I can’t be the only one to have noticed the huge increase in the number of children, aged four to 15 who are now running. According to parkrun there are currently over 55,000 children under the age of 13 registered as parkrun runners. Enough for it to have launched a junior 2K version aimed at runners aged four to 14. Launched in 2010 with just nine runners, there are now 1,122 with 17 weekly junior events.
Inspiring stuff. But how can we encourage our kids to run and progress without adding pressure and ruining their natural enjoyment? Here’s our guide to helping your child get run fit, race ready and run happy.
Long gone are the days when we thought that to improve, all we had to do was grab our trainers and trudge out the door. Pace and tempo training, strength and conditioning are all indispensable arsenals in the battle against the ticking stopwatch. But is the kind of training we do as adults suitable for your children?
‘There is no magic guideline but the key advice is the same as for adults,’ explains Professor Neil Fowler, head of sports and exercise science at Manchester Metropolitan University. ‘Ensure that progression is gradual in distance and intensity so the body has a chance to adapt.
‘And if you do run with your child, they shouldn’t just be a tag along; you will need to take time out from your own running to help and encourage them.’
So what is the right training for them to do to help them progress?
‘Before puberty, usually five to ten-year-old children benefit from intermittent high intensity training, such as fast running for 30-120 seconds with walks in between,’ explains Neil. ‘It is also what they will naturally enjoy too.’
At this stage of development, kids have a higher lactate threshold, which means working in the anaerobic system, like sprinting, is easier. But it’s the ages of ten to 15 when kids need to take the most care.
‘This is a stage of peak growth and hormonal development, when kids see the greatest gains,’ explains Neil. ‘But it is also the stage when children’s bodies are more susceptible to injury and overload.’
This can result in damage to the growth plates or joints and ligaments as muscle growth is faster. ‘Children can do challenging training but it should be increased progressively,’ states Neil. At this stage children’s tolerance to lactate, a result of anaerobic training is decreased and most progress will be gained through aerobic exercise and increased distance.
Keep it fun by setting team adventure races, where they have to find their way to a clue. This way there is no pressure on having to run a certain distance.
‘The biggest danger at this age is children or parents seeing progress and thinking that if that is achievable with just a bit of training, they should train more,’ believes Neil. ‘Ensure distance and intensity are not increased by more than ten per cent per month.’
By the age of 15 and over, children’s growth and development begins to slow. ‘A mixture of speed and steady aerobic training will be rewarded and they can build up to training up to nine times a week,’ says Neil. But be aware that many children develop biologically at different stages, irrespective of age.
‘These are guidelines and some children will still be in the middle group past 15,’ he says. ‘Other children won’t see a change from the age five plus advice until they are 12 or 13.
‘The most crucial thing of all is to allow the body to rest so it can grow stronger,’ says Neil. ‘One full rest day per week is essential.’
Whether it’s a parkrun or a formal race, the buzz you get makes you want to share it. But how do you know that your child is ready?
Graeme Sandrett-Smith, 48, a tax inspector from Nottingham admits that as a club runner since the age of 15, he was keen to get his kids, Ben, now 11 and eight-year-old daughter, Evie doing parkrun. However, at first they were not keen. ‘I bribed them at first, £1 to run and £3 if they beat their time. Now they love it.’
Daughter Evie says: ‘I cried all the way round the first time because I didn’t want to do it.’ It did not put her off though, with Evie currently awaiting her special parkrun t-shirt awarded to all runners on their 50th run. But her initial reaction might make many parents think twice. Should it?
‘If you get a buzz out of competing, then it’s natural to want your kids to share that,’ explains Victor Thompson, clinical sports psychologist (www.sportspsychologist.co.uk) who works with junior athletes.
‘There is nothing wrong with this unless it becomes something that persistently causes stress, or your encouragement is linked to how well they’ve done.’
He advises keeping an eye on how your child responds to an event, both before and afterwards, as well as at home.
‘Running should be something that they want to do and that they see as fun,’ he says. While there is nothing wrong with healthy
competition, if your child is not ready to race or gets upset, help them set their own goals to keep them motivated and happy.
More important than any of this is to make sure that your child continues to enjoy running. This can be tricky, as Julie Healy, 48, from Fulking, West Sussex is finding with her sons, Luke, eight and Ryan, seven.
‘I started running parkun in May 2011 and six months later, the boys asked to join in too,’ she explains. ‘Ryan is relaxed and doesn’t mind if he doesn’t get a PB but Luke gets really annoyed.’
Both boys enjoy the competitive element and like to know their event times. But how do you help your children when the pressure starts to get to them?
‘Competition is healthy, and learning that sometimes you get a good time, and sometimes not is an important lesson,’ explains Victor Thompson. ‘But if the pressure gets too much, try running a parkrun as a family, or take away the competitive element by running something that is not timed.’
Nowadays there are lots of events from obstacles to runs where you have dye thrown at you which remind your children that running does not have to be undertaken just for a time.
It is something that Julie has already done, taking her sons to a social (www. haveyourcakeandrunclub.com) running group, where the emphasis is on having fun and finishing with a piece of cake.
‘They tend to enjoy it more when there are faster runners there,’ laughs Julie. ‘But it helps to remind them that running is not just about getting the best time.’
GET THEM TO TRAIN FOR THEIR AGE…
High intensity, fun running activities with short, sharp bursts of speed. Try a tag game, setting off one group and getting another to chase them after a head start then switch around.
The body will start to respond more to training and longer durations so distances can be increased. Keep it fun by setting up a mini adventure race, with teams having to find clues around an enclosed space that gets them running further without an emphasis on distance.
Distance and intensity can be increased as both VO2 max, the ability to use oxygen, and strength increase. Do not increase training by more than ten per cent per month.