Almost as soon as a child can walk, he or she starts trying to run. With childhood obesity rates increasing, it is more important than ever to encourage children to engage in physical activity, and you may even find you have a champion in the making!
By the time they reach school age, many children have lost a lot of their initial energy, but if you show an interest in keeping your child active you can make the most of his natural urge to run around. That doesn’t mean your child should be doing speed drills every morning, but by encouraging energetic play you can instill a lifelong love of exercise for the sake of it and perhaps nurture a talent for formal athletics later in life. Here’s how to involve your child in your sport from preschool to early adulthood. Remember, of course, that children have their own special needs, and that eventually, they may not share your passion for running.
From when they learn to walk until the age of five, children should not do any structured running at all. They are still developing quickly, and have an undeveloped vision, gait, and coordination, so it is better to encourage active play rather than running. Luckily this comes naturally to most preschool children. All you need to do is provide a safe, ideally outdoor, environment for them to play in.
Children from Age 6 to 11
Children should have developed a more controlled running motion by this age, but their natural tendency is still to run in short, fast bursts. They may have trouble running efficiently, as their limbs are out of proportion to their muscle mass. Incorporate running into physical games, and include ball skills to improve coordination. Think in terms of time spent on activity (aim for 20 to 30 minutes, three to five times per week) rather than distance covered. As children near the end of middle school, their growth may begin to accelerate. This can lead to growing pains, and active children may suffer from a condition called Osgood-Schlatter syndrome. This causes sharp pain just underneath the kneecap and is a result of strain being placed on the soft growth plate at the end of the leg bone just below the knee. The condition disappears once the child is fully grown but should not be ignored or run through. In fact, it is not advisable for children to try to run through any pain since they may be causing damage that may last into adulthood. Providing the child has no problems, they can start to run over longer distances (up to a mile) to learn endurance.
Children from Age 12 to 16
As children grow into teenagers their training can become more focused. This is a good age to start competing over short distances (up to 5km) and is often when running talent becomes more obvious. Physically they may still have problems caused by their rapid development. Teenagers’ limbs grow so quickly that they can seem clumsy, as the brain struggles to keep up, resulting in poor spatial awareness. It is a good idea to teach young runners good form at this age. Teenage girls need to become used to training through their menstrual cycle and with increased body fat, which will slow them down. At the same time, it is important that they do not become concerned with keeping their body fat at a low level, as this will interrupt menstruation (as well as potentially leading to longer-term body-image problems). For both sexes, bones are still developing and stress fractures are a risk, counter this by training on soft surfaces wherever possible.
In their mid to late teens, most children can cope with training sessions almost as intense as adults. However, it is still a good idea to maintain interest in other sports both to provide respite from the impact of running and to help the young athletes explore which activities they enjoy most.
Children from Age 16 to 18
Most children are almost fully grown by this age and are able to cope with high mileage training. However, races should still be kept short and varied up to 10km on cross-country courses, tracks, and roads. As endurance does not develop until the mid to late 20s, it makes sense to concentrate on taster events at this stage.
Keeping Them Cool Always
Children are more prone to overheating (and to cooling too quickly) than adults. They are not as efficient at sweating, and have a greater skin surface to the body, Weight ratio, which means they pick up and lose heat very quickly. Ensure they train in lots of thin layers that can be removed or put back on quickly, and don’t allow children to train during the hottest part of the day. It is also important to ensure that they drink plenty of fluids, as many children will forget to do so themselves.
What to Do About Picky Eaters
Active children need to eat more than those who exercise less but resist the temptation to calorie count for your child (they should definitely not become preoccupied with food). Instead try to pay attention to their appetite and energy levels, which should indicate whether they are eating enough. Don’t allow your children to eat extra junk food to make up for training. Instead, ensure they have extra protein in their diet (research suggests 1.1 to 1.2g per kg body weight per day is the right amount for active children) for growth and repair, as well as extra calcium for growing bones and plenty of different vitamins to help them metabolize food.