Tips on how to help children discover running, take ownership,
set goals and to continue running.


The promise of a T-shirt, water bottle or a finisher’s medal will get kids running, but such rewards will not keep kids running, at least not for long. It takes more. It takes providing kids with experiences that cause them to want to run. 



Discover Running

For parents, be sure to not let your running be the only running your children see. If you run on the roads, great, but find someone willing to work with your kids on shorter track distances. If you were a sprinter at one time, let a trail runner work with them for a while. And let them experience running in the early morning or even after dark and never let a little rain cause a run to be canceled. Also, allow them to discover running on different terrain and on grass and on a synthetic track, not just on asphalt or concrete sidewalks. Mix it up; never repeat the run from yesterday or only occasionally one from the week before.

Take them to a track or cross country meet. If there is one for middle school runners, that works best. Why? Because the kids will be able to better identify with those runners than they will at a high school or college meet. Watching kids who are just a little older than they are triggers “that could be me” motivation. If it is a cross country meet, let the kids do a run somewhere on the same course after the race is finished.


Use of Motivators

When children run because of the feeling of satisfaction and the simple enjoyment they get out of it, they are intrinsically motivated. Bravo! This is as it should be. But, we must recognize that opportunities to earn a water bottle, T-shirt or Feelin’ Good Mileage Club® Toe Tokens™ - extrinsic motivators - have gotten millions of children running.

The question is not whether extrinsic motivators are good for running. The question is what extrinsic motivators are appropriate for young children and what role do such rewards play in motivating them?

There are three simple rules here. First, anything and everything has to be earned. No one gets a reward just for showing up. Second, always keep the motivator fairly simple, at the very low end of what is a tangible reward. Third, when using extrinsic motivators, even the very low-end kind, recognize they tend to lose their value if overused.


Goal Setting for Kids

It is never too early for children to start setting goals and working to accomplish them, provided they are appropriate goals. For young runners, identify a simple goal for each run and help them master it, all in one practice. Doing a circuit three times on one night and setting a goal of doing it four times a week later also is a doable goal, one that most young children can understand and relate to. Big goals, like running a 5K even before they can run a half-mile, are too hard for kids to visualize and too far in the future to have any meaning.

Setting and meeting goals are integral to experiencing success and need to include both team and individual goals. Some children may not be ready to run as far as others, but together they can set team records for how many laps they completed on a favorite course. Congratulate them, give high-fives, shake hands, or whatever else conveys your support for a job well done, for doing what they were trying to do.


Keeping Kids Running

When planning a running program for children, first think along the lines of letting running become a simple pattern in the life of the child, not some form of commitment or expectation. Allow running to come in and out of their life alongside all the other things that children experience in a similar way. The kids come, run, have fun, renew friendships and then go off and do something else for a while before running again.

Consider organizing a series of runs tied to each season of the year, each designed to keep kids excited about running and each offering a new challenge. At a summer run, tell them about the nighttime flashlight run they can do in October or the evening run to see the lighting of the town Christmas tree in December. Let the kids know what is coming, pump them up a little, but then give them some time away from running so when they come back, they come back energized and ready to go.


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