Nowadays, children are fat… and getting fatter. Research suggests that 24% of two- to five–year–old kids are overweight or obese, and excessive weight gain is increasing in older children and teenagers. Sobering news for your child, if you consider the long–term health implications as your kids grow towards adulthood and become susceptible to the problems associated with weight gain. In this article, you will learn how running from an early age benefits children.
Researchers have identified some of the factors that are weakening the foundation of our children’s health. In some parts of the world, over- and undernutrition is present. But what’s also obvious is that our children are exercising too little.
Surprisingly, sedentary behaviour doesn’t discriminate only against kids living in low-income communities, who don’t have access to the resources, equipment and facilities necessary for physical activity.
In the more affluent, urban areas, children at pre-school age also have fairly high levels of sedentary behaviour, because even though they may do three hours of physical activity a day, they may then go home and sit in front of their computer or iPad.
As carers and role models, parents, teachers and coaches should feel responsibility about establishing healthy behaviours in early childhood, for the prevention of future health risks. Ingraining a good habit like running during childhood tends to flow over into adulthood. Active kids are more likely to become active adults.
Can running save our children?
Brian Jackson is a 14-year-old runner from Cape City, who discovered his talent at a cross-country race he competed in at the age of eight. On the school sports field, he often notices that pupils who don’t do regular exercise tend to tire faster than he does.
Active children will enjoy many physical benefits because they run. They will have a stronger immune system, be less prone to colds, allergies, and cancer, have a better cholesterol profile and lower blood pressure, a lower risk of type-two diabetes, a stronger bone structure, and be less likely to become overweight.
Brian has developed strong legs, and more muscle. He’s also helped improve his cardiovascular and pulmonary function, which means more blood pumped by the heart every minute, a lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, and increased lung capacity. Regular running might also be the best way for Brian to become a well-balanced and contributing member of society.
Running is an irreplaceable exercise for young athletes to learn basic life skills, like goal-setting, hard work and teamwork. Athletes who cooperate with others towards a common goal through sports exhibit traits like persistence and cooperation, which provide a basis for them to become successful in their careers and family lives when they become adults.
What is more, exercise makes you smarter. Various studies have confirmed that exercise in general improves one’s focus and motivation. The latest research looks at the hippocampus (a small region of the brain that is connected to long-term memory), which is one of only two brain structures where new brain cells are developed. Workout stimulates the birth or development of these new hippocampus nerve cells and helps them to live longer – which is why exercise improves learning and memory too.
Experts also tell that running helps children deal with anxiety and negative feelings, because exercise releases the feel-good and “happy” hormones dopamine and serotonin, stimulating rational and objective thinking – and having a sense of achievement and contentment, instead of emotional outbursts.
Lots of parents parents enrol their children in running in order to help them build personality and self-esteem. Interaction with friends and coaches influences how children feel about themselves, and fosters a sense of belonging. Running has undoubtedly helped Brian to feel more confident, and has improved his social status.
Understanding the growing athlete
We can’t regard children simply as “little humans” because their bodies and minds – and the impact running has on both – are significantly different. Children are still growing, meaning the growth plates in their bones are still open, and the tendons and bones attached to them are immature. This means that if they run too much and don’t get sufficient recovery and rest, there’s a higher chance for them to suffer from repetitive overuse injuries.
A common injury in growing kids is painful inflammation of the growth plates of the knee and heel. Brian’s running-technique coach Phil Stewart recalls an injury his young athlete picked up last year. Brian had been on vacation for three weeks, and during that time did virtually nothing in terms of physical activity. He then returned to running during peak season, undertrained for the demands of running at race pace, which resulted in a pulled calf muscle.
In general, injuries like this will resolve with ice, rest, anti-inflammatories and stretching. If the pain stays, worsens progressively, or interferes with daily life activities such as sleeping, then visiting a physiotherapist is recommended. What helps to prevent this type of running injury includes encouraging cross-training, and making sure that young runners get adequate rest during and between seasons.
Beside skeletal growth, the makeup of kids’ bodies changes significantly during adolescence. A tell-tale sign of overtraining in a young female runner is delay in onset of the menstrual cycle: one study of highly trained female athletes discovered a five-month delay in the beginning of the menstrual cycle for each year that a young female trained too hard beforehand.
The minds of young runners are also growing. They’ve specific psychological, social, and physical needs, which are unique to their stage of development. Of course, they also haven’t had the same life experience as adults.
A controlling parenting style tends to force the young athlete in a particular direction, closes communication channels, doesn’t help their independence, and is less sensitive to the child’s moods. This in turn increases the pressure and expectations felt by the kid, which may result in decreased performance – and over time, the child might stop participating in sport activities. In some cases sports pressure can also be self-inflicted. Some children are natural perfectionists, and are too hard on themselves when things don’t go as they want. Kids might also feel that winning is the only way to earn the approval of the adults they respect.
So how can you tell if your offspring is stressed out? You have to pay attention to how your child is feeling, behaving and sleeping. How are they managing at school?
If you notice signs that your child isn’t coping, find ways of reducing the pressure. Open communication helps kids to express themselves. Point out your child’s strengths, praise them when they performed well, and always be supportive – even if things don’t work out.
It’s important that you let your child figure things out by themselves as this is an empowering experience. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be involved, but you have to let your kid ‘own’ their experience. This is the key to creating the long–term motivation and love of sport needed for good performance. And even though your child won’t become an Olympian, they will still love running.
Brian’s parents are the perfect balance between attached and detached. His mother Susan hopes he’ll still be running when he’s 50 years old. They support him but not push him. They believe this has to come from him. That has to return from him.
Are we born winners?
Experts define mental toughness as a one’s ability to produce consistently high levels of subjective (personal goal achievement), or objective (race times) performance, in spite of everyday challenges and stressors, as well as significant adversities.
Brian, by his own admission, is determined, disciplined and dedicated – characteristics that make him more likely to believe his actions are self-chosen, that he’s competent, and that he’s meaningfully connected to a wider social network. His short-term running goal is to make the cross-country team, and there’s always somebody you want to catch. His long-term goal is to run the the Comrades marathon in under six hours. He has a good strategy and in general doesn’t have to deal with disappointment – if he doesn’t achieve the little goals along the way, he sets out to do it better next time. He puts such things behind and learns from them.
But if, when you don’t achieve that magical PB, feel overly disappointed and depressed for several weeks, then you probably don’t have what it takes to become a successful runner. This is why it’s easier to see if someone won’t become a successful athlete, because they don’t have the necessary psychological characteristics.
Another sign of success is how children respond to coaching, commonly known as “coachability.” It’s okay for a young athlete to thank you for their programme, but you need to trust that they’ll go home and follow it to the letter.
Brian listens, is diligent, and he’ll ask for his next programme sometimes as early as five days in advance, because he’s wants to know what he’s received to do next. Brian’s intrinsic motivation will be essential to keeping him involved in running when things get difficult. If an athlete doesn’t have this quality early on, they probably won’t stay involved into adulthood.
Training your kids
Playful practice in early childhood may be critical if you want your children to stay active in the long term, because if you think of how we develop motivation, it’s through the enjoyment of play.
Participate in a variety of physical activities early on, and you’ll develop a range of motor experiences, so that you’re a well-rounded physical mover. The things that are happening for a beginner are huge, and include big changes in stroke volume (the amount of blood pumped out of the heart to other parts of the body) and cardiovascular efficiency (how well you can distribute blood and oxygen through the body).
Anything with an aerobic capacity can bring about those changes. With kids, the major focus needs to be on learning how to run, and enjoy it. As they come into their teens, the focus will move to physiological developments to increase speed (which is a skill) and their ability to sustain speed over their race distances (which should be short in comparison to adult races). And if you look at the wide range of sports available to us, the one common denominator in all of them is to be able to run quickly, efficiently and with control over our bodies.
Keep in mind that your child will see greater benefits from racing between 10 and 21km, before attempting to race a marathon. The peak age for endurance athletes is 28 to 32 years, so advise them to avoid marathons until they are at least 25.
Brian runs four to five times a week, depending on whether he has a demanding or a rest week on his training programme. Usually that consists of two coached training sessions: one easy technique session, and one more demanding session that concentrates on speed. Alone, he does one more difficult pace or hill session, and the rest are easy runs. His sessions can sometimes be long and intense, but recovery days and proper rest always follow them. Even though Brian copes with the subtle rises and falls that come with racing well, his coach also allows him to build up his confidence through training goals, such as improving his personal best over several 400-metre sets. He has to do four races in the season to qualify for the cross-country team, but the rest are used as training runs.
A race is only a test of what we’re capable of. Think of a race as an exam – even though it tests your ability, you don’t learn anything from writing it. If you want to improve your score, you have to go back and study – not write the exam again and again, until hopefully you get a better result. That’s why focused and functional training will see greater improvements than a demanding racing schedule, where the athlete beats themselves up, day after day.
There’s always some level of pressure in competition, and it’s healthy for children to experience this on a bit smaller scale. Athletes can suffer injuries, pitfalls and losses – or they simply may not be ready to move on to the next stage of their programme – which is why regular testing, and the ability to adapt the programme accordingly, really is the art of coaching. And instead of throwing exercise at kids, we have to garner their interest by telling children why they need it, from both the sport and the individual perspective.
The coach sets a plan for Brian, assuming he’s going to do everything on it. The next step is for him to tell his coach how each session went, and how he coped with it – not just if he picks up an injury, but also if he’s making the sets. If his coach is setting him time intervals, he needs to tell the coach if he’s a few seconds behind, or if it was too easy. In this way, his coach always knows what he has to do to help him progress. No matter how exhausted Brian is after a session, he’s never burnt out, because his coach has never pushed him beyond his capabilities. This has ensured a high-spirited and stable athlete, who is self-motivated – and loves running.
What are the final results?
Running is a vital part of our children’ development – it has physical and mental benefits that could not only prepare your children for active and healthy life, but tackle the wider problem of overweight and obesity. But never forget that as much as running benefits development, it can also have unintended costs, should it be overemphasized or practised inappropriately.