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Run, Baby, Run: Getting Your Kids Active!

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Athletic parents have a wonderful opportunity to introduce their children to the joys of exercise—but how much running is right for growing bones and developing muscles?

“It’s a responsibility parents should take seriously,” says Joel Brenner, MD. As Director of Sports Medicine at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk, Va., Brenner often answers questions about the safety of rigorous physical activity for young children. If a child wants to train for a 1-mile fun run, 5k race or even a half marathon, parents play a critical role in ensuring she gets to the start line safely, finishes strong and, most importantly, has a blast.

How do you know if your daughter or son is ready to run? If you can affirm all six statements below, it’s time to give your little one the green light to get moving!

SHE REALLY WANTS TO.

Before you skip to Sports Authority and start buying tiny trainers, take a minute to check yourself. Are you pressuring your child or is this her decision? Children “should not be pushed into it by their parents,” cautions Brenner. Parental encouragement is healthy, but forcing a child to train or race will likely backfire, quashing any enthusiasm she has for the sport. Once a child begins running, keep training fun to prevent emotional burnout, which causes kids to become anxious and stressed.

YOUR PEDIATRICIAN GIVES YOU TWO THUMBS-UP.

Prior to starting any new exercise program, your pediatrician should perform a pre-participation physical to evaluate whether your child is healthy enough to exercise. If you have any additional questions, enlist the help of a sports medicine physician. “Since children are not just little adults, it is preferable to see a pediatric sports medicine specialist,” advises Brenner.

THE PLAN IS TO TAKE BABY STEPS.

According to Brenner, there is no recommended mileage for a particular age. Instead, let common sense be your guide. Start small, very gradually working toward longer distances and higher speed. Keep track of your child’s weekly mileage to prevent her from doing too much, too soon.

Staying cautious will help prevent injury to growth plates and apophyses  (the area on the bones where ligaments and tendons attach). The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests increasing mileage by no more than 10 percent each week, limiting any one sporting activity to five days per week and scheduling at least one day of complete rest.

YOU’VE GOT THE RIGHT STUFF.

A good pair of shoes is key to a young runner’s safety and comfort, perhaps even more so than for adults. As kids go through rapid growth spurts, the shoes purchased just one month ago may not be long enough or wide enough to comfortably contain growing feet.

Also, developing bones, muscles and joints are more susceptible to injuries associated with poor biomechanics. A child who over- or under-pronates needs to be fitted for shoes that will help correct the issue. Visit a specialty running store to find a proper pair.

NUTRITION AND HYDRATION ARE EMPHASIZED.

Children require essential nutrients to meet their growth and development needs. Brenner says “All children should be taking a multivitamin,” but he recommends young runners avoid other supplements, including ergogenic aids like creatine, found in some protein drinks and powders.

Remember to encourage your little runner to drink fluids before, during and after exercise. Hydration is especially critical, as children are more susceptible to heat stress than adults.

RUNNING IS ONLY PART OF THE PLAN.

According the American Academy of Pediatrics, young athletes can decrease their risk of injury and burnout by participating in a variety of sports. This diversity also helps to strengthen complementary muscles and prevent overuse injuries, especially if the sports require the use of different motions (say, swimming or karate). Encourage your child to take two to three months out of the year to focus on other activities to keep her healthy and balanced.