RUNNING SHORTS highlight a wide range of subjects related to youth and running. Some postings apply to young children, those still in elementary school, others to middle school and high school aged youth. To keep this dialogue going, we encourage our readers to tell us what they are doing to help youth get fit; to have goals; to discover running does not stop just because the school year ends. You can email us using the link on the ABOUT US page.
PR NIGHT IN GRAND RAPIDS MI
From Dan Ebright, Cross Country and Track and Field coach at Grand Rapids (Mich.) Ottawa Hills High School, comes a distance-only track meet. 800, 1600, 3200, both boys and girls. No hurdles, no jumps, no starting blocks. At the end of the season. The week before the state finals. 2021.
His thinking was that after spring break, teams are typically focusing on the conference, regional and state meets. The runners are in their best shape of the season yet, for some, those who may not make it to the starting line in the big meets, the season is, in reality, over. The chance to set PRs is gone. For others, those running in both individual and relay races in the big meets, PRs may be sacrificed for points.
Dan wanted to give kids in west Michigan and, as it turned out, kids from schools across the state, another opportunity to compete. To set their PR. PRs to shoot for next year. For others, to remember that on that day and on that track, they ran their fastest.
Dan also felt the late season distance-only format would keep runners, from the slowest to the fastest, engaged in their team’s success all the way through the end of the season.
But this year’s track season was ending. It was May15. But Dan wanted to give it a try. May 29 was the only open date. With invites sent to schools through athletic.net and by word of mouth, Distance Night at the CAT was a GO. CAT being the Grand Rapids Catholic Central’s athletic complex. Six races, some in heats. In the evening with cooler temperatures.
Twenty-four schools showed up. 150 runners -- 111 setting PRs. Seventy-four percent! Eighty-two percent PRs in the boys 1600.
Congratulations, Dan. Great concept!
RESEARCH: OFF-SEASON TRAINING
Youth running is mostly seasonal. Track in the spring, cross country in the fall. Yes, for older kids, the seasons blend, with indoor meets filling the winter gap and road races in the summer. But, for most runners, mileage goals in the off-season are used to build the foundation going into the next season.
According to one study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, there may be something better. The premise is runners being fit at the end of the season, and the goal being to maintain that level of fitness rather than falling back and rebuilding it. Central to this is continuing with “intense workouts” before fitness is lost, but only two days a week. The other days are one moderately long day with the others being recovery days, meaning easy running with one or two days off.
This plan touts that runners will be fit and ready to go on the first official day of practice as they were when they left, but also mentally and physically fresh, energized, confident, ready for their training to reach a higher level.
The researchers pass on defining “intensity,” understanding that intensity changes from each individual. For some, it could be repeat 400s. Or it could be five minutes of intense effort (a 200 at early season 800 race pace, a strengthening exercise, another 200, another exercise, a third 200). When the dumbbells hit the ground, the runner takes off. Bang. Bang, Bang. Then a reasonable recovery before doing it again, maybe two or three times more, with a different strengthening activity in the interval between runs.
Although not noted in the research, intensity also is mental; coming to practice ready to be challenged, to go beyond what they did in the past. This starts with pledging to not let up, to not slow down, to push out one more push-up when the body says stop. Not because the coach demands it, but the runners expects it of themselves.
PARKRUNS ARE BACK
Sebastian (Seb) Coe is twice Olympic Champion at 1500 meters (1980 and 1984), world record holder in the 800 meters and mile (1981), and now president of World Athletics, the governing body of international track and field. As the doors that were closed by Covid-19 begin to reopen, Coe is pushing the return of parkruns, a mainstay in running in the United Kingdom and now around the world.
The parkrun format is simple. A timed 5K, run on the same course each week, free, and open to anyone. No entry fees. No separate entry form for each run. No age divisions, no T-shirts for just entering, and no tangible awards (no medals or trophies). What parkruns do have is more than six million runners and walkers worldwide with an event going off every Saturday morning at 11 a.m. local time at more than 1,900 locations.
Venues include city, county, state and national parks, forest trails, nature preserves and even, reportedly, a prison or two. Parkruns appeal to the fast runners, but even more so to the middle of the pack runners, the young and the old, the families that alternate jogging and walking. Even those pushing a stroller. Coining a phrase of the 1970s, parkruns are a Happening.
To join, runners simply register on the parkrun website. Once in the system they receive and printout a personal barcode. For convenience, most put the barcode on a wrist band. Entries need to register just once. Not for just that year, but forever. Seriously!
The most important data recorded at the finish line is collected by scanning the barcode proving the runner as having completed the course. Why? Because those who complete the "milestones" of 50, 100, 250 or 500 separate parkruns are awarded a color-coded T-shirt with the number on the back representing the “Club” they are in – the 50-Run Club, the 250-Run Club, etc. The global record holder for the highest number of parkruns is Darren Wood with 766 runs (as of the date of publication).
For more, check out these sites:
CHALLENGE RUNS MEET BACKYARD ULTRA MARATHONS
Some months ago, we posted CHALLENGE RUNS. It features runs that youth can embrace as a personal challenge. Not a race or even a team run, but individual challenges.
Perhaps the simplest of the challenges is running just five minutes, or maybe a quarter or half mile, but repeating it once every hour. Whatever number of runs the runner finished in succession becomes their PR to be challenged the next time. A quarter mile loop run once every hour for 12 hours -- 9am to 8pm -- is a challenge but not out of reach for young runners in good condition. For more experienced runners -- those in top condition -- it might be every hour for 20 hours or even 24 hours.
Now imagine a variation of this as an event, a race. Meet the Ohio Backyard Ultra Marathon.
In the Ohio run, runners have one hour to complete a 4.1mile trail/cross-country type circuit.
Those who make it back before the hour is up can rest a few minutes before starting the same circuit going off 60 minutes after starting the first run. Anyone who fails to complete any lap of the course in an hour will simply not be there to toe the starting line for the next run. They are recorded as DNF. Only the last man or woman standing is credited as finishing the race. In 2021, it was Ohio’s Harvey Lewis, 44, who completed 55 laps, one each hour on the 4.1-mile course, with a final distance of just over 228 miles. Second place was Jennifer Russo, 55, also from Ohio, who pushed Lewis for 54 laps. Her reward was intrinsic. Yes, she outdistanced the other 96 competitors, but was still a DNF.
BUYING THE RIGHT SHOES FOR YOUNG RUNNERS
Young runners need shoes that support the mechanics of running. Shoes that are not broken down, that fit properly and provide the right type of support for the child. Some coaches draw up a one-page guide to help parents get the right shoes for their runner. Here is what they generally include.
• Start with a store that specializes in running shoes, one where runners likely work. And take your child’s favorite (well worn) playground shoes with you. Explain what type of running your child does and hand the salesperson the shoes you brought. A knowledgeable salesperson will look for wear patterns that will tell them a lot about what your child needs.
• When the salesperson pulls a pair of shoes off the shelf, ask what that pair offers that others do not. If you get an answer that makes reasonable sense, you are probably in the right store. Next, wait for the salesperson to ask your child to run in the shoes he or she suggests, even if only a few yards. Some stores even have a treadmill. The salesperson will watch from behind and may do this again with another pair of shoes.
• Running shoes are designed for forward movement and that is what they should be used for: going forward, as in running. Using them for tennis or basketball, where lateral movement is called for, may cause a turned ankle which is not good. On top of that, using running shoes for everyday use shortens the structural integrity of the shoe, defeating the reason you bought them in the first place.
• For children, whose feet are collapsing inward (overpronation), a “stability-rated” shoe is an option. If the child’s foot continues to collapse inward when running, then orthotics become a consideration. In that case, consult an orthopedic physician or a podiatrist who regularly treats children. They are the experts. Understand, however, that many podiatrists discourage orthotics except in extreme cases of overpronation. The concern is that the support the orthotic offers may restrict the natural strengthening of the young runner’s foot and ankle.
A "GOLDEN NURTURING OPPORTUNITY"
Judith Brown Clarke, Ph.D., 1984 Olympic silver medalist in the 400 meter hurdles, Sports Illustrated Track and Field Sportsperson of the Year (1987), and member of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency Board, has something to offer us on children’s running.
Now, decades after her stardom on the track, Clarke sees running as more than fast times and medals won. As a parent (now of adults), Clarke sees running as a golden nurturing opportunity. She says it starts with parents asking themselves what they want for their child. Is it a top finish in some children’s race? Or is it a strong, independent, physically active, confident child, endowed with the lifelong tools to succeed, to be healthy, to be productive?
According to Clarke, running gives children tools they can use for a lifetime. It is through running that children learn self-discipline and set and achieve their goals. It is through running they can find what Clarke says is “positive time,” that which allows them to reflect, to learn and to grow; to experience both success and disappointment and grow from each.
Clarke is, of course, right. Nurturing starts with parents promoting running as an experience, a journey, a learning opportunity, not an outcome: not an award, or a finishing time, or where the child placed in some race.
Dr. Clarke, thanks for sharing this with us! To learn more about Judi Brown Clarke, visit
TIME WELL SPENT
For young runners, and those who are new to running, having more time in the summer does not mean they should add more distance to what they have been doing. Yes, once a week maybe, but not every day. Instead, exercising for just a half an hour twice a day, each time with a purpose, would produce better results.
Consider encouraging them to do a short run in the morning at a comfortable pace followed by a few strengthening exercises and stretching before showering and a healthy breakfast. In the afternoon or early evening, try a second short run with a few repeats, or maybe some hill-work every few days. Add some drills and core exercises and call it good. This routine will strengthen all aspects of running, making the runner ready to go both longer and faster when starting school in the fall. Best yet, without the fatigue from a long run, the rest of the day will likely be more productive.
SPORTS SPECIALIZATION AND RUNNING
Today’s youth are moving away from seasonal sports in favor of competing in just one sport year-round. Why? Because the child, their parents, and too often the coaches, believe year-round participation is the key to being a star player. Youth soccer is the most visible and the most problematic, but soccer is not alone.
The enhanced risk of injury, the result of playing one sport year-round, is well documented*. Not the broken bones of contact sports but the result of repeated stress placed on immature tendons, bones and ligaments, the overuse injuries. Running, and particularly at the longer distances, with training and racing in the off-season, is textbook specialization. In one study, girls’ cross country was near the top in stress fractures and soft tissue injuries in all sports.
If our kids choose to go the single-sport route, we need to at least influence them to put cross-training into every running session. But that is just a start. Let’s think bigger. Start by seeing the off-season not as a time to build mileage but to reduce the risk of injury, to build strength, to come into the next season fresh, ready to do the work, anxious to run.
Thinking creative, consider fashioning the off-season as an inner-squad sport; one where every member’s improvement moves the team closer to some team goal. Think CrossFit style workouts and Ninja Warrior style courses; think personal and team “challenge events”, where every young athlete’s performance (strength, agility, technique, coordination) counts in the team score. Think “open house” events allowing the team to show off new muscles for mom and dad. A team with an honors night at the end of the season, recognizing the progress made by every member.
* For more on specialization and injury, check out
EARLY SPEED AND LONGEVITY
Jonathan Beverly, Editor-in-Chief of PodiumRunner.com and author of Your Best Stride and Run Strong, Stay Hungry, offers us a perspective on the role talent, fast times and high finishes by young runners play in longevity and future success in the sport. This perspective is drawn from veteran runners looking back on their own careers.
Beverly writes, “I’ve now coached high school kids long enough to see a generation of them grow up. One thing I have learned is that those who continue running into their adult lives often are not the ones you expect to.
“The state champions, the school record setters, the ones with the most medals and trophies at their graduation receptions often no longer run. The ones who are still running at age 25 or 30 and beyond tend to have been number four or five on the team, or even runners who never placed. The girl who didn’t run track but trained by herself and ran a half-marathon in high school is more likely to be on a starting line a decade later than the one who in seventh grade was setting records.
“Knowing this, I should not have been surprised by what I heard in scores of interviews with lifetime competitors about their own humble beginnings and their perspectives on their abilities. But I was. It is hard not to be dazzled by what they have accomplished in running, how high they have climbed and how fast they still are. But nearly without exception, these runners told me that they were never that good, or if good, not by any means great.”
For more from Jonathan Beverly, check out https://www.jonathanbeverly.com/
Amby (Ambrose) Burfoot is Mr. Running. A winner of the Boston Marathon; long time editor-in-chief of Runner’s World magazine; an honored journalist and author of seven books; a popular speaker and an online coach. His website, Lifetime Running, lets veteran runners share their story; the winners, and the also rans. Those who will not let age stop them.
Here, he shares with runners a message we all should embrace, especially parents and coaches of young runners.
“In running, it doesn't matter how fast or slow you are relative to anyone else. You set your
own pace and you measure your own progress. You cannot lose this race because you are
not running against anyone else. You're only running against yourself, and as long as you
are running, you are winning.”
For young runners, reaching their potential will be years away. Sure, there are 10- and 12-year-olds racing with adults and posting fast times, but that is nothing new. And it is not an indicator of future success. For most young runners, it is a time to grow; to gain strength; to accept new challenges and cope with disappointments; to build on small successes. Some may become great runners. For others, it will be the pursuit of PRs or a proud display of finisher’s medals. But those are in the future. For now, pay attention to what Amby Burfoot has to offer. Youth should be focusing on setting their own pace; allowing time to grow, to get strong, to simply go a little farther or a little faster than last week or last month. That is what youth running should be about.
Douglas Finley, editor
MAKE GETTING STRONG FUN
It takes more than running to be a good runner. It takes strength to run fast. It takes working through a full range of motion and strengthening opposing muscle groups to reduce the risk of injury. It takes being athletic, being durable. Some of this is gained through running itself; others through dynamic stretching; and, of course, doing drills and strengthening exercises. For some, it is the exercise part that gets the least attention. Maybe because it is not as much fun.
For kids in a team environment, start with having them run circuits around the playground. Between each circuit have them draw a card from a deck of ordinary playing cards. Have a “scoresheet” which tells what exercise they must do determined by the card they hold. Drawing a Six of Diamonds could call for doing hip raises for the glutes and lower back. A Four of Spades could be forward leg swings for the hip flexors. The coach will assign the number of reps or distance or time based on their knowledge of what the child can do.
For fun, throw in a few gag cards, like the Jack of Clubs, where the cardholder must recite a nursery rhyme while doing push-ups, or the Two of Hearts that when the exercise is completed the card can be passed to another runner who also must do the exercise. Any Ace calls for doing the exercise and then drawing a second card and doing that exercise. Hint: Out of 52 cards, five could be some version of crunches, etc. For more ideas, check out STRONG YOUNG RUNNERS on this website.
POSTAL CROSS COUNTRY - AN OLDIE REVISITED
Long before the NIKE Cross Nationals, it was Track & Field News that annually recognized a high school cross country team as being the best in the country, the Postal National Champion. That dates back to 1959. At that time, it was boys only. Gender equity in sports was still a long way off.
Teams would hold a two-mile intra-squad time trial on their track. The coach would add the individual times of the top five runners to determine a finishing time for the team. The results were mailed to T&FN. The team with the fastest finishing time was crowned champion. In its simplicity, the Postal National's was a huge success. By 1979, postal competitions gave way to FOOTLOCKER and later to the NIKE Cross Nationals. But now comes Covid-19.
Cross Country coaches at every level are looking for something different, something novel, something kids will have fun with. For starters, check out the HOKA ONE ONE Postal Nationals. Or create your own e-postal competition. To offset the loss of big invitational meets, make the intra-squad race an important event, complete with banners, a chute, the theme from Rocky and Chariots of Fire booming over a P. A. system, and posting video of the run on social media. Maybe even do it at night under the lights. Also, consider putting runners who finish outside the top five onto a second or third postal team.
SETTING THE EXAMPLE
Tom Rothenberger, esteemed coach at Jesuit High School in Portland, Oregon, believes parents possess the single best tool to get children to be more active, to be physically fit, to be healthy. It is a tool built on helping children enjoy being outdoors, getting exercise, but never being pressured, and certainly not rewarded for it. It is simply parents setting the example; by demonstrating that being active, being physically fit, are family values.
Rothenberger suggests parents who are not athletic themselves can still send a message that fitness is important by simply walking around the track or park while their child is running. The same is true by planning healthy meals and cutting out the unhealthy snacks. For a parent that runs, create opportunities to run as a family. When parents do this, they need to make sure it is the child’s run, not just a scaled back version of what they do. Best yet, let the child decide what the run will be. If they want to do an obstacle course, so be it. Just do the best you can, but don't get hurt!
Working one-on-one or in small groups is a perfect opportunity to teach kids the skill of pacing. All you need is a watch. For young runners, place a marker 20 to 30 meters from a starting line. Tell the runner to run around the marker and back at a comfortable speed. Time them, record their time, and allow a few minutes for the runner to fully recover. Then challenge the runner to run the course in the same time, down to the very second. When they do this successfully, great. But doing it once is not the goal. The goal is consistency. When they hit their target time four or five times in a row, reward them by adding some distance and starting over.
Next, create two loops of different lengths. The first being relatively short, maybe a minute or just slightly longer to complete. The second is three or four times as long and includes possibly a small hill or an in route change in the running surface. Have your runner run the first loop, recover, and then run the second loop. Record their times. The challenge is to run each loop in the same time as the first time, or at least within two or three seconds on the longer loop. If you allowed three minutes to recover between each run the first time, stick to it. Again, when the runner hits both their times consistently, add distance (or some variation to the course) and start over.
COACHING PACE (CONTINUED)
Learning pace should be an ongoing part of a young runner’s training. Hitting target times over progressively longer distances (see last posting) is the beginning. Next, introduce a Prediction Run. Pick a course the runner is familiar with, run it once and record their time. Do it again a week later. Before they run the course a third time have the runner predict their finishing time using their past times as a guide. Only one rule: no wristwatch and no one yelling out times. If their finishing time is nowhere near their predicted time -- either fast or slow -- see if they can tell you why. But do not stop there. Make prediction runs a regular part of your runner’s routine; some at shorter distances and some longer.
Now, combine pace running with team running. For those who have been working on individual pacing, set a marker at 40 meters from a starting point. Form small teams of three or four runners. Have them run around the marker and back to the start, finishing together. Not in single file, but like a photo finish. Record their time. Now, challenge them to finish together in the same time, every time. Once they do it four or five times, extend the marker out 10 meters and start over. Later, encourage them to push the pace slightly on the first trial and try to match that pace each time.
A NEEDED BREAK FROM BEING SERIOUS
Underdog was an animated television series that ran for close to 10 years dating back to the mid-1960s. The Underdog character, in his blue cape with a U on his chest, sped to the scene wherever danger waited. Often it was just in time to save his love interest, Sweet Polly, from being victimized by the dastardly Simon Bar Sinister or the villain, Riff Raff. The show’s title song, Underdog, was etched in the memory of millions of loyal watchers.
In 2014, Reebok took the show’s title song and incorporated it into a running shoe ad. It gets rmy vote for the best running shoe commercial ever. Living in Evanston, lllinois, and frequently using Chicago’s mass transit system, I can visualize Underdog in his Reeboks and cape chasing across the city to save Sweet Polly. Check it out at…
RUN FOR JUSTICE
Our justice system is being challenged. To many, it is neither fair nor equal. And social injustices never seem to be addressed. What we see on television is troubling to adults, but even more so to kids. The images are confusing, even scary. For children of color, it is worse, much worse.
One way to help children deal with all of this is to get them involved. To let them do something to help America heal, to go forward. It starts by simply encouraging them to go out for a run. A special run, a run with a purpose. There is just such a run in your hometown, and every hometown in America. The virtual RUN FOR JUSTICE. It is not a 5K but whatever distance each runner is comfortable with. And there is no registration fee or T-shirt or starting time. It is just putting on running shoes and going out the front door. It is running for a cause; for justice; so everyone can realize the American dream.
GEORGE SHEEHAN ON PLAY
The late George Sheehan, a lifelong runner, physician, past medical editor of Runner’s World magazine, and author of eight best-selling books on running, told us the realization of fitness comes through play. According to Sheehan, we, young and old alike, need to make exercise our play since it is through play that we can realize fitness. “Play, you see, is the process,” Sheehan said. “Fitness is merely the product.”
For seasoned runners, 10 times 800 meters, each at target pace, might be play. It was for the author. Or running a marathon might be play. For youth, play are runs that offer doable challenges, runs that stimulate, runs that kids finish with a smile, runs that are absent of pressure and adult expectations. These were Sheehan’s prescription for fitness. And now, when fun and play are dampened by the pandemic, Sheehan’s words definitely ring true. Play should define our running, for all of us, young and old.
TREADMILLS AND KIDS
Parents confronted with a stay-at-home mandate may see the treadmill in the basement as a way to get children active, moving, even running. Before parents make that decision, they should know that in the U.S. alone some 24,000 children under the age of 14 are injured on a treadmill every year. 24,000! Although some are infants or preschoolers, most are injuries to older children, the result of unsupervised or permissive use of the treadmill. Simply stated, when kids play on a treadmill, are showing off, or setting the speed faster than what they can run, they are likely to get injured. If the parent allows their child to use the treadmill, it goes with the responsibility of always being present, watching, vigilant, knowing that their child is using it safely.
For families, consider a parent and child Destination Run. Start at home or drive to some midpoint and go by foot the rest of the way. Maybe to a local landmark or the neighborhood where you once lived. If grandma and grandpa live nearby, they would be overjoyed to see their family, even if only through glass. And make it the child’s day. Parents can talk with each other anytime. A dialog that includes the child will make the distance seem shorter and the child’s memory of the day, longer.
FOR INSPIRATION TODAY
If you need a little inspiration today, check out PODIUM RUNNER at https://www.podiumrunner.com/culture/terry-foxs-transformational-run/.
The Journal of Youth Running is supported by the
MICHIGAN RUNNING FOUNDATION