“Come on Mum, you can do it. We’re nearly at the top of the hill. Try to hop from foot to foot like a mountain goat to make it easier.” These words of encouragement are from my son as he jogs alongside me on our weekly Sunday morning run together.
From joining my local running group in April, to completing my first 5k in May and then my first 10k in September, my relationship with running has gone from one that was completely alien to one that I now love, and even more so now that I get to share it with my son.
Finlay, like most other 8 year old boys, is full of energy, obsessed with anything that has a screen, thinks he knows best and is at times terribly insecure and unable to control his emotions. He’s an active child; he plays football 3 times a week and walks the 40 minute round trip to school every day, but given the choice he would happily spend his days slowly morphing into the sofa, fully absorbed in the virtual reality of Minecraft, occasionally calling out for food or running off to go to the toilet. So, when he announced that he no longer wanted to go to his swimming lesson on a Sunday, I knew that unless I came up with an alternative physical activity, he would turn this spare morning into gaming minutes.
Sunday mornings in our house go like this – my husband takes the two kids swimming and I go out for a run. I wasn’t willing to give up my running time to stay at home and watch Finlay play games, so he was given a choice (because all kids need to feel as though they’re in control, right?) either continue with the swimming or come out on a run with me.
And what a great choice that has proven to be…for both of us! Yes there’s a fair bit of moaning, him mainly, but then we’ve all moaned a bit at some point when running, right? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had a moan in my head about being too cold, my legs aching too much, being out of breath or simply telling myself to stop or give up, it’s part of the natural thought processes of a runner. So you need to be prepared for that and to remind yourself that they’re only vocalising what most of us are thinking – hey we all know kids are brilliant at that!
There are a few key points when it comes to running with kids that are essential in building up their confidence and love of the sport whilst also ensuring they run safe and injury free. I’ve put together a few tips so that if you decide to take your child out with you when you next run, it will go as smoothly as possible.
Pace not Race
Children have no idea how to pace themselves when it comes to running, there is literally an on switch and an off switch, which means when they first start they tend to tear off like a rabbit out of a greyhound trap. It’s your job to teach them how to rein in this urge to sprint and to regulate how they’re running, so as not to flake out too soon or to risk hurting themselves, particularly if running off road. When Finlay came out on his first run with me, he tore off with cries of “Come on slow coach, keep up”, because for him running was all about the winning. Most children’s experience of running is from what they’ve learnt in PE lessons at school; running as fast as they can around a track with the aim of coming in first and beating their classmates. He’s now realised that this type of running isn’t about the winning, he’s not in competition with me he’s running with me, and we’re a team. I took the stance of telling him to slow down because I couldn’t keep up, which OK turns out was true, but the point I was making was that in order for him to make it to the end of our run route he would need to turn down the gas a bit.
Even after a month or so of him running, I still have to remind him to slow the pace down, especially up the hills and across woodland paths dotted with tree roots ready to trip him up at any moment. But he’s getting there, and most importantly he understands the reasons why he needs to slow down. Now, he runs alongside me rather than racing off in front and he’s the one reminding me to slow down at the bottom of a hill and to save my energy for that final stretch. In fact he’s turning into quite the little running coach and is very quick to put me in check if I start moaning or if I’m going too fast.
Take Regular Rest and Water Stops
We all know the importance of keeping well hydrated particularly when exercising so it’s an absolute necessity that you take a water bottle out with you when running with a child. I make sure that at every rest stop we both have a small sip of water. Discourage your child from taking giant mouthfuls, because there’s nothing worse than the feeling of water sloshing around in your tummy as you run and you also want to try and avoid having to stop for a wee in the bushes! I find that one bottle between the two of us is more than enough and means he doesn’t have to carry anything, which gives him one less thing to moan about!
It’s important to remember that you are your child’s role model, so if they see you enjoying sports, eating healthily and generally being happy, optimistic and full of energy, they too will want to be like that. From my own experience, both my son and daughter have taken on more physical activities, stuck with them and enjoy them, since I’ve started running. Maybe it’s entirely fluke, but having seen how proud they were of me when I completed my first 10k, cheering me on from the sidelines, faces beaming and revelling at the sight of my medal, it’s clear that I am instilling some of that ‘can do’ attitude in them.
Children need encouragement and will always perform better if they hear the positives rather than the negatives. When you’re running with children it’s important to focus on the things they’re doing well and choose your words carefully. Make suggestions about how they could make it easier for themselves, but don’t tell them they are doing something wrong – nobody likes to be told that!
Never has the positivity of running been made more clear to me than this Sunday just gone. Finlay was incredibly reluctant to go running, he was dragging his heels getting dressed, moaning about anything and everything and had already decided he was going to be rubbish and would need lots of stops. He’d also attempted to fit in a bit of creative writing homework before going out and we’d had tears, tantrums and major negativity about the fact he couldn’t do it because he was rubbish at writing. We both felt cross with each other, moody and completely unmotivated. But, being the good role model I aspire to be, I insisted we still go for our run, knowing how much of a mood booster it can be. And I wasn’t wrong. The Finlay after our 5k woodland jaunt was a completely different child to the one that had left the house that morning. He was smiling, he was full of beans, chatting ten to the dozen about how well he’d done, how he hadn’t moaned, how good he felt and what fun he’d had. And if that wasn’t enough, he sat himself down in front of his homework book and finished his writing without having to be asked. When he finished, I looked over at what he’d written and it was incredible. The sentences before the run were short, to the point, very basic and rushed, whereas those he had written after running were three times in length, used much more creative language and the writing was neater, showing he’d taken more care. Honestly, the difference was amazing and all because he’d got outside and done some exercise.
We all like to know we’ve got better at something and children are no different, just think of how pleased they are when they get a sticker at school! Sit down with your child and come up with a few goals you’d like to both achieve. Finlay has decided he would like to try and reduce the number of stops we have and I would like to do it in a slightly faster time, which in theory should go hand in hand. Our plan is to do the same route every week (it’s just under 5k and one we both enjoy as it’s a good combo of off and on road) and to reduce the stops by 1 each time. This week we had 6 stops, so next week we’ll decrease that to 5 and so on. We’ve already worked out where our rest stops will be, which helps give us a particular landmark to aim for and now that Finlay has run the route a couple of times, he can visualise it better and have the confidence that he can achieve it. Whatever goals you set yourself, you must remember to only set realistic ones and be mindful of the fact that they are only children. Pushing your child too far, too soon, will only result in tears, or worse, in injury.
Following on from goal setting, in order to see progress it is essential you keep track of it. I use the Strava app on my phone to record distance and time as well as plotting a map of the route. Finlay loves to check this at the end and see whether we’ve beaten our results from the week before. It even gives you little trophies and medals if you’ve achieved personal bests and he loves to see whether any one has given us a thumbs up – well, we all like a bit of a morale boost right?!
He also wears my old Fitbit Flex so that he can track how many steps he’s done and loves nothing more than knowing he’s on flashy 5 and it’s still only 11am.
Take photos, record your stats and even encourage your child to keep a running diary for themselves so that they can see just how well they’re doing.
It’s so important to make running a fun experience for kids if you want them to continue doing it. The second it becomes boring, too hard or something they ‘have’ to do, you’ve lost them. And the beauty of it is that by adding in some fun elements to your run, you end up incorporating little drills that up the physical assertion, without you even really realising it. We have a particular game in which we try to push each other in horse poo. Sounds gross I know, but kids love anything to do with poo don’t they, and what’s a bit of horse poo on your trainer if it means having fun, a bit of a giggle and it gets you further through your run. There’s also a certain house we run past that has steam coming out from the wall from a heater vent, that we like to pretend is a dragon and we have to run past as fast as we can without the dragon’s breath getting us – great for short sharp interval training. Sometimes we kick conker shells and pine cones, or try and dodge the leaves and if there’s puddles on the ground, well that’s even better!
Children, boys in particular, can find it quite difficult to open up and talk about their feelings, but I’ve discovered that running provides the perfect platform to do this. Because they’re concentrating on something physical, it allows any mental barriers or distractions to open up and you’ll notice that the conversation is more relaxed and more forthcoming. I mean, I’m not saying Finlay’s come out with any great revelations when we’ve run, it tends to be mainly about what we’re going to build on Minecraft next and what he plans to do with the rest of his Sunday (ummmm Minecraft, perhaps?), but it’s a pleasure to talk to him, I actually enjoy our chats and I see a glimpse of the polite young man that he’s beginning to grow up into. There’s no attitude, no eye rolling or huffing, just lovely chitchat about inane rubbish. Not only does it help build up a trusting relationship between the two of us, but from a more practical point of view, talking whilst running helps to regulate breathing and takes our minds off of the fact we’re running. Being outside with no screens, no homework hassle, no restraints of having to get certain things done by a certain time, allows a total freedom that children thrive on. How often as an adult do you find yourself saying to your child “I just have to do this” or “Wait a moment” when they’re trying to tell you something? We’re all guilty of being too busy to listen at times, but with running there’s none of that, it’s all about spending quality time together, listening and enjoying each other’s company. What better relationship builder can there be than that?!
I’m so grateful that we have this time together and really look forward to those Sunday morning runs. Finlay has also joined the school’s running club at lunchtime and it’s clear from his slender frame, boundless energy and legs as long as his armpits that he was built to run. I’m also hoping to take my 6 year old daughter out again at some point, she’s been out with me once so far on a much shorter, much flatter run and really enjoyed herself and I hope we can share the same running relationship that I have built up with Finlay. The only thing that worries me is that it won’t be long and I’ll be the one holding them up, I’ll be the one asking to stop to catch my breath, the one who’s moaning about how far it is and that my legs ache, but until then I’m enjoying every single step!
If you don’t fancy running alone with your child and would feel more confident running in a group or at an organised event, there are plenty of opportunities out there:
Park Run also organise free weekly 5k runs in various parkland locations that children are allowed to take part in with an accompanying adult, which is a safe and easy opportunity for people of all abilities to enjoy running within a community.
Kids Run Free also organises fun, running based activities for children in local parks and schools across the country. They currently have two children’s running programmes – Kids Run Free Running Races and Kids’ Marathon.
We’d love to hear about your experiences of running with children, so get in touch. Either send us an email to email@example.com, comment on this post or join us on Facebook @thisishealthyliving, Twitter @ArtHealthLiving and Instagram @arthealthyliving
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