Getting children into running

Child and adult lining up on a running track overlaid by the Ordinary Runner logo

Early potential

My daughter is an occasionally enthusiastic runner. Her flickers of interest are backed by natural aptitude. With support and direction, she could be very good. I’d like to nurture her early potential, but how to go about it without extinguishing her enthusiasm?

I recently heard someone say that there are as many reasons for running as there are runners. So long as that reason is our own, we’ll keep going. But we must find it for ourselves. Importantly, we must let others find their own. It can’t be forced.

It can be pointed out, though. A gentle nudge and a subtle nod in the right direction is no bad thing. And there are several directions you can nod to brighten a budding young runner’s spark.

So, how do we get our children into running? Here are a few ideas.

Make running your thing

I appreciate that this only works up to a certain age. And then not with all children. But there’s something remarkable in sharing a hobby with your offspring. Particularly when there’s mutual enjoyment.

Let’s be honest, we don’t always relish their idea of fun. Sitting, cross-legged on the floor, knees strained and back aching, while trying to summon enthusiasm for Barbie’s latest outfit, is an important, but challenging part of parenting.

We do it, sometimes, because we know we should. But finding something you both enjoy and making it your “thing” is so much richer an experience. And kids aren’t stupid. They know when you’re faking it. But they also know when you’re genuinely enjoying yourself. And those are the times they’ll remember most fondly – especially if they’re having as much fun as you.

If your children show enough interest, running can be one of those “things”. We’re still in the early stages but, in running, my daughter and I have found something we both enjoy. What’s more, unlike playing with dolls or having a lovely walk, neither of us grumble at the suggestion. I know that may change one day, but I’ll make the most of it until it does.

Keep it light

For children, running has the potential to be a lot of fun. In fact, fun is all important. As an adult, you’ll strive for PBs, tapping mental and physical reserves to push through pain. You do it not because someone’s forcing it on you, but because it’s what you want. More than that, as an adult, you can cope with the disappointment when you don’t achieve your best. After all, you need only answer to yourself.

Children flourish with encouragement. Knowing you’re proud of them, especially in your shared pastime, will give them a far bigger boost than any PB. But, thinking they’ve let you down could crush their love of running.

Keep it light. Go at their pace and only for distances they’re comfortable with. If they’re slower or can’t run as far as before, don’t worry. We all have good and bad days. If they feel frustrated, let them know it’s normal. Crucially, be proud of them and make sure they know it.

Add to your training

Be honest, how often do you warm up or cool down? Come on. Be more honest than that. We live busy lives. Finding time for a few miles is hard enough. Fitting in a warm up or a cool down can be almost impossible.

So, what better than to combine a run with your little one with a warm up for yourself? Not only do you get a proper leg loosener, your child feels like a genuine part of your training programme. Everyone benefits.

Man stretching on running track
Photo by Alora Griffiths on Unsplash

At the moment, my daughter can cope with 2KM. While it’s a good run for her, for me it’s enough to get my heart working and my muscles loosened. It also gets the pops, snaps and crackles out of my joints, ready for my run.

It seems such a good idea, I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it sooner. If only I could persuade her to run a little more often.

Don’t be their trainer

You’re not training an Olympic champion – even if they have potential to become one. You’re not there to pile pressure on them – leave that to the professionals. Being too serious is certain to snuff out enthusiasm.

Toni Minichiello talking to Jessica Ennis Hill
Photo by Mark Shearman

During a recent run, I noticed my daughter’s arms took on a life of their own. An over-elaborate swing brought tight fists too close to her chin. Run too fast and she risked a knockout. A few, small corrections later and she was fine. For a while. Then the arms took over and the wild swing resumed. We discussed it again, but she was losing patience. It was becoming a chore.

I didn’t mention it on the next run. We chatted happily as we trotted round the park. Then she brought it up. “I must be running better, because you haven’t mentioned my arms yet,” she said. In truth, she wasn’t running much better. But, I thought, what if my corrections made things worse? Or, what if my well-meant advice chipped away at her enjoyment of running?

Home schooling over lockdown proved that we’re not a good teacher / student pairing. We’re both too impatient and too stubborn. It wasn’t much fun playing teacher and I didn’t want the same relationship to sour our runs. That’s not what I’m there for. I’ll save that for someone who knows what they’re doing.

I might have to mention the arms again, though. I don’t relish explaining away a bloodied nose to my wife – the truth might not sound too feasible.

Peer pressure

Once the spark is lit, a little “organised fun” can fuel their enthusiasm. Depending on where you live, there are various ways to get your child together with their peers. Not only does this validate their interest, it also offers competition. And that competition can light a brand new fire.

Junior parkrun

At the time of writing (August 2020) Junior parkrun has just turned 10 years old. Due to coronavirus, none are currently running. But they’ll be back. One day.

Now, I know that rousing a child for a 9am Sunday morning start is a big ask. But it’s not impossible. Already, over 328 thousand finishers have completed 3 million parkruns. That’s more than 328 thousand four to 15-year old children, running 2KM on a Sunday morning. Not too shabby.

We’ve contributed one finisher and one finish to those stats. Not for want of enthusiasm. Life and other excuses kept us away until the week before coronavirus put parkrun on pause.

Junior parkrun logo

If you like parkrun, try the junior version with your little ones

If you’ve never been, I recommend it (find your nearest here). It’s a different experience to the main version, yet still very obviously parkrun. And, yes, parents, you can run with your children – just be careful not to confuse the timekeepers at the finish.

Mini Miles
Children ready to run at the start of Brighton Marathon weekend mini mile
One of many groups lined up for the Brighton Marathon Weekend Mini Mile in 2019

Another option that’s currently unavailable. But, ever the optimist, I’m including it on the basis that races will one day be a thing again.

Mini Miles are increasingly common. They typically take place before the main adult race. A fable of children mis-pace a mile, playing both hare and tortoise within the short stretch. Upfront, running club kids stride to easy victory. Further back, the rest flop over the line, out of puff even before the turnaround.

Red-cheeked and heavy-breathed, the fact they finish at all brings pride. Receiving shiny medals only swells the chest further. All my race medals go to my daughter. None sit so prominently as those she wins for herself.

When we can safely race again, I know my daughter will keenly add to her medal collection. In the meantime, she’ll bask in the glory of her past races. Or, you know, decorate her Barbies with old race bling.

Children’s running clubs

Most UK towns have running clubs these days. While they don’t all accept youngsters, there are a growing number of youth athletics clubs across the country. This is a good place to start your search.

If you feel your child has untapped potential, athletics clubs are the place to unleash it. They’ll meet other children who share their love of running. Plus, they can experience various disciplines that may unearth other, better talents.

Who knows, you might have the next Katarina Thompson-Johnson ready to run, jump and throw their way to World Championship glory.

Katarina Thompson-Johnson clearing the high jump
Your child could reach similar heights

What’s more, you can cast off the coaching role, happy that someone else is correcting their form. And (hopefully), that person is doing it properly. Meanwhile, you get to enjoy running with your child, hoping they don’t get too quick too soon. Because, let’s face it, one day they will be faster than you.

Know your child

Getting your children running can benefit both parents and kids alike. Whether you involve them in your own running or pack them off for someone else to train, there are plenty of options available. And, who knows, you could discover a budding Olympian lurking in your home.

Olympic rings in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London
Image credit – Kyle Dias on Unsplash

For all the advice on offer, you know what works best for your child. My daughter’s interest in running has flip-flopped for as long as I remember. At the moment it burns bright, and I want to make the most of it while it does. I’m still learning how best to keep the flame alight, even though I don’t know how much fuel she has in the tank. I hope it outlasts her love of Barbies, at least.

Header image by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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