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The Ultimate Running Guide to Help Parents Start Their Kids Running

By MK Editor, May 23, 2021

Are you a kid who wants to become a runner? Are you a parent of a kid who is a natural runner, and you’re wondering if it’s safe for someone so young to run so far or fast? Or is your child not into running, and you wish they were?

Whatever your or your child’s situation, if you’re interested in getting kids running, this is your definitive guide. We’ve got great information about kids’ warm-up games, kids’ running games, adaptive and inclusive games for kids of all abilities, cool-down exercises, and more, so you (or your kid) can get started running in a way that’s safe, healthy and fun.

At What Age Can a Child Start Jogging?

Physical activity is essential to children’s growth and healthy development, and running is a natural, basic movement for most kids. Almost as soon as a young child learns to walk, they start to run. Watch kids at play and you’ll see them walk, jog and run at different speeds and intervals, simply doing what their bodies feel like doing in the moment.

For most kids, it’s fun to run or jog, to see how fast their bodies can go. But at what age can a child start jogging “for real,” in a more formal, ongoing way? Is it safe for a young person to run often, far or fast? The short answer is yes: Most pediatricians and running experts agree that if a child is interested in becoming a runner, parents can feel good about supporting that interest.

After all, running has many benefits for young people. Running is a great way for kids to get part of their recommended minimum of 60 minutes of daily physical activity. Moderate to vigorous physical activity, and specifically running, have been found to improve children’s learning and memory as well as their academic performance—not to mention their overall physical fitness and mental health.

Running is also a great foundation for other sports and PE games for kids. Some kids hate PE class because they feel like they aren’t good at ball sports or team sports. Running can help them improve their skills in those areas and have a better time when participating in fun PE games. Put simply, if a kid wants to run, it can make their life better and easier in lots of ways.

There are stipulations, of course. Experts agree that running is best for kids who are self-motivated to run—those who take the initiative on their own to start running or to enter fun runs, 5Ks or other races. Running is good for kids only when they can do it without injuries or pain, and while maintaining good sleeping and eating habits. If your kid starts running and it seems to have a negative impact on their growth pattern, their social life or their academics, it’s time to check in with them and their pediatrician to see if running might not be the right choice for them, for now.

Kids should also know that it’s okay for them to stop running when they are hurt or aren’t feeling well, even if that means dropping out of a race. Safety is more important than finishing. They will also be more likely to maintain their love of running and stick with it long-term if they don’t associate it with injury and struggle.

How to Help Kids Start Running—and Even Train for Races

Many parents wonder, Is it OK for a 9-year-old to run a 5K? Can a 5-year-old run a 5K? How far should a 6-year-old run? Running experts and pediatricians agree that kids’ running should be mostly unstructured, and children should not be pushed to run past their limits. That goes for how far and how fast kids run, as well as how often. But if your kid of any age wants to start running or decides to run a 5K, the grown-ups in their lives, including their parents or PE teachers, can help them learn how to train in a safe and fun way that will increase their likelihood of sticking with running long-term.

The Road Runners Club of America emphasizes fun as the basis for kids’ running at any age, and encourages parents to limit frequent, overly structured running for kids who haven’t yet reached puberty. Basically, when they’re in elementary school, kids should run mostly for the fun and the exercise. Parents can run with their kids, help them develop good running form, and gently encourage them to keep it up. For the most part, the child should lead the way in terms of how far to go, how fast, and how often.

In short, kids should develop their running skills gradually, over time. Can that include running a one-mile fun run or a 5K race? Absolutely, if the kid is interested! Organized races or fun runs can be a wonderful experience for kids of all ages. Very young children (younger than five years old) might start with a shorter-distance, “dash” type of race, while kids five years and up can try a half-mile or mile-long fun run.

Slightly older kids—seven or eight years old, or older—can train gradually for longer distances, including 5K and 10K runs. In larger running events, it’s a good idea for parents to run with their kids, especially younger kids, so they don’t get lost in the crowd.

Just like adults, kids need the right running gear if they’re going to start running regularly or train for a running event. The beauty of running is that almost anyone can do it, almost anytime and anywhere. That being said, kids need proper running shoes to stay comfortable and avoid injury. Lightweight shorts and shirts will help them stay cool during a run, and a water bottle they love will remind them to stay hydrated.

Parents should teach kids to listen to their bodies as they run. Encourage your young runner to take walk breaks as needed and to drink plenty of water before, during and after running. Help them develop healthy habits like warming up and stretching before a run, and stretching again as part of cooling down after. Let kids find their own pace and push their own tolerance for bursts of speed. After running, help them choose a healthy snack, like a banana, a protein bar or some raisins and nuts, to help their energy rebuild and their muscles start to recover.

Most of all, help your child develop a healthy approach to and attitude about running. Overtraining can lead to injury in kids just like in adults, and pain during running is a sign that a child is running too hard, too fast or too often. When a child first starts running, they should only run a couple of times a week, and harder runs should be followed by easier ones. Weekly mileage should start out low and increase very gradually over time.

Even if it doesn’t match your own training regimen, it’s important to teach your child that taking it easy is just as important as pushing hard toward milestones and finish lines. Lessons like these stick with kids, helping them develop a healthy approach to lots of things in life, not just running.

Motivating Young Runners When the Running Gets Tough

Runners of all ages know it isn’t always easy to pound it out on the track. Running is hard sometimes, and kids—especially those who are reluctant runners—are less likely to stick with something that seems like all hard work and no fun.

To help kids stay motivated and stick with running through the tough times, teach them healthy running habits like tuning in to their breath and their bodies to know when to slow down or take a walk break. Guide them to walk for the first five minutes and the last five minutes of their run, for easy warm-up and cool-down sessions. Most of all, talk about running with your child in terms of fun, so they won’t see it as work or a chore.

Lots of kids are naturally motivated by seeing their own progress over time, so using a mileage log can inspire them to set goals and meet them. They’re also inspired by celebrating when they reach a milestone, so reward them with their favorite dinner, a new, cool water bottle, or a certificate of accomplishment when they’ve done a great job.

Just like adults, kids are also more likely to stay motivated through tough runs if they aren’t going it alone. Running or walking together can be a wonderful way for parents and kids to connect, share their thoughts and build their relationship, step by step. Having a beloved grown-up sweating it out by their side can give kids a real boost!

Free Resources for Kids’ Running from Marathon Kids

Check out these free resources from Marathon Kids for all your kids’ running needs: