Running is a view of life through a wide-angle lens, with so much to see, to experience, to discover. It is the hours runners invest to be athletic, to recharge their batteries; to process the intrinsic experiences that cause them to want to come back, to continue running. Paraphrasing running author Jonathan Beverly, these are the experiences that keep runners hungry.
Youth running shouldn’t be any different. It rests on the shoulders of adults, those who work with young runners, to promote a vision of running through a wide-angle lens; through the discovery that running is an experience to be realized, not just laps around the playground or completing a local 5K. That running is more than a clock telling them it is time to run; and that running fast is good but discovering how to run fast is even better.
DISCOVERY IS EVERYWHERE
For kids in running clubs, or who run with a parent, the opportunities for them to run in different places are limited only by the coach’s or parent’s imagination. For urban kids, it could be running single file on narrow dirt trails through a woodlot. For rural kids, it might be running in city parks in neighborhoods where they have never been. Or it could be simply making up the route on the run; a decision at each intersection.
Also, let kids discover running on a school playground other than their own school, or explore the walks and trails of a local college campus or a destination run, starting in one place, ending in another. On winter days, when the roads are covered with snow, it could be running up and down three of four flights of stairs; running laps in an empty parking ramp on a weekend; or walking back and forth in knee deep snow in the backyard.
And, of course, plan your runs on different surfaces -– grass; dirt trails; a synthetic running track; sidewalks or an asphalt bike path; or even on a treadmill (supervised, please); or on courses offering plenty of twists, turns and hills to be negotiated.
DISCOVERY HAS NO CLOCK
Help children experience running at different times of the day: early in the morning on weekends when their friends are still in bed; or in the evening under the streetlights (with an adult, of course). If it is raining, all the better! Most kids are not afraid to run in the rain. It is the adults who cancel runs. Please don’t! Just let them run. It is all part of discovery.
For elementary classrooms, teachers have times allocated for each subject, even recess. Occasionally, however, let running be spontaneous rather than when the clock says it is time to run. Maybe first thing in the morning to get the kids moving, alert for class, or when the class has completed a difficult assignment and could use a break.
For some schools, running is no longer seen only as a recess or PE activity, but that exercise has an influence on how children learn. In 2004, Naperville Central High School in Illinois started an early morning fitness program. As expected, fitness levels of participants improved. But what caught everyone’s attention was the rise in academic test scores that pointed to physical activity as having a positive influence on memory, concentration and classroom behavior.
Educators also point to research reported by Dr. John J. Ratey, Harvard University Medical School, which explains the science connecting exercise and how the brain performs in areas of alertness, attention, motivation and retaining information. Today, early (before school) running and fitness initiatives are growing.
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DISCOVERY IS MORE THAN COUNTING LAPS
Destination runs and trekking through a college campus or exploring trails through the woods are great, but they just don’t apply to running during recess or PE class. For teachers wanting to do more, start with making simple changes; the little things we should have been doing all along, like creating ways to make running laps around the playground less like “hamstering,” going in the same circles, seeing the same scenery day after day. Let’s start with simply changing the direction the kids run on alternate days or creating a second loop and switch between the two loops every few days.
Use different colored cones to establish a run zone, a sprint zone, and a recovery zone (walk or jog). Sure, the kids will still be running laps but just by having them run hard and then recover before they run hard again is integral to discovery. Or incorporate other activities into the run, such as creating a skipping zone, zigzagging quickly around cones, or starting and finishing near the playground equipment with children going across the horizontal ladder each time they complete a lap. Or maybe even running in pairs playing follow the leader.
Another good choice is creating relays, starting with a simple two-person relay. Establish an “exchange zone” where the second runner can take off when the first runner enters the exchange zone. This makes it safer and less congested than passing a baton or touching hands. If it is a mileage-based program, all the teacher or volunteer needs to do is count the laps, divide by two, and give the kids credit for the laps they ran. Sounds easy? It is!
Better yet, work with a volunteer parent to create special runs once a week, those that kids look forward to. For great ideas, check out FUN & FITNESS – THE MILEAGE CLUB® WAY, (link below). One could be a Spokes of the Wheel Run with five to six out-and-back routes each around a landmark or cone (the spokes), with each runner coming back to the starting point -- the hub -- before moving to the next spoke.
For the Cloverleaf Run, set up three good size teardrop-shaped loops that all come together where the teacher or coach is stationed. The instructions are simple. First, this is a 20-minute timed run (or 15 minutes and with smaller loops for younger runners). No one is counting laps. Second, the runners are free to complete any loop, in any order, and going in any direction they want until the whistle blows ending the run. One runner might go clockwise on Loop A, counterclockwise twice on Loop B, then back again to Loop A before going to Loop C. Yes, there will be kids going in every direction, but that’s what makes it fun.
DISCOVERY AND RUNNING FAST
Today, children’s running is largely measured by miles logged on the school playground or runs with mom or dad in preparation for some FUN RUN or a 5K. What is too often missing is kids running fast. Not the last 100 yards in a half mile or mile but running fast for a short distance.
When kids don’t routinely run fast, their body does not make an adaptation necessary to run fast. And running fast is central to running. If children want to run fast, they simply need to run fast occasionally.
For young runners, short acceleration runs, hitting three-quarter speed for maybe only 20 yards before backing off, is a good starting point. The short “pick-ups” permits the coach and the runner to concentrate on form and with young runners, learning the proper form for running fast is as important as is running fast.
· moving the arms forward and back “cheek to cheek” (face to hips)
· keeping the chin up and looking forward
· short, very quick strides -- not reaching out, but pushing off
· pumping the arms to make the legs move faster
· standing tall with forward lean from the ankles, not from the waist
· running on the balls of the feet (no heel strike)
· hands, shoulders and face are relaxed
When thinking of speed, think of short relays like down-and-back shuttle relays, either in the gym or out on the playground. In a shuttle relay the runners don’t pass a baton. When the first runner crosses the start/finish line, the next runner goes.
With “speed” relays, runners need to be sharp, ready to explode, ready to run fast. This means avoiding relays where children run again and again with little rest between efforts. These build endurance, not speed.
The Journal of Youth Running is supported by the
MICHIGAN RUNNING FOUNDATION