Sunday, July 14, 2013

10 tips for running with children

A lot of people ask me about running with my son Charlie (now 7). Running with children is somewhat contentious and so, I thought I'd write a post about my experience. I have found it to be a really positive thing to do and I encourage others to think about doing it too. It's a personal choice based on you, your level of comfort and your child's interest. Like most things, it's not going to work for everyone.

Before I dive into the tips, let me tell you about Charlie's first 5K. We signed up for the Humboldt Park Dream Run this June. It was a perfect first race for him because it wasn't one of the huge Chicago races and it was in Humboldt Park, the place he learned to run. I thought the familiar territory would be a bonus. Getting the packet for a race is usually an inconvenience but Charlie was super excited about it and I had to hide the bib because he wanted to wear it immediately. The day of the race, we got up early and ate some oatmeal. The next couple of hours was hard for him because he was very excited. Here's a picture of him just before we headed out.

Charlie wearing a bandana just like dad

My wife and the girls drove us to the race and headed off to find parking and to work-out where they wanted to stand to cheer us on. We checked-in and then warmed up a little bit. He was actually quite excited to see that it was mostly adults. When it was time to line-up for the start of the race, I got behind the 10+ minute a mile line. Charlie said "Why are we back here? We'll never win from back here!" That's when I realized that he thought he was actually going to win the whole thing. I explained to him how fast some people run a 5K and changed the topic to how people would go out way too fast and we would overtake them later. I also reminded him that no matter what pace he ran or how many breaks he needed, it wouldn't change how proud I am of him and how happy I was to be there with him. The gun went off and we started. He wanted to go out fast like everyone else but I reminded him to keep his cool. Within a half a mile, we were already overtaking a lot of people and that's when Charlie got really motivated. I told him to lead the way at a pace that he was comfortable with but sometimes I prompted him to slow down because he was running at a pace that was a 1.5 to 2 minutes faster a mile than we usually run. I knew that he wasn't pushing too hard because we talked a lot during the race. About half way through, he said "Dad, if you want to stop, you can but, I'm going to run all the way." I proudly followed him as he focused and reeled in person after person. It's not fun to be beaten by a child half your size, so he got some comments like "Oh hell no. Shorty just overtook me!" Most people smiled and shouted some encouragement as he went by. I kept reminding him to slow down so that he had some gas left in the tank. On the last half mile, he wanted to reel in one last man, a big muscular 6 footer with tattoos. Once we had done that, he said "Dad, can we do a sprint finish?" I told him we could but he needed to wait until a certain point. Once I gave him the go-ahead, we let loose.

The sprint finish.
The man on the microphone said "Give it up people! This kid is only 7 years old!" When Charlie heard that and heard the crowd screaming for him, I could tell that he was floating. I let him cross the line first in an official time of 30:42.04. That's 9:54 pace. In fact, he finished the race so quickly that my wife and daughter were not prepared with cameras and missed the photo opportunity. I found the sprint photo on Facebook.

At the finish line. Charlie looks fresh.

The next week, I traveled to Austin for work and I got a call in the hotel room from the race director of the Dream Run. She said "Could you give me an email address for Charlie?" I explained to her that he did not have an email because he was 7. Her response was "What? 7? He just won 3rd in the under 19's division!" She thought we were a couple of teens that ran the race together. That made me laugh. I couldn't wait to tell him. He was already proud of himself for racing but the medal made it even better and he showed it to everyone that he could. He keeps asking me if I have it safe.

His medal and bib.

So, this was Charlie's first 5K and I can tell you that it was a memory that I will never forget. I hope we will get to do it together again and would love to do it with him as an adult. Over the last couple of years running with Charlie, I have learned a lot about children and running so, here are some basic tips. Remember that their natural ability and interest is going to vary greatly.

Tip #1 : Make sure your motives are pure

If you are teaching a child to run because you want them to become the next Prefontain, you are in real danger of becoming "that parent." Charlie was 5 when we started and I was very clear about my reasons for starting. There were many but here were my primary reasons:
  1. His interest - He asked to run. It wasn't just me pushing him into it.
  2. 1 on 1 time - We were not getting along at the time and we needed the quality time
  3. Positive experience - I wanted to make positive memories with him
  4. Health and fitness - I wanted to instill the importance of a healthy lifestyle
Tip #2: Ignore the haters

Some parents will say things like "It's bad for their growth" or "It's bad for their joints" and the only advice I can give you is to ignore them. They are speaking from fear - not from fact. The truth is that children in Western countries run a heck of a lot less than children in other parts of the world. No evidence exists that running long has a bad impact on children (even extreme ones who run marathons). Charlie and I don't run that often. I don't think we need to. He gets most of his training from being a child. When we do run, we usually go 2 to 3 miles and that's after a couple of years of easing into it. If he is still running with me when he is older, maybe we will run more often and maybe we will run longer. For now, why push it? We are having fun and it's great for him. If you have some anxieties about it, here's a starting point. It's an article on Runners World about children and running.

Tip #3: Get them kitted out

You don't want to go overboard but if you intend running with your child fairly regularly, you should give their equipment the same consideration that you would give your own. Lightweight and moisture wicking socks, shorts and t-shirt. Also remember that most children's shoes (even from well known running shoe brands) are horrible for them to run in. They look like adult shoes and have the same level of padding making them like stiff house bricks. Pick a pair that has enough padding to protect but is super flexible so that they can move naturally. Remember, children are much lighter, so the padding doesn't have to be as much. Watch them run barefoot. They should be able to run with the same form in their running shoes. Charlie runs in Merrell Flux Gloves and runs very naturally in them. New Balance also makes very lightweight childrens shoes and if you are looking for more padding, Skechers GOrun and Nike Free Run may be an option. Pete Larsen at Runblogger talks about children's shoes here.

Charlie's natural running form.

Merrell Flux Glove

Tip #4: Start with walk/run/walk

If you started running as an adult, you know how hard it was to run at first. Most young children are lighter and fitter than most adults but the same principles apply. You don't go and run 3 miles the first time out. Charlie and I started with a mile and did walk/run/walk intervals. First of all, I let his recovery dictate the length and eventually we did it by time. Then, once we had done a mile, we started to run a little further each time. Like adults, each child is going to be different, so you should stick with what is working for them rather than a set plan. This phase is also a good time to teach them a little bit about form. I didn't push this too hard because I didn't want to take away from the fun. Some of the instruction sticks - some doesn't. It's OK.

Tip #5: Don't assume they understand the concept

Most young children know nothing about pacing themselves for distance running. They run hard and then stop to rest just like the family dog. Conserving energy is a bit of a foreign concept that comes with time and experience. At first, they question why you are running so slowly but one day, it clicks. They feel the fatigue hit them later in the run and realize the value of the technique. All I can say is that the concept will come - just remind them to run slow and steady.

Tip #6: Remember that it is a shared run, not your run

If you confuse your mileage (for you personal training) with the miles you run with your child, it will lead to frustration. If they don't feel like running 3 miles and you needed to run 3, it's not a warm and fuzzy moment. I try to make my runs with Charlie fall outside of my training plan, so that I can be present with him and focus on our time together - not logging my own miles on Dailymile. BTW, if you aren't a friend with me on DM already, please connect with me.

Tip #7: Forget the pace

If you have a GPS watch, ignore it or leave it at home. The reason I take mine is because Charlie likes to know exactly how far we went. When we run, we typically run in the 11 minute miles - close to 12. When he did his first 5K, I didn't know that he could run in the 9's and after seeing him do that, I can see him doing a 5K in under 30 minutes quite easily. But, the truth is, I don't care. I don't push the pace on our runs because I don't view it as training, it's our time together. When I do races with him, I just want him to enjoy the experience - not focus on how fast he ran it. PR's are fun but not the primary focus for us. If he is interested in competitive running in future, that's great. For now, I want him to enjoy running.

Tip #8: Run with friends and family

When children see another child running, they want to do it too. As much as I enjoy the experience of 1 on 1 time with Charlie, sometimes it's nice to have company. One day, I did a 1 mile run with Charlie, his sister Maggie and the two girls from next door (ages 7, 8, 7 and 6). Charlie was so happy to be giving them advice. I laughed when he ignored one of the girls running ahead because he knew that she would not be able to sustain the effort. All he said was "I wouldn't do that if I were you." At the end, Charlie wanted to prove his mettle by sprinting to the finish. The mom's waited at the end and cheered everyone home. It was such a fun experience and really made a change from the usual runs. Now one of the girls next door keeps asking about running and it's fun to think that we inspired her a little.

Tip #9: Be super flexible

Charlie is super inconsistent. We will go months without running. When we do go, sometimes he can run far without breaks and sometimes he wants to stop many times. Sometimes he claims that he can't go far at all. I try to be patient and flexible. I am trying to instill the love of the sport - not create a rigid calendar. It's worked out for us. He knows I am not going to push him aggressively but he knows I expect him to do his best. The only time I lay down the law is if he asks to go running and then changes his mind when we are out there. I let him know that if he commits to doing something, he has to follow through and try his best. He's 7 and the inconsistency is getting better as he gets older but I am not going to allow that to be something that gets in the way of our fun together.

Tip #10: Turn it into a game

A lot of running is all in the mind. When runners are tired, they tend to focus on their body and that makes things hard. Many adults count, sing and do all sorts of things to change their focus to a healthy state of mind. It's the same thing for children but I have found they need help to switch focus. The best way to do that is to insert some fun into the experience. Here are a few ways I have stimulated Charlie to run:
  • We ran 4 miles once in New Hampshire. The reason we did was because I was chasing him through trees and over streams in the woods. It was a game and it was fun. The last thing on his mind was how we ran.
  • One game Charlie likes to play is having mini races during long runs. He defines the start and end point and tries to beat me. Inevitably, he shouts "Go" after he has already started and he thinks is very amusing. It's like a fun way to do intervals and I let him win of course.
  • In Cleveland, Charlie ran out of steam half way into our 3 mile run. We took a break and on the way back, I started a conversation about how silly it would be to beat other runners in a race by tricking them. Once he started to come-up with ideas like gluing runners to the ground when they were getting drinks at aid stations, he started belly laughing and forgot all about how hard the run was and ran home much faster.
One day Charlie said "Dad, I can see why you like to run. It's fun." Once I heard that, I knew I was on the right path with him. Good luck to any of you who decide to give it a shot with your children. I hope this post is of some help and encouragement to you.

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