Marathon Kids Coach Cindy Miniard Helps Students Adopt an Active Lifestyle

Cindy Miniard, a physical education teacher at Crab Orchard Elementary in Crab Orchard, Tennessee, had been searching for ways to involve more of her school’s younger students in daily physical activity when she happened across Marathon Kids online. Immediately, she says, “I thought it would be a great fit for my school. After learning about the program, I knew it would involve a lot of students who weren’t otherwise involved in sports or activities. It also seemed like a great fit for classroom teachers to implement.”

Together with another coach, Coach Kayce, Miniard coaches the Crab Orchard Marathon Kids Club. The group has 293 registered students, with third through eighth grades participating. Miniard also hosts an after-school run club with 62 pre-K through eighth-grade students registered. “We partner with Tennessee State Park Run Clubs,” she says, “and Cumberland Mountain State Park is our home park. The goal of the program is to get the students outdoors and in the parks. They are helpful in promoting running with the kids.”

Crab Orchard is in rural Cumberland County, and many of the elementary school students come from low-income families. The nearest larger town, Crossville, is several miles away. “It’s difficult for some of our students to do any type of extra-curricular activities in Crossville,” Miniard says. “Our students enjoy physical activity and thrive on challenges, but healthy eating becomes difficult in some families, and it shows in our yearly BMI reports.” The school has implemented ways to teach students and their families healthy eating habits, including cooking classes for parents on a budget, but attendance has been low.

Students Learning to Challenge Themselves

In a normal school year, Crab Orchard Elementary classroom teachers facilitate daily physical activity for their students, whether running or walking outdoors or doing some type of indoor activity. The school was built recently, and the surrounding grounds and roads are still under construction, which has limited outdoor activity to the school’s parking area. Still, Miniard and her students have been making it work, running one to two miles at a time. “Many run club students recently participated in a 5K,” Miniard says, “a first for some of the runners!”

One of those first-time 5K runners was Sawyer, a fourth-grader who has been in Marathon Kids since Miniard first implemented the program at Crab Orchard Elementary. Sawyer and her family enjoy doing fitness activities together, and often spend time hiking trails or playing basketball. This year, Sawyer made a goal of setting a personal record in a 5K run, and began working on pacing with Coach Kayce.

Soon, Sawyer was winning in her age group in multiple 5K races. Coach Kayce is a fast runner who is used to winning medals in her own age group, but she was happy to run at Sawyer’s pace to help Sawyer meet her goals. “Sawyer’s success was more important than Kayce’s finishing time,” says Miniard. “We are so proud of Sawyer for her dedication to running and working on her goals to achieve more.” Coach Kayce says, “Soon Sawyer will be leaving me in the dust!”

Running During a Pandemic

Since returning to school in August, Miniard and the Crab Orchard classroom teachers have worked together to tackle the challenge of getting both in-person and virtual learners moving with all social guidelines in place. “The virtual students send in their Marathon Kids mileage through my Google classroom, usually in the form of a picture of their phone app or Fitbit. For virtual learners, I attach running tips and videos from the Marathon Kids website as lesson material, which has been very helpful.”

Miniard also hosts a virtual running club with 45 students; their parents submit documentation of the kids’ miles via weekly reports. “We are able to meet in small groups on Wednesdays for in-person practice, for 20-minute sessions during school. We have also participated in virtual races with our Tennessee State Park Run Club program, and we’ve been able to do the runs at school, since it is a smaller group of students.”

Crab Orchard Tennessee Marathon Kids

In-person students run with their classroom teachers as well as doing running activities in PE class. Any in-class physical activity breaks are also added to their mileage. Miniard says Marathon Kids Connect, the free cloud-based lap-tracking and reporting app, has been helpful with safe-distance running during the pandemic.

“I absolutely love the Marathon Kids Connect online tracking for keeping up with our mileage,” Miniard says. “I love being able to scan the students’ ID cards and add mileage to their accounts. Since we are doing a virtual/in-person run club, it is easy to add at-home miles for my in-person students as well as my virtual at-home students.” She also reports that the technical support team has been very helpful with working out any technical difficulties. “I love the reports that the program generates, and being able to give feedback quickly to my group. It’s becoming a little competitive among grades and classes because we are able to announce the leaders.”

COVID guidelines don’t allow for large group activities, Miniard says. Still, “we are finding ways to implement running activities with our students. We are thankful to offer this program to our students and see the benefit that Marathon Kids brings to their health and wellbeing, and are seeing kids develop a love of running.”

Building Motivation with Buddies, Celebrations and Dogs

For some students, the joy of running seems innate. For others, extra motivation is needed from time to time. Miniard designates student running buddies to help each other with pacing, and frequently discusses with her students the way the body feels when it’s challenged, to try to help them understand how to push through a tough run or workout.

The 26th of each month has been dubbed Marathon Day at Crab Orchard Elementary. “The school community is encouraged to wear fitness attire and add extra mileage on that day,” Miniard says, “and our principal has started announcing the mileage leaders by classrooms and individuals. We take rewards to classrooms or present at school assemblies.”

The school also utilizes school-wide assemblies every nine weeks, including Honors Day to parent nights, to promote the Marathon Kids program and acknowledge the students’ accomplishments. “Fitness and personal success are rewarded just like academic successes,” says Miniard.

Also serving as motivation for the student runners? Miniard’s black lab, Lucy. When Miniard started the Marathon Kids program at Crab Orchard, Lucy served as the run club mascot. “Since we used to practice mostly at the state park, and did many state park and community races as a team, Lucy was always with us. She has even been able to go to school on many occasions as our mascot! The kids and parents love her.”

Marathon Kids coach Cindy Miniard with her dog, Lucy

The Physical and Emotional Health Benefits of Staying Active

Miniard has noticed increased self-respect, self-assurance, pride and self-control along with improved behavior and academic performance in her students since they started running with Marathon Kids. For herself, she says, “I feel more capable of being a leader. Typically a shy person, I feel more confident speaking in front of others about the program. It has opened other opportunities, such as the state park running program, for my kids.”

As someone who has dealt with ongoing health issues, Miniard understands the benefits of being active. “As I get older, I understand that if you are active, you can fight the challenges that come your way. With our students, we talk about health issues they might face as adults, and the fact that being unhealthy will bring on more challenges. They can relate to this, as they have adults in their lives who have been sick.”

Miniard says she grew up playing sports and being active, and truly enjoyed her childhood. “Being physically active is just a lifestyle, and I wouldn’t know what else to do with my time. I want to instill a love of physical activity and an understanding of its importance with my students.”

Getting Involved with Marathon Kids

Last summer, Miniard traveled to Austin, Texas, to complete the Marathon Kids Leadership Training course. When she returned home to Crab Orchard, she says, “I was pumped! I couldn’t wait to share with my colleagues.” She presented the Marathon Kids program at regional physical education conferences, and is excited that schools in surrounding counties have been getting involved.

She also notes that more students at her own school are starting to sign up for cross country after having been part of the Crab Orchard after-school Marathon Kids running club. “I am proud of that,” she says. “Last year, cross country couldn’t even compete as a team because there weren’t enough students signing up.” (She did note that delays in the 2020–2021 cross country season were expected due to the pandemic.)

Miniard encourages others interested in Marathon Kids not to hesitate to get involved. “This is one of the best programs I have ever been involved with in my twenty plus years of teaching physical education,” she says. “It is a great community activity or in-school program. Finding time can be a challenge, but doing schoolwide events builds excitement and gets the adults in your building involved.” She recommends challenging coworkers and school staff to become part of the program. “Getting them to get involved is the key to success.”