Running is a great sport for kids, but don’t push their growing bodies too hard
By: Karren L. Johnson | Special to PennLive
April 6, 2014
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Matthew Silvis, MD, a family and sports medicine physician at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center has been a long-time advocate of running to stay healthy. So it’s no surprise that both his sons, ages 5 and 12, are lacing up their running shoes, as well.
“This past fall, my oldest son decided to run cross country,”Silvis said. “It was a close-knit group that really encouraged one another, which was one of things he liked most about the experience. My youngest son just enjoys running circles around me.”
While Silvis appreciates the health benefits that running offers his sons, he also likes that it provides a great opportunity for him to spend quality time with them. In addition to regular runs around their neighborhood, they have also been participating in various charitable running events.
Silvis’ sons aren’t the only kids discovering their inner runner. Over the past decade, there’s been a boom in children participating in everything from running programs and clubs to kid-friendly charity races and fun runs.
In response to this growing trend, Silvis along with other local experts offers families insight on running to help kids start off on the right foot.
Setting a safe pace
The biggest question on parents’ minds is if running is a safe activity for their children. The first step would be to talk to your child’s pediatrician about their ability level and any health concerns.
As with any youth sport or fitness routine, the keys are gradual progression and common-sense adult supervision, said Travis Baughman, Center Manager and Physical Therapist at Drayer Physical Therapy Institute in Hampden Township. If those conditions are met, running three miles is a reasonable goal for most young people.
Still, it is not advised that children run every single day. Since their bones are growing faster than their muscles, it puts them at a higher risk of developing injuries. Parents should encourage other activities once or twice a week that work different muscle groups—whether it’s playing softball or soccer, skiing or swimming, Baughman added.
In addition to being alert to any complaints of pain, parents should watch for signs of exhaustion and dehydration, especially during hot summer months.
“Throughout our program, we offer our girls tips on safe running, healthy eating habits, hydration and proper warm up and cool down techniques,” said Debbie Deck, a coach forGirls on the Run of Lancaster.
Deck, who has three daughters who have all participated in the program, doesn’t like the idea of them running on their own through the neighborhood, so a safety precaution she takes is to run along with them.
“Last but not least, running should be the child’s idea,” Silvis said. “If they aren’t driving the interest, they could end up experiencing emotional burn out or quitting sports entirely.”
A big reason why running is gaining popularity with kids (and families) is because it’s easily accessible, Silvis said.
“To get started you don’t need to learn complicated rules and moves or buy lots of expensive equipment and you can do it almost anywhere,” he said. “All kids really need is a decent pair of running shoes.”
Running is also great for kids — especially ones who aren’t athletically inclined or who are overweight — because it provides a chance for them to be physically active and focus on self improvement at their own pace.
“Kids can make running as intense or as casual as they want,” Silvis said. “It can be a social experience or a more solitary one, for pleasure or for competition.”
For young runners, an emphasis should be placed on having fun and setting goals that are easily attainable, said Angela Wagner, Program Coordinator for Capital Area Girls on the Run in Harrisburg and mother of two daughters who participated in the program.
“Our program focuses on integrating fun activities along with running games to inspire and motivate girls, encourage lifelong health and fitness, and build confidence through accomplishment,” she said.
The program culminates with the girls being physically and emotionally prepared to complete a celebratory 5K running event.
Reaping the rewards
Adults who run casually would most likely agree that they do it for the physical, social and/or mental benefits. Regular running not only improves or prevents cardiovascular functioning, osteoporosis, diabetes and obesity, but it has also been shown to positively counter the effects of depression and anxiety.
“Running provides the same benefits to children as it does adults,” Silvis said. “Plus, the advantage for young runners is that they are getting a head start at developing life-long healthy habits and preventing various medical conditions down the road.”
Other benefits to children running include an increase in focus and concentration, better nutrition and food choices, positive self image and more confidence. In addition, running serves as a great foundation for other sports.
“A lot of kiddos view running as being too hard, but when given the opportunity they really surprise themselves at what they can accomplish,” said Angela Episale, Mechanicsburg community coordinator for the Healthy Kids Running Series, a five-week running program in the spring and fall for kids from Pre-K to 8th grade.
Each race series takes place once a week and offers age appropriate running events. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow kids run because all participants receive a medal and gift bag for their achievements, said Episale. Both her 12-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter have participated in the program.
“You really see kids’ endurance and physical level improve week after week while at the same time the smiles on their faces get bigger and bigger as they get better,” said Baughman, whose employer, Drayer Physical Therapy Institute, is a sponsor of the running series.
Crossing the finish line
In many cases, kids become inspired by watching their parents or older siblings run and by seeing how good it makes them feel. This is a great opportunity to incorporate fitness with family time, Deck said.
“If one of my daughters is having a grumpy day, instead of saying ‘go to your room until your attitude improves,’ I say, ‘let’s take a quick run,’” she said. “It’s positive time for us as a mother and daughter and to talk about things. We both come back feeling more refreshed and with a better outlook.”
Parents who like to train for 5Ks, charity runs or marathons can look for events that include shorter kid-friendly fun runs, Silvis suggested.
And there is definitely not a shortage of organizations and events to get you started. As running gains popularity among families, more charitable running events are including kid-friendly runs, as well. The list below highlights just a handful of well-known events in the area.
Whether your child has started running on their own or through an after-school program, having someone cheer them on is key in helping them achieve their goal, said Wagner, who served as her 9-year-old daughter’s running buddy in the Girls on the Run 5K event.
“It was such an incredible experience to cheer her on and watch her confidence sore when she crossed that finished line and achieved her goal,” Wagner said.