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.
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."
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
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."
Dr Jack Daniels is an exercise physiologist and coach, and the author of Daniels' Running Formula (Human Kinetics). When it comes to training for children, he advocates a fun approach, mixing running with other sports." To me, there are two major advantages to this approach. Firstly, children have a chance to see what sport they really enjoy and are good at. Secondly, this more general fitness approach prepares a youngster for a greater variety of sports. If a specific sport becomes a bore or is not well-suited to the individual, another sport is still within reach."
Daniels says psychology is important. "Start easily and make every day of training a success in the minds of the runners. Training at an early age should not be about becoming faster – any training will accomplish that, so there's no need to make a point of it."
Training times 7-11
Coaches recommend emphasising enjoyment for youngsters under the age of 11, says Denmark." The crucial thing at an early age is to enjoy it, because children are still growing, mentally and physically. The growth spurt commonly starts at any age between 10 and 12 in girls, and between 12 and 14 in boys, although in both it may start even later, or occasionally earlier.
The younger the child, the less efficient they will be aerobically. They are also likely to have biomechanical inefficiencies because the lengths of younger children's limbs are not in balance with their muscles. Young runners have proportionately less body mass in the form of muscle – around 28 per cent in young children, compared with 35 to 40 per cent or more in the late teens.
This is the age when talented runners begin to emerge. Girls have fully-developed lungs by the age of 14 while boys' lungs are developed by the age of 16. Maximum heart rates in children may reach 220 or even 225 before puberty, but tend to fall to around 200 in the late teens." The main thing to concentrate on at an early age is skills," says Denmark. "You have to work on drills that will promote biomechanical efficiency, looking at running alignment and making sure they have good running posture.
"You need to generate forces that will propel the runner in a linear direction, not a lateral direction. It's important to perfect technique to prevent injury later on; if you don't get it right, children's potential could be significantly reduced and they may become injury prone."
"Get the children into running games," advises Daniels." Relays are one of the best ways to make running enjoyable for most children. Children should also learn about their breathing patterns. They should eat well and have adequate rest. These things are more important than winning races at an early age."
There are no hard and fast rules for training volumes. Some teenage girls who train for 20 miles a week do just as well as others who train for 60 miles a week. Some children may be naturally quick, while others may have high levels of endurance.
Children under the age of 18 are advised against marathon running. Dr Stephen Rice, a Professor of Paediatrics from New Jersey, emphasises that children are not small adults. While children's anatomy and physiology are developing, they aren't fully mature, so their running may fail to live up to their own expectations." Children may develop feelings of failure and frustration when the demands of training, both physical and cognitive, exceed their internal resources."
A specific physical barrier to long-distance running in children is their propensity to overheat or cool down too quickly. This is because of something called thermoregulation. Children are more prone to heat stress than adults. They have a greater body surface area to body mass ratio, and therefore gain more radiant heat on a hot day and lose more heat to the surrounding environment on a cool day. Children also produce more metabolic heat per unit of body mass, and have a lower sweating capacity, resulting in a decreased ability to dissipate metabolic heat.
"Risk factors unique to the growing child are numerous," says Daniels. Children who run are at a high risk of stress fractures, which are caused by high mileage and intensity." There are additional dangers," says Daniels." Immature cartilage is more susceptible to shear force than adult cartilage. Studies also show that youngsters who train too hard can be at greater risk of adult-onset arthritis of the hip."