If you want to raise a runner, raise an athlete. OK, maybe “marathon-finisher” doesn’t typically make the list of aspirations we have for our children, like “become President,” “have children of your own (so you know what I’m going through),” or “stay out of jail” do. But “live healthy” and “be happy” nearly always make that list, and there is no better way to achieve those goals than to maintain a fitness regime, and few better such regimes than to be a runner. So, yes, it probably is on your list.
But how do you go about doing it? It’s doubtful you will sign your 5-year-old up for a 5K. Maybe the local “fun run” can pique their interest, but it’s not likely to generate the need or desire for designing and executing a training plan. And the jury is still out over what the long-term effects of starting to run competitively at a young age does to our bodies.
On the other hand, children love to run if given the opportunity, and will do so without much encouragement (in fact, many do so despite warnings not to, as you have probably witnessed in your local family-friendly eatery). Children have little concept of “fatigue” at a young age. And when they do eventually become winded, they both recover quickly and forget exactly how they got in such a condition in the first place. As they proceed through elementary school, they become aware of the fact that exercise creates fatigue and, occasionally, pain, but they don’t learn to fear such a condition unless we let them.
So why let them? And the best way to keep their mind occupied and avoid letting it dwell on such topics is to make sure they are having fun while exercising. This is where sports such as soccer, basketball, swimming, and, maybe to a lesser extent, football and baseball come in. When having fun and, at a manageable level where the activity is not accompanied by parental pressure, competing in such activities, they remain oblivious to the “work” they are putting into it, and come to enjoy the process.
I don’t know how such physiological variables as VO2max and lactate threshold develop as we mature, but it seems likely that we can set a good base for such attributes by keeping active. Additionally, such key elements as balance, coordination, and strength develop more naturally when playing sports than they do when focusing too early on “just” fitness. All these skills help in making the transition to running easier, when we choose to no longer compete in the sports of our youth. While we can make a later start in our efforts to develop the attributes, it is far more difficult to do so (and those who successfully do are to be admired for their dedication). And the social aspects of youth sports also fill a key developmental need for the youth of today.
Soccer seems the best suited for positioning someone to be a future runner, due to its demands on balance, coordination, strength, and endurance. I know that, for this athlete at least, it was the recognition that the average high-school player runs six miles per game that led directly to an interest in running. The roughly (i.e., imprecisely measured) 30-40 miles per week I started running during high school summers led directly to my confidence in turning to running when I put on 15 pounds after my first (and only) college soccer season.
So encourage your child to play sports. The skills and attributes they build while doing so through their key developmental years will pay back in droves when they face the challenges and temptations of independent decision-making. And maybe that will one day help them become President of the United States. Or at least raise healthy children of their own.