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Key Guidance Youth Runner

There are a ton of reasons why running is a great choice for young athletes. If done right, you could be starting a young person on a path of lifetime fitness and joy.  If done wrong, your young runner may choose to leave the sport by the time they get to high school or even earlier. Consider the following simple advice for ensuring longevity in our universal community.


Avoid Overtraining at All Cost: Children can easily and safely begin training and racing as early as five years old. The idea of “training” is relevant and should consist of no more than two dedicated days a week. Training for athlete as young as ages 5-8 should be extremely diversified and can include one “endurance” and one “speed” day per week, plus a competition for day three. Training sessions should not be longer than 90 minutes, inclusive of greetings, warm up, stretching, workout, warm down, exercises and more. The endurance activity should focus on minutes, not miles. Start with the goal of getting your young runner to be able to run five minutes at conversation pace, without stopping. Conversation pace means they can hold a light conversation while running without being out of breath. Then graduate to ten minutes, working all the way up to thirty minutes of easy running, adding no more than 5 minutes per week. The second day of the week can be a mixture of speed activities, always varying short distances and speeds. Children love Fartlek-style activities, which includes speed play and changes. Simple games like large field tag are great for speed acquisition as the sudden bursts of speed mingled in with non-stop jogging is the prime definition of Fartlek running. Athletes with entry level experiences of balanced training will be able to progress to more consistent training, such as:


  • Ages 8 and Under-2 days per week plus one day of competition

  • Ages 9-12-No more than 3 days per week of training and one day of competition

  • Ages 13-14-No more than 5 days per week of training plus one day of competition

  • High School athletes who have followed the above progression will be in the best position to train 6-7 days per week and compete forever. Typically, these athletes can take a day off every 7-10 days for proper rest.

Diversify and Avoid Specialization: Recent studies show that today’s children are suffering from more bone injuries as a result of weaker skeletal development. The crucial years between being a toddler and adolescence set the stage for strong bones and joints. In previous generations, children were often invented physical challenges and played more unstructured street games, including manhunt, tag, whiffleball, stickball (I’m showing my Brooklyn roots), steal the bacon, non-organized soccer, football, and so much more. Sometimes, our play was simply running around the neighborhood, climbing fences, scaling walls, jumping over obstacles, and racing up and down the block, all day. Today, many children have replaced outside time with digital games, social media, and streaming entertainment. Therefore, opportunity to engage in constant weight bearing play, such as running, jumping, pulling, pushing, and climbing has diminished. For many, the result is weaker bones in our children. All youth training should integrate games that incorporate all of these weight bearing tasks. Future athletes in all sports will benefit from training that offers young people the opportunity to mix up sprinting, aerobic running, jumping, and throwing. Here is a great resource for youth game integration that will build strong runners,  Every coaching certification for youth specialties support the idea that early specialization can hinder growth and risk injury. Athletes under the age of 12 should be very careful about engaging in high end speed training or high dose plyometric activities. This can harm open growth plates and damage joint development. Instead, encourage all of our youngest athletes under the age of 10 to try all events, from the 55m dash to the mile, from the long jump to the shotput. Eventually, their true niche in our sport will emerge with a greater understanding of all physical movement.

Attainable Goal Setting: Always make sure that you break long term goals down into achievable marks. If an 8-minute miler states that they want to break 5 minutes this season then it’s time to sit down and discuss segmented goals. You have to break 7 minutes before you can break 6, then 5. If a 10 year old states that they want to break 20 minutes in the 5k and their best is 30 minutes, it’s the adults job to make sense of the progressive path to the desired performance. The same goes for the distance of runs. If a young runner says they would like to run 10 miles and the most they have ever completed is 3 miles, then a 3 month progression moving the runner from 3 miles to 5 to 7 and eventually to 10 over many weeks. Just because a young athlete CAN run 10 miles does not mean they should do it. Most important, always make sure that goals are personal, based on their own ability and NEVER based on beating any specific competitors. Save that for the older years of high school and college. For more details, see our WRU Junior Training Program, here

Keep It FUN: Finally, and maybe most importantly, make sure that young athlete’s involvement in running is always fun. This includes training and racing with other youth athletes or on a team setting. Incentivize performance with travel to regional and national level competitions or destination events. Bring them well established elite showcases to watch professional running such as Penn Relays, Millrose Games, Olympic Trials, college and high school meets, or major road race events. Let them see how diverse and rewarding running can be for everyone. Today, most college conference meets, open invitations, and major road events are streamed. You can literally watch great running events every weekend on Flotrack, EPSN, or NBC sports streaming networks for affordable prices.

I have been blessed enough to train many youth regional and national champions and lead young runners from entry at age 5 to NCAA careers across the nation. This included a young runner who set a new world record in the 5k, running 18:00 at the age of 8. This young athlete went on to run 17:21 as a 9 year old and most recently almost broke 15:00 as a high schooler.  The athlete’s destined improvement was guaranteed many years earlier when he was protected from racing too often, training to frequently, or training too fast or too hard. Making sure your young athletes focus on doing THEIR BEST on any given day instead of meeting an adult’s expectation is crucial. Making sure that rest, fun, training diversification all remain focus areas will give your athlete decades of longevity on the road, in the lanes, or over the hills.


Here are a few other key components to ensure that young runners develop the safest and most productive lens for healthy improvement:


  • Teach even pacing over running all out

  • Praise persistency and consistency participation over being the best

  • Preach challenging yourself over winning

  • Display ethical practices and approaches to competition

  • Model good form for all activities

  • Engage in resistance and core work not weight room tasks before the age of 14

  • Promote healthy diet, hydration, and natural supplements

  • Build a sense of team or community over self in running. Look for volunteer opportunities do to with your young runner that is focused on running, such as a local road race water station or cheering lines.

  • Celebrate completion and participation over being the best early on

  • Share the joy by running, stretching, training, exercising with your young athletes, whenever possible. Shared experiences instead of holding the watch can be pivotal in developing a lifetime runner. Creating memories will never fade away.

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