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Woman and child running in the park
Photo: Girls on the Run.

How To Raise a Runner

Make running a family affair with these helpful tips.

From kindergarten through high school my dad was my running coach, and those years have always been precious to me. Challenging myself alongside the support from my dad only brought us closer. Although running may seem like it’s only for serious athletes (or punishment in gym class), it’s a simple sport, one that you can commit to on your own level, and it’s as natural for kids to run as it is for them to play. If you are looking for a new way to get active as a family, lace up your trainers and read on.

Reasons to Run

Whether you want to sign up for a family 5K or simply start jogging together to get moving, there are numerous benefits to running. Aside from the physical benefits, like improved cardiovascular health and a boost in endorphins, running offers emotional and mental health perks, too.

It Teaches Goal Setting
Setting goals is an important part of self-awareness, self-growth, and productivity, and running inspires a focus on goals, both large and small. “One great thing about running is that it’s a literal example that if you put one foot in front of the other, you’re going to move forward,” says Lisa Johnson, executive director of Girls on the Run of the Rockies, an after-school running program for girls in third through eighth grade. Creating a goal, committing to the work it takes to achieve it, and overcoming obstacles are all part of the running experience.

Johnson points out that it’s important for kids to understand that there will be setbacks along their running journey, and it’s up to them to have a positive attitude to move forward. Outside of running, having a goal-oriented mindset can translate to other elements of life, like getting homework done or learning how to play a musical instrument.

It Provides an Outlet
While most of us understand that there are physical benefits to exercising, the mental health benefits are also vast. One study led by Christopher Lowry, an associate professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder, found that diet, nutrition, and exercise were among the most accessible and effective interventions to reduce depression in young people.

Johnson believes that the Girls on the Run program teaches kids that by showing up and being physically active, they can better process their thoughts and emotions. Hitting the track or trail offers a safe space for kids to reflect on, and sort through, their feelings. Running alongside a parent can also create a comfortable space for kids to open a conversation or ask questions that they otherwise might not.

It’s Highly Personalized
The beauty of running is that it’s highly individualized and can be noncompetitive. “I think a lot of kids, specifically girls according to research, start to drop out of sports because they feel like they’re not good enough,” Johnson explains. Often, kids participating in a team sport feel heavy pressure, causing them to worry about letting their teammates down. With running, kids have the opportunity to set their own goals and focus solely on their own performance.

Setting the Pace

Dr. Rachel Brewer, who specializes in pediatric sports medicine at Rocky Mountain Pediatric OrthoONE, doesn’t recommend any specific training plan for kids ages eight to 13. Every child (and adult for that matter) has a unique threshold for the mileage they can handle. However, Brewer says that it is important for kids to have supervision through a parent or a coach, especially if you plan on running a 5K.

“I caution youth runners in elementary school against running more than 15 miles a week due to the high correlation of overuse injury if running above that range,” Brewer explains. Every youth runner differs in capability and risk of injury, so you cannot apply that number to everyone. If your runner is interested in increasing his or her mileage, it should be done with the supervision of an experienced coach or parent.

To keep kids interested in running and build a lifelong love for the sport, keep it light and fun. One way to do this is to allow your child to set their own goals. Do they want to compete in a 5K as a family? Do they want to race alone? Is an untimed, unstructured run in the park a better approach? Having your child create their own goal will help the process feel far less intimidating and give them a sense of control.

“Running is a great way to allow your child to start controlling their input,” says Johnson. “For example, you won’t tell your child to run three miles and make them feel like they failed if they didn’t complete it,” she explains. “You have to listen to how they’re feeling.” If your child had a heavy day at school or isn’t feeling one hundred percent, their best that day might look like running a few blocks to a nearby park. The distance or pace they run shouldn’t be the priority. The focus should be on working toward a goal and staying consistent.

Stay Healthy

Like all sports, running comes with risk of injury. Arm yourself with knowledge of the common running injuries, as well as how to prevent them in the first place.

Watch for Signs of Injury
Young runners are highly prone to overuse injuries, which Brewer says are typically focused around areas of growth plates that are more easily stressed than bone or tendons. “Areas of growth plate irritation are called apophysitis, and most commonly develop in the knee and heel in young runners. In adolescent and adult runners, overuse injuries more commonly evolve in the form of tendinitis, bone stress injuries, or kneecap pain.” Talk to a physical therapist or doctor if you or your child are feeling pain from running.

Take Adequate Time Off
Taking time off is a crucial step to avoiding injury. “Youth runners, in addition to any youth athlete, should strive for cycles to their training to include a preseason, competition season, and off-season,” Brewer says. Within those cycles, she explains that it’s also important to incorporate rest days in weekly training, shooting for a goal of one to two rest days each week. Rest days can include some active recovery with core strengthening or non-repetitive impact activities, such as biking or swimming.

Don’t Slack on Stretching
As young runners (ages eight to 13) are developing through growth stages, their flexibility has a difficult time keeping up. To avoid overuse injuries that relate to imbalance in flexibility, Brewer says there should be a focus on quad, hamstring, calf, and Achilles flexibility. The same focus applies to adult runners, as it might reduce the risk of injury in the lower extremities. Aim to stretch at least three to four days per week to maintain flexibility.

At the end of the day, running is an endurance sport that not everyone will enjoy. If you’re having trouble motivating your child to try it out, remember that it’s OK to take things slow. Start by running to the end of the block, then to a stop sign, then to a big grove of trees. You and your child don’t have to sign up for a race or be involved in a formal program in order to experience the runner’s high. One motto the team behind Girls on the Run of the Rockies lives by: “Forward is a pace.”

Training Help

Not a runner yourself? If you are looking for assistance in training your little runner, this app, local group, and running series will help kids of all ages get out there.

Girls on the Run of the Rockies is an after-school running program for girls in third through eighth grade.

Healthy Kids Running Series is a five-week running program for kids in pre-K through eighth grade. Denver’s Spring 2022 series runs April 10 through May 22.

Couch to 5K is an app that has helped thousands of non-runners train gradually for their first 5K. Available for both iOS and Android. Great for the whole family.

Race as a Family

Nothing beats the anticipation of race day. The thrill you and your child will feel as you cross the finish line will be unmatched. Sign up for one of these local races as a way to stay motivated throughout your running journey.

Dog at Furry Scurry
Photo: The Dumb Friends League.

Furry Scurry
Race Date: May 7
Prefer to walk? The 29th Annual Furry Scurry, held in Washington Park, offers a two-mile fundraiser walk or a 0.9-mile mini march. The race is hosted by Dumb Friends League to support homeless animals across Colorado. Bring your dog along for the fun!

High Line Canal 5K/10K
Race Date: May 7
Run a mostly flat course along the scenic High Line Canal, near deKoevend Park in Centennial. Choose between the 5K and 10K race distance, and enjoy a pancake breakfast after the race.

Into the Wild Run
Race Date: June 11
Run the Jaguar Jaunt 5K Family Fun Run/Walk to support the Wild Animal Sanctuary. The course weaves between natural habitats filled with rescue animals, like lions, tigers, and bears. Kids age 12 and under can register for free.

Bubble Run
Race Date: June 11
Held at the Adams County Fairgrounds, the Bubble Run is less about racing and more about having fun. Run, walk, dance, and play across a 3.1-mile course, and encounter colorful suds along the way. Once you hit the finish line, enjoy playing near the foam cannons.

Blacklight Run
Race Date: July 30
Glow lights guide runners along this Blacklight Run race course. The event is held at night and there are no race clocks, winners, or timing chips, making it a welcoming and upbeat environment for junior racers.

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