Running fast was how children played in generations past. They would catch their breath and off they would go, full speed ahead. Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run, recalls being yelled at to slow down. But slowing down was not fun. Going all out was good for kids. It improved cardiovascular fitness, burnt calories and built muscle.
Then air conditioning gave birth to the indoor play generation, and later, computer games replaced the need to run fast -- someone on the screen was running for us. In response, adults created the mileage-based programs in schools, with kids jogging and counting laps around the playground as the weapon of choice in a war against childhood obesity.
Today, kids’ running is mostly built on an adult model, with mileage as the cornerstone of all running. What got lost is the fun and the physical benefits of running fast. As coaches and parents, we need to put running fast back into children’s running. Short bursts, games where speed is the premium, hill running, going to the local track, learning good form for running fast.
“For children, the miles run on the school playground contribute to a healthy,
active lifestyle, but so does going full speed. Going fast is energizing. It makes running FUN!"
Charles Kuntzleman, EdD
Mileage Club® co-founder, Author of 80 books on fitness
TEACH MECHANICS FIRST
When kids do not routinely run fast their body does not make an adaptation necessary to run fast. Simply stated, if children want to run fast, they need to practice running fast. It all starts with the mechanics, the precursor to speed.
For youth, learning mechanics starts with doing pickup runs, hitting three-quarter speed for 20 to 30 meters. This is fast enough to affect the adaptation in the muscles. But most importantly, these allow the runner to concentrate on good mechanics, to feel the body doing what the mind tells it to do:
· move the arms forward and back (not across the body)
· keep the head up and look forward
· pump the arms to make the legs move faster
· stand tall with a slight forward lean, but not from the waist
· focus on turn-over; powering through the full range of motion
· do not over stride
· keep the hands, shoulders and face relaxed
For young runners, teaching speed is as much about recovery as it is about running fast. This means staying away from relays or “repeats” where they run again and again with little rest between runs. These build endurance, not speed. To run fast, the runner needs to recover, to be sharp, ready to explode, ready to run fast.
RELAYS AND GAMES
For young runners, short relays and games are perfect for building speed and best yet they make running fast, child’s play. Runs like short SHUTTLE RUNS where the runner sprints from point A to point B, bends down and picks up a small object, sprints back to point A, places the object on the ground, turns and goes back to point B and retrieves a second object, turns again and finishes by placing it on the ground at point A. This is bang-bang-bang, going all-out, all-the-way. Again, allow the runner(s) to fully recover before doing it again.
Another is a THREE-PERSON CONTINUOUS SPRINT RELAY. For this, divide your runners into three-person teams. Spread the teams out so that each team has their own lane or alley in which to run. Station two runners at point A and one at point B, 20± meters away. Runner #1 at point A runs to point B and tags the hand of outgoing Runner #2, who then runs to point A and tags Runner #3, who runs to point B to tag Runner #1, starting a second cycle. To build speed, complete 2-3 cycles max before a full recovery.
“Why should I practice running slow? I already know how to run slow.
I want to learn to run fast.”
Considered by many the greatest distance runner in Olympic history.
Drills are great for getting kids athletic, quick, ready to run fast. Just ask Dave Emeott, Track and Field Coach at Michigan’s East Kentwood High School (D1 team state champions seven of the last 10 years). For young runners, Coach Emeott suggests starting with the very basics: exaggerated high knee walking, running butt kicks and skipping with high knees. Another is walking and later running up a short flight of stairs. For new runners, entire workouts can be committed to simply stairs and drills.
In Emeott’s program, form comes first and then speed, starting with toes pointed up (not “dangling”), hands open and moving from “cheek to cheek” (hips to face), standing tall and staying on the balls of the feet. For readers not familiar with these and other drills, check out Running Drills on YouTube.
“Quick Feet” drills activate the fast twitch muscles of the legs. For beginners, think of essentially running in place (knees coming up and on the balls of the feet) with the addition of stepping across and back a chalk or painted line using very short and very quick steps. A rapid tap-tap-tap sound will tell you the runner is doing it correctly.
Often runners use what is called an agility or speed ladder (plastic rope ladder) that is placed on the floor so the runner can step in and out of each opening. Do a search on YouTube for good visuals. Others use something called Poly Spots or just draw 12-inch squares with chalk on the asphalt.
Caution: Internet postings typically use well-conditioned adults to demonstrate the speed ladder technique. Do not expect children to do anything close to what they can do. Also, Quick Feet requires coordination. Watch for kids who are having difficulty and suggest they simply run in place.
Speed can be easily incorporated into a school mileage program by simply placing three cones 20 meters apart somewhere on the course. When children come to the first cone, they gradually accelerate to the second cone. From the second to third cone it is top speed. On passing the third cone they gradually back down to a pace that allows full recovery before coming around again.
DIFFERENT FROM SPRINTING
Running fast is not a sport, but running fast, i.e., speed, plays a central role in nearly all sports, even long-distance running. Sprinting, as in Track and Field, is a sport. The 50-, 100-, 200- meter distances. Sprinting at a high level, even for youth and teens, is part genetic, part technical, and always demanding. If there is a Youth Track Club or a summer program offered by a veteran high school coach in your region, start there. But understand sprinting gets incredibly competitive and amazingly fast.
Building muscle is important to running fast, but that does not mean kids should spend time in the gym lifting weights. Leave that for when they get older. For young runners, try sets of a short run at 75 percent speed followed quickly by one or two body weight exercises or stretches. Pause a minute, walk back to the start, and do it again, but with different exercises or stretches each time. Work on strengthening the abdominal and oblique muscles, the lower back, the shoulders and arms, the hamstrings, the gluteal muscles, and muscles that lift the knee - the hip-flexor muscle group. For more, check out Strong Young Runners posted on this website. Also, Jeff Horowitz's book, Quick Strength For Runners.
The Journal of Youth Running is supported by the
MICHIGAN RUNNING FOUNDATION