Is Running the Right Sport for Your Child?

For the physical benefits, for the fun...Whether you're a marathoner inspiring your kids to hit the pavement or a couch potato with a little hurdler in your midst, running can be a great way to tap into a child's competitive spirit.

Watching the New York City Marathon causes people to wonder where these men and women get their seemingly super-human endurance. But if a child has ever dreamed of speeding along a track or running until her legs can't carry her any farther, watching this event—one of the five World Marathon Majors—may be just the motivation she needs to encourage her to joining a track or cross country team where she can truly excel.

kids run track at the nyrr youth jamboree in nyc

I was a high school track and cross country runner who transitioned to the marathon distance in graduate school. During those years, I experienced many of the typical ups and downs that come from being a runner. Later on, as a coach with Girls on the Run International, a nonprofit organization that encourages girls to improve their health and self-esteem through physical fitness, I pushed elementary school girls to their fullest potential. During this time, I came to understand that anyone could shine on the track as long as he or she was willing to put in the effort.

Passing the Baton

Often a parent's interest in the sport alone is enough to pique a child's interest. And an invitation or slight nudge to go for a jog together can foster the child's interest even more. In certain cases, kids may simply have extra energy to burn and are encouraged to participate in track and field by teachers who realize that they can harness their excitement in a productive manner. Running is also a great option for kids who want to participate in a sport that involves a certain skill set like hand-eye coordination or flexibility that's not quite right for them.

Eric Stein, who has been a volunteer track and field and cross-country coach with New York Road Runners for more than 10 years, agrees. "Being in the sport since I was 13, I know there is a spot for everyone," says Stein, who decided to participate in cross-country when he was cut from his high school's junior varsity football team. "That is the beautiful thing about cross country and track and field. Another positive of our sport is that many coaches don't make cuts."

Coaches will often have new runners build a base, and once this is done they'll be able to determine who will excel at each event based on where they are most comfortable competing. Stein adds that a good coach will be sure to watch the athlete's stride. If a child normally has a shorter stride, he may excel at the sprint events that feature record-setting stars like Usain Bolt, who set several then-world records at the 2008 Olympics only to better his performances in later years. Those who are more flexible may compete well in jumping events. Others, who are not particularly fast but have endless stamina, may participate in distance events where they can excel as long as they are able to run at a consistent tempo.

And although physical stature may play some role, Stein insists there is no perfect body type for each distance. Of course this may be hard to believe, but there are some athletes participating in Marathon Sunday who don't look like they are capable of finishing the race but they will comfortably outpace those who look like the traditional, thin speedster.

"Cross country, which covers longer distances than typical track events, is a no-glory sport, so these are kids that move forward knowing they are in it for themselves and nothing else," he says. "The grit, determination, and spirit it takes to compete in an eight-kilometer, five-kilometer, steeplechase, 3200-meter run, or mile is immense."

"After over 12 years of coaching, I've learned that cross country and distance runners are among the most responsible, hardest working athletes," says Stein, who acknowledges that distance runners often get shortchanged when acknowledgements are given out just because their events are simply not as exciting as sprint events such as the 100-, 200-, or 400-meter dash. "They're almost always your most self-disciplined athletes."

Shin Splints and Other Possible Injuries

That determination can often be problematic for young athletes, too. Overtraining injuries like shin splints and stress fractures-which develop when shin splints don't heal-are common in distance runners. Sprinters may experience these injuries, but they usually are not as severe. Growth plate injuries and tendonitis also often hamper athletes' success.

Any swelling, pain at rest, disproportionate pain, and bruising should be treated with rest and ice. A sports medicine doctor or physical therapist can often help a child get back to competing if he has to take time off. Depending on the type of injury and diagnosis, the medical professional may encourage the child to continue competing if she complements a decreased-training schedule with stretching and strengthening exercises.