Sports: Going the Distance

Debbie Briner
Erin Arnett of Hilliard runs with her daughter Macie, 9, and son Ike, 3.

It's a modern parenting battle: Getting kids to abandon their screens and get moving. Running is gaining in popularity—for both adults and children—thanks in part to an abundance of races as well as local running programs.

Generally, it's regarded as a safe form of exercise for children.

It's a misconception that kids shouldn't be distance runners, said Allison Strouse, outreach athletic trainer at Nationwide Children's Hospital. “Research shows there isn't any adverse effect to running,” she said.

The key is moderation. Nationwide Children's suggests guidelines to help parents keep junior joggers from overdoing it. Until age 9, Strouse said, it's best to limit distance running to 1.5 miles. Then kids may be ready to run a 5K by ages 9-11, a 10K by ages 12-14 and a half-marathon by ages 15-16, she said.

But guidelines are just that, Strouse emphasized. Parents should make sure their kids “enjoy running, that they're not having any pain, and they're having fun. They're the ones driving the bus here, not the parents.”

Grown-ups also should recognize that kids aren't mini-adults, Stouse cautioned. Physiological differences affect them as runners. For instance, children have a higher metabolic rate to support their growth. “It's important to make sure that kids are getting proper nutrition,” she said. “And for prepubescent kids, their sweat glands aren't fully developed so they're not as efficient at cooling themselves off.”

Strouse cited a few injuries common in young runners: tendinitis, stress fractures and apophysitis (growth-plate) injuries such as Osgood-Schlatter's and Sever's diseases, which occur when bones grow faster than tendons and muscles.

Columbus Running Co. co-owner Eric Fruth pointed out injuries are possible in any youth sport. “We have found that most kids intuitively know their own bodies, and it's our job as coaches to listen to them,” he said.

Fruth founded Columbus Running Co.'s Grasshoppers youth running club in 2012. “There were youth running programs out there that were more focused on building life lessons. They were not necessarily treating running as a sport. Parents told me, ‘My kids can play baseball, they can play soccer. Why can't they run as a sport?' ”

The Grasshoppers summer program, offered at eight Central Ohio locations, introduces children in grades three through six to the sport of running. “We bring in expert coaches, primarily hiring middle school and high school coaches for the summer,” Fruth said. Young runners participate in weekly practices, a track meet, road race and four cross country meets to experience various types of competitive running. Spring and fall sessions are competition-focused for fifth- and sixth-graders preparing for middle school cross country and track teams.

Kids who shy away from team sports may blossom in an individual sport such as running. “Sometimes a kid who suffers in a team-centric sport, running just clicks with them,” Fruth said.

Participants get hooked—and grow confident—when achieving a goal. That's at the heart of Girls on the Run, a national program that uses running as a tool to boost girl power for grades three through eight. Since Girls on the Run of Central Ohio began in 2008 in Bexley with 12 girls, participation has doubled annually and the program has spread across the region, said Council Director Jessica Sparks.

The program trains volunteer coaches, mentors and running buddies who work with small groups of girls twice weekly for 12 weeks, teaching life skills through running games and interactive lessons. A similar national program for boys, Let Me Run, started in 2008 and has about 10 participating sites.

Sparks said quantitative data shows Girls on the Run positively impacts participants' development, including their body image, self-esteem, relationships and fitness habits. “We see our girls come in one way and we see them leave ready to take on what's important to them,” she said. Each season ends with a noncompetitive 5K that “gives girls the opportunity to show they can set a long-term goal and meet it.”

For 11-year-old Emma Dickman, participating in Girls on the Run led to notable accomplishments. “Our situation is unique,” dad Steve Dickman said. Dickman took up running for a healthier lifestyle, and Emma—who has cerebral palsy—trains to build stamina and leg strength. Emma uses a walker and tripod canes to train. She set personal goals and finished the last half-mile of the 5K in May using her walker.

Hilliard mom Erin Arnett has been a runner since her teens and a Girls on the Run coach for nine seasons. Her four children include 9- and 10-year-old daughters, Macie and Sophie. “I'm a runner myself, so they've watched me growing up, and they have seen that it's normal for me. I've never pressured them to run without them desiring to do it.”

Her daughters are “two very different girls,” Arnett said. “I have one who is interested in running but one who is not as interested. But she still gains something from Girls on the Run.”

Macie wants to run a 10K, Arnett said, but it's not just about how fast and how far she runs. Mother and daughter ran past a cemetery around Memorial Day and talked about what veterans buried there had sacrificed. “It's those things that are so important,” Arnett said.

“Running a few miles, setting goals and achieving them—it's so much like life. Just take one step at a time.”