Ask an Athlete: Kids and Running

How much running is considered okay for young kids? Do they need special shoes? How do I get my kid to enjoy running? If you Google search these topics you’ll find anything from stories about four year old phenoms running marathons, to horror stories kids developing unhealthy disorders that cut short their hopeful running careers. We try to focus on what might be the best fit for the general population here at Raising Rookies. In fact, we asked athlete Jason Page, University of Carolina alumni and owner of Bull City Running Company in Durham, North Carolina, to share his outlook on youth running and address some questions parents may have about introducing running as a sport to their kids.

RR: Summarize your athletic and professional career. Tell us a little about your backstory and your achievements.

Jason: I have been involved in some aspect of running for quite awhile. I ran my first race when I was 6 (Phoenix Suns fun run) and it slowly became the “focus” sport my Junior year of high school. I had some success early in middle school and high school, mostly within the team and conference. I wasn’t until my Junior year when I had some success on a larger scale, I was the NC Cross Country State Champion that year. I was runner-up the following, but our team went from not even making states the previous to finishing 5th. I didn’t have the result I wanted, but learned how valuable not placing expectations on finish performance, especially when you’re racing for the team. I ran for the University of North Carolina and enjoyed being part of a growing and determined distance program. I’ve run most distance, from roads to trails, and still like to try and get the most out of myself.  

I have had the opportunity to coach the high school, university and individual athlete, which keeps me inspired and involved in the sport. We own a running/walking store, so it has now become my occupation. 

RR: When and how did you start running? Were your parents runners/athletes? Why were you drawn to the sport? 

Jason: I started running in elementary school, consisting of field day and the yearly Encanto Park Mile. I didn’t train for either, just being active in other sports, school and with friends. The Encanto Park Mile was my first real running experience and drew me into the sport. It was an organized race between elementary schools from grades 3rd to 6th. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to improve each year. 

My parents weren’t runners. Our father started running around the time we did. His consistency and dedication to improve at local 5K and 10K races kept us engaged in the sport. 

RR: Did you participate in other sports besides running? 

Jason: Yes, I played baseball, basketball and soccer when I was young. In high school, I played football and wrestled. I didn’t run year round, cross country and track, until my Junior and Senior years. 

RR: When is it okay for kids to start running outside of active play? How much running is appropriate for kids? (Based on different ages, etc)

Jason: This is a tough one. Kids are all different and progress differently mentally and physically. I don’t believe specific and consistent training should start until high school - progressing from Freshman to Senior year. I’m sure it’s okay to begin before that, but this sport is quite different than others in terms of development. It worries me when I hear kids feel they’ve already maxed out their potential at a young age, especially when there’s still a lot of growing and maturing still to happen. It also worries me when I see a young person who is excelling at running at a young age and putting a lot of time and effort into training. They often have a lot of praise placed on them with little competition, it becomes more difficult as they age and the competition gap closes. They face their first test and can begin to doubt their abilities and sometimes aren’t prepared for this challenge. 

RR: How important is proper running footwear for kids and teens? How do parents know what shoes to buy for their kids?

Jason: Proper footwear is important. For youth, who are mainly just active and focused on all types of play and developing, keep the shoes flexible and replace when either the upper or outsole reflect a lot of wear. Feet are developing at this age, what can often look like an issue is often not - unless they indicate otherwise. A flexible shoe will allow the feet to develop and provide the proper feedback as their gait develops. The biggest issue for this age is sizing, width and length. These shoes don’t stretch and if they are growing fast, the size can change in a matter of a month or two. A small shoe can cause a fair bit of discomfort. 

As the kids become teens, feet and training change. If they are training specifically for running, then proper running shoes that work with their gait and dedicated specifically for training is important. The sizing can still be an issue since feet are still growing but since they are training to run, they need shoes to offset the impact and work with their gait to minimize possible discomfort.

RR: Will logging miles as a child and teen help kids be faster and become better runners? Can kids overdo it, and is running long distances okay for kids?

Jason: I think the best recipe for “training” a child for future running is to keep them active. Running is not like swimming, in terms of the potential consequences of not knowing how to do it when you start but it should be treated as such. Running is a critical component of almost any land sport and proper form often improves ability. I don’t think logging miles helps with that development. I do think active play, which includes participation in sports like soccer helps. If they are interested in running, I suggest keeping the distances short - even if they excel more at the longer distance. Shorter distances, with an emphasis on speed and drills (fun activities that include footwork and plyometrics), will develop proper mechanics. Keep it fun and as they continue to do it, the more likely their form will improve. 

I don’t think running long distances is the best for kids. I don’t believe it reinforces the proper mechanics like sprints and drills can. I do believe that there is a benefit for being outside for a longer period of time, but biking or hiking. Running longer distances sometimes requires the ability to dissociate the mind with the activity. I remember going on a trip down the Grand Canyon when I was in the 6th grade. I knew how far I had to hike and that it wasn’t going to be over until we reached the bottom, this required me to focus on something else rather than the discomfort of the heat and my feet. There are a number of different factors that can impact a young life, but for running long distance, the ability to persevere is important. 

RR: What is one thing you wish every parent and kid knew about running? What do you say to those who “dislike” running? How do you motivate kids who may not be the “fastest” to see benefits of running?

Jason: To be a successful runner, it doesn’t require speed. There’s always a finish line, there’s always a personal best, there’s always a new challenge or goal, there’s always time in the day to take a moment for you. Not everyone is going to love running, or even like it, but if properly done, it’s an exercise that you take almost anywhere throughout life that’ll improve you mentally and physically. 

RR: How important is it to fix a stride as a kid, i.e., do you point out what they are doing wrong or just let them enjoy running?

Jason: It’s important, like I mentioned above, running is key for achievement in almost any land sport. I don’t stress fixing stride issues right away, but I focus on keeping them active - structured and unstructured play. As kids grow, their coordination is impacted, and boys and girls do this on a different schedule, so I am not overly concerned about form. I do keep them active and make sure they aren’t doing something that will impact form later, like sitting for a long period or in an improper position. For example, consistently sitting in the legs crossed over legs in a “W” position. The latter can impact the internal rotation of the thigh bone, which could decrease coordination later and this can’t be corrected. 

RR: Tell us about some of your coaches throughout your running career. What did you learn from them, and how did they influence you?

Jason: had a great track coach in high school that kept it fun, while also challenging us. I didn’t learn much about the sport but learned how to keep expectations from impacting performance. The football coach we had at our high school focused on how important the little things are in terms of improving - repetition and consistency. When I decided to leave football for cross country, I carried this with me into my training. 

My college coach was passionate about running and training. Her approach to training, physically and mentally, in preparing for the season down to specific races inspired me to learn more about the sport and the mindset. 

RR: Tell us about your business, Bull City Running Company. Why did you decide to open a running store?

Jason: Bull City Running is an independent store in Durham, North Carolina. We are going on our 12th year providing fitness solutions for the Durham community. My wife, Kim, and I had the opportunity to work for a store in Salem, OR (Gallaghers’s Fitness Resources) and witnessed firsthand the positive impact the services they offered had on the community. When we moved to Durham, we felt we could provide a similar impact.

RR: Tell us about working with young runners, or helping your own kids in athletics. What do you hope they gain from participating in sports?

Jason: Bull City Running started a program called Kid’s Run Durham. The program is offered to kids ages 4-12 in both Spring and Fall and focuses on health, wellness, nutrition and running as a physical activity. It’s an introduction to the sport of running but more on the exploration side of things. Our kids (ages 9 and 12) are quite active and we enjoy being on the sidelines or more involved (coaching). Both have been surrounded by running, because of the store, but until recently neither has taken a real interest in the sport of running. Our eldest, entered middle school this year and joined the cross country team and learned how influential being on a team increased the desire to run. 

I just hope our kids become passionate about something and work hard to improve, linking effort with achievement. That way, they have a strong baseline understanding of how to go after what they want. 

RR: What life lessons did you learn from racing/running as a youth that has helped you in adulthood?

Jason: [Again], running is great because there is a direct link between effort and achievement. If you put in the work and effort, you’ll often see improved results. It’s not like other sports where you might be behind another person at a position or waiting for the coach to put you in, everyone gets a chance. You are in control of your result. This also can be applied to almost anything from studies to music and work. It didn’t make it any easier but because of running, I believed if I kept working and trying, I’d have a better chance of achieving whatever I was focused on chasing after in life.

Takeaways:

We thank Jason for his time and congratulate him and his wife, Kim, on opening a second running store that will continue serving runners and walkers in the Triangle area of North Carolina. Their friendly, experienced, and knowledgeable staff at Bull City Running Company offers running shoe fit analysis, running nutrition products, apparel and more. Find them on Instagram @bullcityrunning and stop by if you’re in Durham!

Takeaway #1: Introducing running to kids is okay as long as distances are kept manageable and mixed with active play, biking, hiking and other sports.

Takeaway #2: Each child develops differently, which should be taken into consideration when running and training.

Takeaway #3: Running is a link between effort and achievement, which serves kids throughout their life no matter what challenges they take on. 

Ultimately, how much running one does is up to the parents and the kids in each family. Maintain a safe, positive environment that challenges kids to give their best effort. Watch for more running related posts, including what we do to prepare our kids for a family turkey trot or fun run.