit. I used to take my two daughters orienteering. It was something we could do together, and it involved a bit of brainwork as well. They're both grown up now, and still competitive athletes – in fact I'm running against the younger one in a couple of weeks' time. – Fell Running
I think it's great he's showing such an interest, but I wouldn't even mention how much running he "should" be doing – it'll spoil the fun. When I start thinking in those terms, it all becomes a bit of a drag. He should do however much or however little he feels like doing, and enjoy himself. I've got five-year-old twins (boy and girl) who both want to do the kids' 1K race that takes place before the 10K I usually do in the spring. I think they can both manage it, if I get them to slow down a bit! My girl is naturally a much faster runner than my boy, but he's the competitive one. I may need some tips on dealing with a bruised 5-year-old male ego... – Vicki Chung
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