How To Start Running With Kids

Running can be a great activity to share with kids, if it’s approached in the right way.

Many people think of running as an adult pastime, but it can have huge benefits for children, too. Joining a youth cross-country or track team, for instance, can help kids have fun, gain confidence, and build healthy habits. And for parents who run, it’s hard to beat the joy of running with your child—that is, if your child can learn to love it as much as you do. 

Finding that sweet spot where kids are being challenged but not overwhelmed is a tricky affair. There is no prescribed age for when running regularly for fitness is safe for kids, nor is there a prescribed amount of mileage. The reason is that no two kids are alike in physical or emotional development. Those open-ended factors play a big role in determining how much running is too much for any particular child. Keep a few parental pointers in mind to help focus your guidance and start running together.

Assess Any Risks

Just as adults can suffer from overuse injuries caused by the repetitive motion of running, so can kids. In fact, because kids are constantly growing, they’re more susceptible to certain types of injuries.

Until kids are fully grown, they have areas of softer tissue known as growth plates where adults have harder bones. According to the National Institute of Health, once a child is fully grown, the growth plates close and are replaced by solid bone. Until then, those areas are particularly vulnerable.

Other risks have more to do with your child having a negative experience with running at an early age, and therefore potentially being turned off to running and other forms of exercise for years afterward. Of course, that same risk applies for any youth sport. It’s just that running has greater potential as a lifelong pastime—there’s a reason so many adults turn to it after organized team sports become harder to come by. (Read below for ways to spot warning signs for both overuse injuries and burnout, as well as tips for avoiding them in the first place.)

Weigh the Benefits

While there are certainly some risks to introducing your kids to running, there are also tons of benefits.  

Running can be a solid source of self-confidence for kids. Since the sport is often about going farther or faster, it’s easy for kids to track their improvement and find that they’re capable of more than they may have initially thought. There’s a skill and ability progression that happens with proper training, which also builds confidence and teaches a valuable life lesson.

On the social-emotional front, running with other kids can provide a social and supportive environment, especially for kids who shy away from other team sports. And running with parents can be deeply bonding.

There are also a multitude of health benefits. Running is an excellent way to develop muscle, build a healthy heart, and kick-start good exercise habits. Then, there’s the mood boost that comes with getting outside in nature and finding joy in movement.

Find the Right Balance

The key to helping your kids approach running in a healthy way should come as no surprise: It’s all about keeping running fun. The Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) has published guidelines on the subject titled “FUNdamentals of Youth Running,” which warn against using running as punishment or putting too much emphasis on success. Instead, RRCA advises adults to “encourage children to participate and try their best.” The focus should be on self-improvement, not on how they measure up against others.

It’s also important that kids increase their daily or weekly mileage gradually. That’s because stacking on too many miles too soon can lead to injury and an overwhelming atmosphere. One way to ensure a more measured approach is by having your child join a youth cross-country or track team led by qualified coaches. Still, it’s important—especially if your child is running on their own or with you—to know how to tell when they may be pushing too hard.

Signs of potential overuse injuries include pain in the heels, ankles, knees, hips, and lower back. If your child complains of pain in any of those areas, it’s time to take a break from running and talk to your child’s pediatrician, an orthopedic doctor, and/or a sports-specific physical therapist.

If your child is running regularly, also keep an eye out for signs of overtraining or burnout. These can include fatigue, loss of sleep or appetite, lack of interest in activities they previously found enjoyable, long periods of decreased performance, low self-esteem, low personal expectations, or frequent worries about failure. If any of these symptoms arise, it may be time for a break. If symptoms persist, it’s a good idea to get in touch with a sports psychologist or therapist.

Set Them Up for Success

Back to that all-important advice: Keep running fun! If you’re hoping to have your child join you for a run or a race, focus on the kid-centric aspects of running. Try saying things like, “Let’s go run around the park and play after!” or “Let’s see if we can run to that stoplight without walking!” Sign up for races together, and choose options that have festive environments and cool medals and prizes. Whether running casually or racing, be only encouraging—not critical—no matter your child’s pace or ability level.

It’s also just as important to get the right gear for your child as it is for you. If you intend to start them running regularly or semi-regularly, make sure your kids have comfortable clothes for exercise, and have them fitted for a proper pair of running-specific shoes. Running in improper footwear can lead to poor body mechanics, which can lead to injuries. 

Besides, having a new pair of shoes that feel great and that properly support your child or adolescent will only increase their enjoyment of a sport that can stay with them for the rest of their lives. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.