My daughter’s first experience with running came when I signed her up for the kids’ dash at the Susan G. Koman Race for the Cure. She was three years old and ran 50 yards. When she was 8, she ran in a kids’ marathon where she ran with a running group at her school, tracking her miles up to 25.2 and ran the final mile on the adult marathon course. A year later, I ran a half marathon in Branson, Missouri, the Roller Coaster Half Marathon and they offered a one mile run for kids. She ended up finishing in 8:25, despite the extremely hilly course during a cold, rainy morning and she had just turned 9 years old then.
Sometime after the one mile run in Missouri, my daughter expressed interest in running with me. I was thrilled, that is until every time we ran together she whined and complained how hard running is, and asked over and over if we could take a walk break, that it was too hot out or she was thirsty, and she basically took all of the fun out of running for me when we ran together. When we would head out the door, I always told her we would run at her pace, and I let her take the lead to make sure I wasn’t pushing her too fast.
Still, clearly this wasn’t working. Instead of just giving up on my daughter becoming a runner, I signed her up with Girls on the run, an after-school running group meant to encourage girls to live a healthy active life and help them build up their confidence in themselves over a 10 week period that culminates in a 5k event. This worked even better than I could have imagined. Not only did she see that she was indeed a good runner but she began to gradually build a love for running.
Since she ran her first 5k with Girls on the Run, she has run multiple 5k’s, many of which she finished in the top three for her age group, she’s run a 10k (where she finished second in her age group), and she’s currently training for her second half marathon. In line with her previous racing history, she finished first in her age group at her first half marathon. She often says she wants to eventually run a marathon and after a few marathons an ultra marathon. I told her to take it one step at a time.
It’s been 10 years since my daughter ran her first race and over the years I’ve definitely learned some things about getting your child interested in running. I’ve learned what generally works and what doesn’t work.
One of the things I’ve learned that is a good idea is to sign up your child for a race. Good ones to start are the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure races, which are held around the US, usually in the spring to summer months. They often have bounce houses, face painting, stickers, giveaways, and all kinds of other fun things for kids, in addition to fun, non-timed runs for children (and adults). There are also a plethora of fun runs held around the country like color runs, glow-in-the-dark night runs, short obstacle races geared toward children, and bubble runs.
It’s also a good idea to run with your child. If your child is really young, this is a given unless they’re running with a group at their school. Although my experience with this wasn’t stellar in the beginning, things did turn around when she was older and we started running together again. Just make sure you’re running at your child’s pace and take walk breaks as often as needed. Also take a day off running with your child if it’s a struggle just to get out the door. It’s supposed to be fun, and if you have to force them to run, it’s not going to be fun for either of you.
Invest in good quality running shoes, running socks, and other running apparel for your child. You wouldn’t go for a run in just whatever sneakers you happened to have, a cotton t-shirt, shorts, and socks, so why should your child? After you’ve gotten dressed and ready to run with your child, make sure they are actually wearing said running apparel, too.
Now for some things that don’t work so well with children and running. Don’t push them in any way to run, whether it’s the speed, distance, or even whether to run that day. Again, as a runner, you gradually increase your distance and you gradually increase your speed, so your child is no different. You also don’t want them to feel like they’re being pushed into running when they really have no interest.
If your child expresses interest in running but then complains about it when they actually run, don’t let it discourage them. Explain to them that everyone (even you, their parent) has runs that don’t go so well, and that’s normal. Don’t let them give up unless it’s clear they truly have no interest in running. Even then, I’d say don’t give up forever. Maybe they’re just not ready to become a runner at that point in their life but given some time and the right circumstances, they’ll become a runner when they’re older.
Finally, for children in middle and high school, you can encourage them to try out for the track and/or cross-country teams. My daughter was on her middle school’s track team and quickly found out it was not for her, but she stuck with it and learned that she’d rather just run on her own. When she starts high school, she’s going to check out the cross-country team and see how that goes. She may find out that too isn’t for her and keep running on her own, or she may love it, who knows?
The bottom line is with the proper encouragement and guidance from you, your child may follow in your footsteps and become a runner like you, but it needs to be a completely natural process driven primarily by your child. As a mother runner, some of the best things I can hope for my child is that she grows into a healthy and happy independent adult. If running helps her do those things, then I think that’s fantastic, but if eventually she decides to say, take up hiking as her primary mode of exercise and staying healthy, that’s great too.
If you’re a runner, does your child run too or do they run the other way screaming when you mention running? If they are a runner, what was their experience with getting interested in running?