Distance Running with Kids Part 1

Running with kids

Distance Running with Kids Part 1

When practiced safely, Distance Running with kids proves popular

The advantages of distance running for kids —here defined as an ad hoc cardiovascular-based physical activity where running is the primary means of propulsion—include improved cardiovascular fitness and respiratory health, strengthening bones and muscles, improved body composition, possible mood and self-esteem boosting, and disease prevention (Noakes, 2003). 

Due to three widespread misconceptions about distance running for kids, some practitioners are hesitant to incorporate distance running into their programs for elementary-aged children (ages 5 to 11):

(1) it is not enjoyable for them

(2) they are not physically prepared for distance running(i.e., it is unsafe)

(3) they will become mentally “burned out” from distance running.

But with the right planning, distance running for kids may be a long-term, risk-free activity for students in primary school.

Having fun?

Many adults think that long-distance running for kids is just not enjoyable for children their age. The first author, who had previously taught physical education in elementary schools and coached cross-country in high schools, would often encounter mocking remarks from the assistant principal regarding his attempts to encourage distance running for kids in his kindergarten class through distance run/walk activities.

When they think back on their own past experiences in sports or physical education, some people may experience anxiety, especially if those regrettable recollections entail running. But distance kids running for kids can be enjoyable, as many elementary school physical education teachers are aware. “When given the possibility, children [run] as their preferred method of getting from one area to another” (Gallahue & Donnelly, 2007, p. 450).

Look at any child’s face during a tag game, or simply watch children chase each other at recess. Perhaps running, not baseball is a child’s favorite pastime. It appears that at some point in their lives, distance running for kids ceases to be enjoyable.

  • Maybe it is due to physical education teachers or coaches inappropriately using running as a form of punishment.
  • Perhaps it is because running requires effort, self-discipline, and motivation, and it does not always provide instant gratification.

Kids First Athletes Second

To counteract this, exercise physiologist Tim Noakes (2003) noted that it is crucial to treat children as kids first and as athletes second. In his book Lore of Running, Noakes recommended emphasizing general physical activity for children six years old and younger while stressing enjoyment and rudimentary skills (e.g., pacing, running form) to instill an interest in distance running for kids ages 6 to 10 years old. He postulated that it is best when the distance running for kids is instigated and sets or reasonable distances, allowing the child to walk when desired.

The New York Road Runners (NYRR, 2012b) have suggested that distance running for kids sessions at the elementary age should develop confidence and include a variety of activities (each lasting no more than 15 minutes) that explore movement focusing on basic body awareness, agility, balance, and coordination.

Adding variety and running-related games to the program and Seth Jenny (sjenny@unm.edu) and Tess Armstrong (tesseroo@unm.edu) are doctoral candidates in the Department of Health, Exercise, and Sport Sciences at the University of New Mexico. Seth Jenny is also a USA Track & Field certified coach, and Tess Armstrong is an elementary physical education teacher and Mighty Miler’s coordinator at Helen Cordero Primary School in Albuquerque, NM.


During a first-grade physical education lesson, a youngster stops to check his heart rate to gauge how intensely he is performing.
Distance running for kids should encourage elementary-aged to enjoy running by never treating it as a punishment. If we make it enjoyable, they will flee, according to Gallahue and Donnelly (2007). (p. 451).


The following quick activities can spice up and make a jogging program more enjoyable

All exercises should begin with a suitable warm-up and end with a cool-down.


Runs lines

Children begin to walk backward in a single file while passing a rubber thickener or baton

The line’s last runner advances the baton to the front and takes over as the new leader. Tag. The person tagging is holding something in their hand (e.g., a ball, rubber pig). 


One student becomes the new tagger when another is tagged.

The running track must be maintained by all students.

No running in the opposite direction is permitted, and neither are tag backs (the person you tag cannot directly tag you back).


The obstacle run

On the running track, students must navigate around, over, and through cones, agility ladders, and miniature hurdles.


Whistle Sports

Until they hear a whistle, students run.

The children perform the exercise in the nearest hula hoop after hearing one whistle (e.g., flashcards of yoga poses, stretches, or even team-building activities).

Establish guidelines for how long each activity should take for the kids

. At the sound of two consecutive whistle blows, running begins once more.


Timed Out-and-Back Run

Pacing is being taught through this exercise. A straight out-and-back running route should be designated. The kids race outside for one minute, then when the whistle blows, they run back inside for another minute to see if they can finish exactly where they started. Depending on physical condition, time may change. Another way to teach pace is to lead the children in a run after telling them, “No one passes me.” The phrase is “Pace, not Race” (Pangrazi & Beighle, 2013b, p.32).


Runs Fartlek

The Swedish word “speed play” is “fartlek.” Children can speed up for as long as they like throughout this activity, or they can slow down or walk for as long as they like. This is fantastic for trail running because it allows the kids to enjoy running on different surfaces.



Add variety to the program and reduce the chances of overtraining by incorporating alternative cardio-based activities.

Examples include


Use the PACER test by the Cooper Institute as an indicator of improved pacing and form.

Digitally record students running the PACER test early in the running program and again near the end.

Use the digital recording to determine whether the students have improved their pacing and their overall form. The test is also an indicator of whether the students are in a healthy fitness zone for their age.


Timed Sprints

Use timed sprints as a goal-setting activity.

Select a distance for the sprints (50-100 meters).

After timing the first set, ask the students to set a goal for the remainder of the workout. H

Help them set a realistic target, and have them revisit the goal at the midpoint of the workout and again at the end.


Track-Form Follow the Leader.

Split the students into groups of two or three and designate one child as the leader.

The leader takes the group on one lap of the running track, alternating between proper form and exaggerated improper form (e.g., leaning forward, stomping, tensing the shoulders, swinging arms vigorously across the body) while the other group members mimic the actions.

The groups and the practitioner debate the variations following each lap.

Children can experience the difference between a proper and bad form with this exercise.

Each lap’s leader is changed.


Mirror Moves

In front of a full-length mirror, the pupils jog while stationary.

Try leaning too far forward and back to see what happens.

After practicing good posture, send them running for a predetermined distance.

When they return, have them inspect their form once more in the mirror.



Pick a course that has undulating terrain that isn’t overly challenging or hilly. When jogging uphill, emphasize raising the knees and pumping the arms aggressively from front to back (not across the torso).

When running downhill, focus on a modest forward lean (remaining parallel to the ground and utilizing gravity’s pull), a minor lengthening of the stride landing on the forefoot, and pushing off the toes.


Scavenger hunt online

The older kids who participate in this game should do so. Make a list of items for a scavenger hunt using items found in the practice area (e.g., school grounds, track, park).

A sign, bench, picnic table, pavilion, red leaf, pine cone, dandelion, or a group member doing a cartwheel are just a few examples of possible decorations (the funnier the better).

Separate “bonus” products that are more difficult to obtain (e.g., a dollar, a picture with their whole group in it, a squirrel).

Then, divide the kids into manageable teams of three to five, and give each team a copy of the list. Start each team at the same time, then monitor their progress.


The following regulations must be followed:

(1) all teams must stick together;

(2) all travel must be done on foot

(3) groups must take pictures of each item on the list using a digital camera or cell phone

(4) a team is not finished until all items are found (except for bonus items)

(5) for every bonus item found, one minute will be deducted from the team’s overall time.

Depending on how far you want them to travel, choose items that are dispersed throughout the region.

Are You Safe?

The claim that elementary-aged kids aren’t physically ready for distance running for kids is another widespread denial of this claim.

For healthy youngsters 13 years old and younger, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM, 2010) recommends three to four days per week (preferably daily) of 60 minutes of accumulated physical activity. According to the ACSM, 60 minutes should contain 30 minutes of moderate exercise (defined as perceptible increases in breathing, sweating, and heart rate) and 30 minutes of strenuous exercise.
Distance running within these parameters meets the daily moderate-to-vigorous aerobic activity requirements.

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE, 2004b) advises 5–12-year-olds to get at least 60 minutes (and up to several hours) of moderate-to-vigorous intermittent activity every day. Distance running is a moderate, self-selected exercise for children, according to NASPE (2004b). Brisk walking and running can be done for lengthy periods, whereas strenuous activities like sprinting require many rests. According to NASPE (2009), distance running instructors should limit training sessions with five- to seven-year-olds to 30 minutes and with eight- to eleven-year-olds to 45 minutes to ensure safety and efficacy while providing more than 15 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.

Distance running in youngsters has inconsistent long-term impacts.

Noakes (2003) claimed that while acute overtraining concerns can linger up to six weeks, there is little evidence that severe aerobic training in prepubertal children causes lasting physiological or physical abnormalities. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Sports Medicine (AAPCSM, 1990) found that the most prevalent musculoskeletal problems in young runners are overuse injuries that correlate to total distances covered and may lead to persistent disabilities like arthritis or growth deformity. While there are no long-term negative effects, juvenile distance runners are susceptible to iron shortage and heat- or cold-related diseases due to poor thermoregulation, and female distance runners commonly have delayed menarche due to reduced body weight (AAPCSM).



In a study of 184 children ages 9 to 13 who competed in swimming, tennis, team handball, and gymnastics at a competitive level, “genetic factors, birth weight, early childhood growth, sport, hours of training, and pubertal status on the stature and body mass index (BMI)” showed that “prepubertal growth is not adversely affected by sport at a competitive level” (Damsgaard, Bencke, Mattiesen, Petersen, & Miiller, Roberts (2007) also re-searched 2,000 Los Angeles and Twin Cities Marathon kid finishers. The youngest data set child was seven. The short-term investigation found no major medical injuries at these events. Roberts stated that children who wish to run this distance on their own should be allowed to do so, but they should be monitored for social, scholastic, psychological, and physiological development. Marathon running by elementary-age children is not advised (e.g., “preadolescent children should not run long distance races conducted largely for adults” [Lebow & Averbuch, 1994, p. 421]), but proper training does not appear to be dangerous. Table 1 outlines distance-running guidelines for elementary-aged youngsters.


Table 1

Note that Table 1’s maximum training and racing distances are for child-initiated running. Training distances are any jogging at a comfortable, easy-to-moderate pace interspersed with walking if the child desires, usually, in a practice situation. Racing distances are continuous, moderate-to-vigorous running in a time trial or race. A nine-year-old youngster could engage in an age-appropriate five-kilometer “fun run” as a training run at an easy-to-moderate effort level with walk breaks. Practitioners who follow table 1 and pay attention to each child’s needs, characteristics, and experience level are more likely to provide a safe distance-running environment.

Given children’s lower anaerobic ability, practitioners should set acceptable distance goals to minimize short-term injuries. Following suitable progressions for children’s developmental and experience levels reduces dangers. Set child distances for safety and motivation. Noakes (2003) recommended five to six kilometers of self-initiated exercise for children under 10 years old, with a maximum of 10 to 20 minutes of intense training at a time. Running form instruction reduces injury risk.



Seth Jenny & Tess Armstrong (2013) Distance Running and the Elementary-age Child, Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 84:3, 17-25, DOI: 10.1080/07303084.2013.763709




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