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How to Start Your Child Running

While other kids her age were playing video games and sleeping in late this summer, Sydney Shoemaker was competing in her first triathlon. The then 9-year-old North Texan swam 100 meters, biked 2.5 miles and ran a half-mile in 24:27 at the Benbrook YMCA Kids Tri.

But this wasn’t Sydney’s first time around the track. In fact, in first grade she joined her school’s running club. Sydney is among a growing number of kids turning to running. In recent years, more kids’ fun runs and 5Ks have popped up at adult races––and they’re popular. For example, in 2010, 791 kids younger than 14 participated in the Red Balloon Run & Ride, a group of races that benefits Children’s Medical Center. (For details on this year’s event, click here. In 2011, that number grew to 1,497. We’ve even highlighted fun runs for kids in Dallas-Fort Worth.

RELATED: 8 Kid-Friendly Races and Fun Runs in North Texas

So with this uptick, what should parents know about running to ensure their kids set off on the right foot?

Ready, Set, Go!

Before your child laces up his or her shoes for the first time, address any questions or concerns with a pediatrician, says Dr. Shane Miller, pediatric sports medicine specialist in the Sports Medicine Center at Children’s and assistant professor of orthopedics and pediatrics at UT Southwestern Medical Center. He adds, though, that most healthy children don’t need a specific visit to the doctor before starting a fitness program.

Next, set realistic goals and start off slowly. A 4- or 5-year-old can run a 1K with no more training than running at school recess or kicking a soccer ball around the field for 45 minutes on a Saturday morning, says Matt Celone, assistant coach for the Flower Mound Track Club. Usually, children ages 8 to 10 have the physical and mental maturity to attempt a 5K run, but it depends on the child. “My 6-year-old daughter recently completed her first mile run in 9:15,” Celone says. “Asking for a further distance will turn a fun run into a bad experience for her. My 10-year-old daughter, on the other hand, showed earlier signs of maturity and was running with me at the age of 5; she completed her first 5K at the age of 6.”

Kids, much like adults, need a motivator to start running. Celone recommends setting a goal race and planning a training program that fits into the timeline. Many beginning programs start with alternating between running a few minutes and walking a few minutes, working up to longer times, greater distances and ultimately faster paces. Miller suggests a gradual increase in training intensity and duration. “A rule of thumb is one should not increase by more than 10 percent per week,” he says.

Nutrition Is Key

The casual or recreational runner doesn’t need to increase his caloric intake, Miller says. Runners who average more than 20 miles a week (typically middle and high schoolers) may need to eat more to maintain their growth and development, he says.

The kids on the Flower Mound Track Club know Celone’s nutrition rules well: No milk products within three to four hours of running, no carbonated or caffeinated drinks before a run or workout, all sports drinks should be diluted by at least half and eat meals at least two hours before running. Most important, though, Celone says to trade the candy and junk food for fruit, bagels or bars such as Clif Kid Z Bars. Your kids just might surprise you and totally reject junk foods after a while. “I used to love McDonald’s when I was a kid, but it disgusts me now,” Sydney says.

Hydration is also very important. “We have to be cautious with heat illness and dehydration as [kids’] surface-area-to-volume ratio is less than adults, and they are not as good at regulating their own temperature,” Miller says.

Cautions for the Road

Running injuries in kids are typically overuse injuries involving the growth plates in their knees and ankles because of repetitive motions and the muscle tendon pulling repeatedly on the growth plate, Miller says. Special consideration should be given to children with chronic illness. “We also commonly see asthma exacerbations in those who have asthma,” he says.

Celone says that younger athletes suffer from scrapes on the arms and legs more than anything because they trip on a poorly tied shoelace or get their legs tangled up with those of another runner.

Allowing children to set the pace and gradually building up will give them the best chance of staying free of injuries, Miller says.

The Mental Race

Being a parent is often about riding that fine line between pushing too hard and encouraging. How can you tell when your kid is just being whiny or when she really needs to sit out? When running is no longer fun – whether they’re tired or not – they need a break, Celone says. “Running requires individual passion unmatched by any other sport. There are no timeouts or substitutions when running a race,” he says. “Therefore, if the athlete is mentally ready for the race, their physical conditioning will mean little.”

This is something Sydney’s parents – Dan, an Ironman competitor, and Lisa, a triathlete – put into practice. At least one of them is with Sydney during running club after school, and they cycle, run, swim and even compete as a family. “Lisa and I are both extremely competitive,” Dan says. “We don’t cut [Sydney] much slack, but we know when she’s tired. Sydney has the personality where she just needs some coaching and motivation.”

Lisa says that while some of Sydney’s drive can be traced back to her and Dan, at the end of the day, it’s the motivation within that keeps her going. And Sydney, who does her share of motivating kids during races, seems to have found the perfect way to stay focused and motivated. “One time, Daddy said, ‘Smiling makes you go faster,’” Sydney says, “so I write ‘smile’ on the inside of my arm.”

This article was first published in the September 2012 issues of DallasChild, FortWorthChild and NorthTexasChild.

For more, check out our running guides for kids ages 4 and older.