Running strategies for children and teens

Has your child or teen taken a particular interest in running as a sport? Are you interested in helping your child become a sound runner? There are many things to consider before your child begins a more structured running routine. The following strategies can help keep your young runner healthy and strong.

Issue #1: Physical Constraints

A child undergoes many stages in physical development. You need to be aware of how these changes affect his or her running performance. The most important difference between a prepubescent and adolescent child is that exercise training does not substantially improve a prepubescent child’s cardiorespiratory fitness. So when considering running as a physical activity for your child, it is important to take into account the physical differences between prepubescent and adolescent children

Strategy #1: For prepubescent children (approx. ages 6–13)

A prepubescent child has a naturally high aerobic fitness level due to normal growth and development. Therefore, for prepubescent children, the only substantial way to improve run training is through running form, not aerobic capacity. Take-home message: At this age, a child is unlikely to stick to a fitness regimen, so teach your prepubescent child proper form and keep running light, easy, and fun!

Strategy #2: For adolescent children (approx. ages 14–18)

Older children tend to be more “trainable” and can improve their cardio and respiratory fitness similarly to adults. After puberty, however, aerobic fitness will begin to decline unless physical activity is maintained through training exercises such as running. Take-home message: It is especially important to keep your child involved in aerobic physical activities, such as running, during and after puberty.

Issue #2: Form

Encourage your child to learn proper running form. It helps prevent injuries (see Issue #6) and improve running efficiency. Running form is from head to toe, so when teaching your child, start at the top and work your way down.

Strategy #1: Head position should be neutral. Don’t look up, side to side, or down at the feet. Look forward and keep the face relaxed.

Strategy #2: Shoulders should be relaxed but not hunched forward. Try to keep shoulder movement to a minimum

Strategy #3: Control the back and stomach. The back should be leaning slightly forward and the stomach should be pulled in, but the core should be relaxed as possible.

Strategy #4: Position the arms and relax the hands. Elbows should be bent at a right angle with the arms close to the body. Relax the hands, forming a loose cup. Arms should not swing or move very much from this position.

Strategy #5: Land on the feet correctly. Feet should strike the ground beneath the hips to avoid over-striding, and knees should not rise above hip level. Avoid striking the ground with the heel first. Instead try to land on the midsole or ball of the foot.

Issue #3: Race training and goals

Young runners have different training and goal-setting guidelines than adults. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, children and adolescents (6-17 years) should get 60 minutes or more of physical activity daily and running serves as a perfect activity to partially fulfill this requirement.

Strategy #1: Set personal goals. Your child can’t predict how the other runners will perform, so have them shoot for a specific time, not first place when goal setting. Remember: Running programs should be child driven, not parent driven—your child needs to have fun!

Strategy #2: Set appropriate training frequency and duration. Physicians generally recommend running frequencies of:

  • Three times per week for children younger than 14.
  • Five times per week for children 14 and older.

Running duration should be no longer than 90 minutes, including warm-up and cool-down. Training should start at a low intensity for four weeks and then increase at rate no more than 10% a week.

Wondering what “low intensity” means? Try the talk test. If your child can sustain a full conversation throughout a running exercise, he or she is performing at a low or moderate intensity. If your child can only say a few words without stopping to catch his/her breath, he or she is engaging in vigorous activity. Remember: Only increase intensity of training if your child expresses interest on his/her own, and your child should always set the pace.

Strategy #3: Race frequency and distance vary with age. Physicians generally recommend a race frequency of 6.2 miles (10 km) or less weekly. Distances longer than 6.2 miles a week must be tailored for your child by a medical professional. Below are general recommendations for racing distance by age.

  Age (years)   Distance (miles)
<9   2
9-11   3
12-14   6
15-16   13.1 (half marathon)
17   18
18+   26.2 (full marathon)

Issue #4: Diet and hydration

Proper diet and hydration are necessary to complement your child’s running regimen for both sport and growth.

Strategy #1: Proper diet is essential. healthy diet is critical for the long-term success of your child athlete. Visit USDA’s Choose MyPlate website to create a personalized nutrition plan for your child, and see below for specific training-day nutrition information.

  • Pre-run: Your child should eat a snack 30–60 minutes prior to running. Follow the simple rule: high carbs, low fiber, and low fat.
  • During run: For runs less than one hour, your child should not need to eat anything, and hydration (see below) is all that is necessary. Choose the lower end of these ranges for smaller children and the upper end of the ranges for larger ones.
  • Post-run: Your child should eat a mix of carbs and protein within 45 minutes after the run. Aim for a 2:1 to 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein. Low-fat chocolate milk, low-fat yogurt with fruit, or a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich are great choices.

Strategy #2: Hydration is critical. Children are more likely than adults to sustain heat strokes due to higher core temps and lower sweating rates. Staying hydrated is critical in minimizing heat stress for children.

Tips for staying hydrated:

  • Encourage your child to drink several glasses of water each day before, during, and after physical activity—tell them that if their urine is really yellow, then they should drink more water.
  • Avoid energy drinks and cola drinks. They actually increase dehydration.
  • Avoid sports drinks during normal activity; water is all your child needs to stay hydrated. For runs less than one hour, your child should drink 5–10 ounces of water every 15–20 minutes. However, for high-intensity and longer duration runs (ie. greater than one hour) drink 3–8 ounces of a sports drink every 15–20 minutes.  

Issue #5: Shoes

It’s important to find shoes that fit right to help prevent injury.

Strategy #1: Find a shoe that fits. Any shoe that you choose for your child should first be lightweight and breathable (Lycra, Gore-Tex, and Spandex are great materials). A local running store may be able to assess your child’s gait and foot shape. This will provide valuable insight into what type of shoes to purchase.

Issue #6: Safety

When it comes to running safety, remember that your child is not just a small adult. Young runners are particularly vulnerable to a number of injuries because their muscles and bones are still developing. You can minimize the risks associated with running with the proper knowledge and guidance. Consult a healthcare professional about any sign of injury.

Strategy #1: Avoid heat illness. During heat-related illness, your child’s body produces more heat than it can release. Signs of heat illness are dizziness, heavy sweating, headache, paleness, nausea, and muscle/stomach cramping. If your child experiences these symptoms during or after a run, seek medical attention immediately.

Strategy #2: Monitor absence of menstruation in girls. Absence of female menstruation by the age of 16 or the absence of three contiguous menstrual cycles is cause for high concern. Young female runners can lose bone mass when they should be gaining bone. Consult your doctor if you notice menstrual irregularity.

Strategy #3: Avoid running alone. Young runners should not run alone. If your teen wants to run alone, be sure he or she tells someone ahead of time about the planned route and what time he or she expects to be back. Try to follow the buddy system if at all possible.

Strategy #4: Avoid over-training and burnout. Running can be mentally and physically demanding for a child or adolescent, and overtraining can become a serious problem. Common signs of overtraining and burnout include chronic muscle or joint pain, personality changes, elevated resting heart rate, decreased sports performance, fatigue, and lack of enthusiasm. Prevent burnout by encouraging your child to be involved in a variety of activities rather than just running.

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