Getting children introduced to running at a young age can be one of the best things for them. Developing their love for the sport, or at least an appreciation, can keep kids living a healthy lifestyle well into adulthood.
As important as running can be, children’s bodies handle the stress of running in different ways and should be carefully watched. Dr. Rebecca Carl said unlike adults, kids tend to have more bone injuries as a result from being active instead of joint problems. Carl, who works at the Institute for Sports Medicine at the Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, said these injuries must be treated more slowly and requires rehab.
While the proverbial kids gloves should be used, that doesn’t mean children should necessarily be held back from running. Instead, it’s important to start slow and let the child build their own pace, Carl said. Kids will typically start out too fast, Carl said, but it doesn’t take long for them to learn how to pace themselves for a mile at a good speed. A 10 to 15 minute pace is usually where Carl said she starts novice runners and only running one mile. The distance can increase at roughly 10% per week if the child feels comfortable.
Recording goals while being weary of overworking can be difficult for many young runners. Because of a lack of information, it is unclear as to the effect running long distances like a half marathon can have on adolescents. Carl said a good goal to start off with is training for a 5K, while most kids will be content with that distance for some time there is no solid evidence to prevent those who wish to run farther from doing so.
If, while training, a child does sustain an injury, they may need help in assessing the rehab time. Any bone problems, like stress fractures, should be handled by professionals and need specific rehab before it is safe to put pressure back on that bone, Carl said. However, more mild injuries can be dealt with at home as long as they are handled correctly. Carl said that while it’s less likely, children can experience muscle injuries. Because of their inexperience, children may push to start training again before they are ready. Carl said that to prevent further harm, no child should return to running after an injury that has them sidelined for over a week without being able to walk without a limp or noticeable sign of weakness and have full range of motion in that area. When they do begin running again, Carl said they should start at their base distance and build back up at the 10% increase they started from.
Like adults, children need at least one day of rest if not a second. It is also helpful to include some other form of workout other than running, Carl said.
As it is with any other sport, someone who starts running for the first time can often benefit from some sort of coaching. While a parent or guardian may be a strong runner, there are a number of coaching groups, clubs and camps that are geared specifically towards children. Groups like Girls on the Run or Championship Training Academyhave experience working with kids and can help them learn not only how to run, but to enjoy it.