Last Updated on April 20, 2020 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
Kids naturally love to run around. And chances are, you are reading this post because you’re a parent who also loves to run. It seems like a perfect match, right? Well…sort of. Running with kids can be an incredible bonding experience for you both. But, it can also be a frustrating, messy ordeal (I speak from running mom experience. Read on.). So, while kids are indeed natural born runners, there are a few steps you can take to ensure you foster a healthy, fun relationship between your child and running.
Running with Kids: My Runner-Mom Résumé
Before I had kids, I would often hear stories of the “little league dads” or “dance moms” who would go over the edge when it came to their children and athletics. You know the type of parents I’m talking about: the ones who would be yelling at referees, pushing their kids to train for a sport far harder than any little kid should train, or simply forcing their kid to participate in an activity that the kid highly disliked, but the parent wanted them to do anyway.
I vowed I would never be one of those parents.
But, my personal introduction to the running world and parenthood happened almost simultaneously. I fell in love with running, and naturally wanted to share that with my children. And let me tell you from first hand experience: finding that fine line where you enthusiastically share your passion with your kids, yet avoid pushing them too hard, has been a journey, to say the least.
Over the last decade, I’ve seen my kids toddle through tot trots with smiles on their faces, and I’ve seen them scream and refuse to put on a bib, never mind toe the start line. I’ve watched my elementary school aged son podium with adult men in a night time trail race, and my pre-teen run a half marathon completely unprovoked. I’ve also seen both show up to a race and declare they just didn’t want to run that day.
And from the get-go, I learned that you simply cannot push your love of a sport onto your child. I have also learned that there are a number of things you can do to encourage your kids to have a happy, healthy relationship with running. And thirteen years later, I am the proud mom of two (not so) little runners who sometimes seem to love running as much as I do…on their own terms.
How to Encourage Your Kids to Run: 8 Tips for “Running With Kids” Success
Running with kids can be a ton of fun – or it can be a disaster. Starting your kids off on the right foot (no pun intended) can help foster a physically and mentally healthy relationship between your child and running. Here’s 8 tips for ensuring kid-running success:
Get Them the Right Gear
If your good friend wanted to take up running and asked for advice, what is one of the first things you would tell them? Get the right gear. Proper fitting shoes. No cotton. Sweat wicking tech gear.
Kids are no different.
Provide comfortable sneakers that will help encourage the natural movement of their little feet. Many big name shoe companies now make running sneakers for kids, such as Altra, New Balance, and Merrell. When in doubt? Visit your local running store for help!
As far as clothes go: you don’t need to buy your kid an entire new wardrobe from some designer athletic apparel line. But you do want to make sure they have comfortable athletic gear to keep them cool and chafe free. Sweat-wicking, lightweight clothing just like you would wear can be bought at most major department and big box stores in little kid sizes, and at affordable prices
It’s important to remember that even though they may run circles around your living room, kids don’t necessarily have cardiovascular endurance or strength to start running in long intervals. Kids, just like adults, need to start off with short distances so their little bodies can adapt to the stressors of running.
Start with age-appropriate distances. Run / walk intervals are a great way to encourage small bouts of running, without physically or mentally overwhelming your kids. Follow the 10% (or less!) rule: once your kids become comfortable with running, do not increase their running volume by more than a total of 10% (mileage or time) per week.
Is Long Distance Safe for Little Legs?
It’s worth mentioning here that while young kids running long distances, such as marathons and even ultramarathons, certainly make the headlines, experts are still unsure about the safety of long distance running in children.
Although running is a completely natural activity for kids (they do it on their own all the time), if you have any concerns please consult with your child’s pediatrician before taking them running. Listen to your kids concerns about aches or pains. They have their whole lives ahead of them to run far. Right now it’s more important to encourage the building blocks of running.
Make Running Fun
Kids, especially younger ones, are not motivated by running in the same way many adults are. Things like fitness, weight loss, or training for a race do not cross their mind. Instead, kids just love the uninhibited feeling of RUNNING. Just head to your local playground and you’ll see kids gleefully sprinting during a game of tag. Or simply sprinting from one side of the playground to the other to see who can get to the swings first.
While keeping the “FUN” aspect in mind, introduce your kids to running longer distances by teaching them fun running games. Things like relay races or “animal tag” will encourage young runners while keeping and holding their attention.
Need more fun? Check out this free printable Kids Run & Triathlon Activity Book!
It’s Never Too Early to Learn Pacing!
Little kids have two paces: lightning fast and walking. Watch a kids “fun run” race, or observe any elementary school gym class and you’ll see what I mean.
Once your child is interested in running longer distances (more than a minute or so, for most kids!) you will need to teach them about pacing. Let them know that starting slow many not feel as fun at first, but it will allow them to run farther before they get tired. This will make running for longer intervals or distances more enjoyable for your child.
Try counting steps – or cadence – to teach them pacing. Or, teach them the art of “conversational” pace! Sing songs together while running, if they are running too fast to comfortably sing – have them slow down!
Don’t Forget Hydration and Nutrition!
Most little kids will likely not be running distances that require mid-run endurance fuel, such as gels, chews, or caloric drinks. But, you should still make sure your kids are taking in enough extra calories and extra water to compensate for their caloric expenditure and sweat loss.
Now is a great time to teach your kids the importance of healthy foods. Teach them how healthy food helps build strong bodies, and how it helps our bodies recover from exercise. Encourage them to “fuel” their bodies with these healthy foods and water!
Always Encourage – Never Discourage.
I highly recommend never making running a form of punishment. Doing so may give kids a negative association with the act of running. Further, never speak condescendingly to your kids about their running. Things like “come on, your sister can do it, you can too!” may seem encouraging to you, but might discourage your little runner from building a healthy relationship with running.
Instead, encourage and celebrate their strengths and accomplishments. Even what may seem like a tiny feat to you might be huge to your kids. Further, be understanding of the days they simply may not feel like running. Just like adults, everyone has good days and bad days when it comes to running. But unlike adults, kids often do not associate external motivation – such as training for a race – with their running, and thus, tend to NOT push through a bad run.
Remember that this is their run, not yours. The pace may be slower, the stops more frequent, and the overall distance shorter. And that’s OK!
Lead by Example.
Your kids are watching EVERYTHING you do. Setting a positive example of your love for running will give your kids a healthy outlook on the sport of running. They will view running as a normal, fun activity rather than some sort of punishment or insufferable weight loss method.
Plus, seeing how much you enjoy running may encourage them to give the sport a try for themselves. After all, what little kid doesn’t want to emulate their parents?
Be Accepting of your Kid’s Desire to Run…or Lack Thereof
My almost 14 year old, who has run dozens of races, and even boasts a distance PR of 15 miles, has suddenly declared that he “doesn’t like running” anymore. Likely, because he’s found his passion in the sport of basketball. And I’m more than OK with that.
You see, no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you encourage, some kids may have absolutely zero desire to run. Or, their love for running may ebb and flow.
And that is okay.
Instead of pushing your kids to run when they don’t want to, encourage healthy movement and exercise through other physical activities or sports that pique their interest. Don’t give up hope; they may come around and enjoy running one day.
Heather Hart is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), UESCA certified Ultrarunning Coach, RRCA certified Running Coach, co-founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, and creator of this site, Relentless Forward Commotion. She is a mom of two teen boys, and has been running and racing distances of 5K to 100+ miles for over a decade. Heather has been writing and encouraging others to find a love for fitness and movement since 2009.