Want To Encourage Young Runners? Here Is What to Do (And What to Avoid)

When the two-time Olympian Kara Goucher was a child, she was used to seeing her grandfather run five or six days a week, but she never thought of it as a sport because he did not race. She did not discover organized running until middle school.

“I fell in love with it, obviously,” she said.

While sports like baseball and soccer have organized youth leagues throughout the United States, there are fewer programs dedicated to running. Girls on the Run is one of the bigger ones, with 2.1 million girls participating since the nonprofit started in 1996. Before the coronavirus pandemic began, about 200,000 girls enrolled each year, based on numbers provided by the organization. The numbers have not rebounded to those levels, but there are about 142,000 girls participating this year.

More road races are adding children’s races, and more running organizations are providing options for local elementary and middle school students.

The Rising New York Road Runners program started more than 20 years ago with 12 children at a school in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Now there are 112,000 children participating at 800 sites nationally, with about half of those in New York City, said Marissa Muñoz, the senior vice president of community impact at New York Road Runners, which organizes the New York City Marathon and dozens of other races.

“By offering youth races at our adult races, that’s really opened up the door to young people who aren’t in our Rising program,” Muñoz said.

Bart Yasso, the retired chief running officer of Runner’s World magazine, said big events often had “all-comers” races attached to them — fun runs of shorter distances that are open to all — but over the past several years, he has seen more organized children’s races.

Molly Huddle, 38, an American long-distance runner, welcomes the increase in youth races. When she was a child, she and her sisters ran in some all-comers races at events where her father was competing.

“I think people are realizing that these are family events,” she said. “Race directors are trying to make it fun for everyone.”

Every adult race the Atlanta Track Club hosts now has at least one shorter children’s event, said Jay Holder, the club’s vice president for marketing and communications.

“Youth programming is the one thing in our organization where we’ve seen an increase,” Holder said.

That includes both the club’s Kilometer Kids program for children from kindergarten to fifth grade and its competitive teams for middle school students.

When schools were closed earlier in the pandemic, parents started Kilometer Kids programs in neighborhoods, said Madison Hafitz, who oversees the program. Since 2000, the program has grown each season, to 85 sites in the fall 2022 season with about 4,000 children enrolled.

More youth programs can also expand the adult running community. Basil Rowell had to run to pass physical fitness tests in the Navy, but he stopped after he retired in 2006. His oldest son, Yosif, ran a local one-mile race in Norfolk, Va., when he was 6, and loved it..

“I said, I needed to get in shape so I can start running with him,” Rowell said.

Rowell hated running in the Navy, but with a different motivation, he found he enjoyed it. He started seeing the same people at different races, another change from when he was in the Navy and often away from Norfolk. He got involved in the local running community and serves as vice captain for the Hampton Roads chapter of Black Men Run.

Yosif, now 16, runs for his high school team, and his younger brothers, who are 13 and 9, also run. Sometimes, the four run races together.

“My thing is to show them there is running as an event,” Rowell said. “Me, growing up, I didn’t know they had races.”

Use running to teach life lessons

Program organizers and pro runners both suggested focusing on progress and goal setting rather than times when encouraging children and teens to run.

The New York Road Runners’ Run for the Future program, aimed at girls in their junior and senior years of high school, ends with participants running a 5-kilometer race, but it also incorporates a lot of life and leadership training along the way, Muñoz said.

Girls on the Run has a similar approach. That includes picking a buddy for the 5K event, which gets friends and family running. When Amelia Kwan’s stepdaughter, Alma Menard, did her first Girls on the Run 5K event, her older brother, Keifer, was her running buddy. That was his first 5K, Kwan said. Now he is just wrapping up his first high school cross-country season in Washington State, where they live.

Credit…Ryan Young for The New York Times

“Keifer talks about ‘I want to do a 10K soon. Maybe I want to run a half-marathon,’” Kwan, who is a board member of the Puget Sound Girls on the Run chapter, said.

Huddle still remembers the lessons she learned running in high school. Her high school did not have a girls cross-country team, but she had heard about the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships, which was the national high school meet then. She wanted to go, but first, she had to qualify. That meant finding a solution to not having a team. She worked with her high school and ended being a one-person, self-funded team.

“That was my first multiweek, goal-setting opportunity I had in my life,” Huddle said. “It taught me a lot of agency. It was like a big project, and at the end it was such a reward.”

Expose children to running, but don’t push it

For adults who want to encourage their children to run, there is a balance to strike, something Goucher repeatedly emphasized. Her son, Colt, 12, has started running with a Colorado running club, Boulder Mountain Warriors, but only after Goucher talked to the coach and was convinced that the group had a fun, noncompetitive approach.

Colt also plays other sports. Goucher and her husband, Adam, who also ran professionally, prefer it that way. Neither of them specialized until later in high school and into college, and they want Colt to feel like he can do many sports.

Will Martin, who lives in South Jersey, learned the benefits of Goucher’s approach the hard way. He started running after the high school cross-country team recruited runners at his middle school. Years later, when his older son was in middle school, Martin pushed him into running, wanting his son to love the sport. But after participating in Amateur Athletic Union youth programs, his son balked at running in high school.

“I learned a valuable lesson with him not to push,” Martin said. “I laid off of him; he does martial arts now.”

After that experience, Martin didn’t push his younger son, who ended up joining cross-country in middle school and now wants to pursue it in high school.

“I know it’s genuine and he wants to do it because he’ll go out on his own or with his friends,” Martin said.

The professional runners agree: Giving children the opportunity without forcing it on them is key.

The four-time Olympian Meb Keflezighi has three daughters. The oldest has told him running isn’t her sport. She would rather play soccer. But his middle daughter, Fiyori Russom, is finishing up her freshman season of high school cross-country, and she challenged Keflezighi a few weeks ago to race her in a 5K.

Keflezighi is happy with both of their choices — and not just because he said it was easier on him to watch a soccer game than to chase the action around a cross-country course.

“I think they’re gifted, but I also know it comes from the heart,” he said. “I can’t force them to do something they’re not passionate about.”

More tips for encouraging young runners

All the tips that the adult runners offered for parents who want to encourage their children to run come back to Goucher’s focus: Don’t get too serious, too soon.

Here is what the Kilometer Kids program tries to communicate to children and parents:

  • Show them running can be fun and enjoyable.

  • Children can participate in youth events, but winning should not be the goal.

  • Focus children on how they are improving with training and more running, so they are not comparing themselves to other people.

  • Show them it is something they can do with friends and family.

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