By Fitz Koehler, M.S.E.S.S
As a fitness expert and mother of two, I can assure you that getting your little ones involved in races at an early age is a wise decision. Not only are races fun, but they’re one of the best ways to introduce your children to the one thing they’ll be able to do most of their lives: put one foot in front of the other. It’s often fairly challenging to continue cheerleading or playing competitive football, but walking and running will always be available. One of the reasons I chose to focus on expanding the Morning Mile before-school running program nationally was because it encourages children to walk or run every day. The tens of thousands of Morning Milers will probably tell you that when their Morning Mile is cancelled because of rain, they feel blah. They’ve learned to love the jolt of energy and calming mental relief these workouts give them. My hope is that each one of them will continue this throughout their lives.
My daughter, Ginger, is 10, and my son, Parker, is 7. While he loves to run and she leans more toward walking, they’ve both participated in a handful of one-mile races, 5Ks and triathlons. I use the word “participated” instead of “competed” because we don’t really view these races as competitions, but as fun opportunities to do something athletic and active in an exciting environment. We most often participate in these races as a family, enjoying the outdoors and each other.
Once you and your child feel ready to try a race, you’ll find plenty to choose from in Alachua County. If you’re having trouble, check out www.Active.com. Local races usually benefit a good cause, and will cost you anywhere from $5 to $30 per child. Registration often includes a T-shirt and medal, so remember that when gauging prices.
Preparing your children for most races is fairly easy. Keep their ages in mind, sign them up for appropriate distances and give them the opportunity to train in advance. Watching them cross the finish line is easily as exciting as watching them score a goal in soccer or land a high score on beam.
If you’ve got babies or tiny tots, start walking or running races with them in a stroller to get them accustomed to the experience. What an awesome way to set a healthy precedent for your family. You do the work, but they begin life in a culture of fitness. Some races also host Diaper Dashes, 25 yards of adorable!
Preschoolers are a perfect match for small, fun races like 100-yard Tot Trots or one-milers. Most 3- to 5-year-olds can do one mile. Let them run, skip, hop, jump, walk along the way — whatever makes it fun for them. Also, singing songs or telling jokes will make the time fly by.
Elementary school children can do amazing things. Most in Alachua County have access to participate in the Morning Mile, so showing up early to walk or run laps at school is certainly a no-brainer when it comes to preparing them for races. If your child has access to this program, make it a priority. It’s fun, costs nothing, offers a pressure-free environment and regular rewards. If your children do not attend a Morning Mile school, then make some time to walk or run together three to six times each week. You’ll both become more fit and will likely form a closer relationship. I run with Ginger and Parker every morning; we’re all in great shape, and they share so many details about their lives.
Middle school kids can start and gain mileage gradually like the elementary kids. However, they usually have greater access to track teams and can run a little farther. I’d say that a max of four to five miles is appropriate for this age group.
High school children are unique in that they’re experiencing heightened body awareness, and puberty has kicked in full-force. Encouraging them to go on daily walks or jogs will do a lot for their health, fitness and attitude. Running with your child, if possible, is probably more important than ever. Hitting small races or even 10Ks would be ideal.
Winning is super, but participation is the No. 1 goal. Enjoy the process. Focus on the fitness and fun.
Walking is wonderful! Encourage your children to go at a pace that feels good.
Wear running shoes that provide support.
Never push too hard. Let your children find their happy place with fitness. All encouragement, all the time. Make “I’m proud of you” your mantra.
Invite other children. Running can feel like a team sport when training with a group of buddies.
Support local races, but go big once in a while. Make a 5K at some place amazing like Disney World an annual reward for a commitment to walking and running.
Hang your medals in a place of honor. They’ll become constant inspiration.
Fitz Koehler, M.S.E.S.S, is a fitness expert with 23 years of experience teaching fitness around the globe. She’s president of Fitzness International, a fitness company that specializes in fitness education via mass media, and fitness programming for children – check out Morning Mile.com! Fitz has taught millions via TV, radio, seminars, lectures, group classes and personal training in more than a dozen countries. Visit Fitz daily at her online fitness magazine,