Every kid wants to make the team, win a relay race or a sprint, outrun the "it' in tag. Some kids want to compete in races, train and set personal speed goals. Nobody really wants to trail along, the pokey caboose at the end of the pack. Help your young cheetah, or the turtles on your school-age team, to pick up the pace, safely and smoothly, without stressing all the fun out of running.
Fun and Form
You can't train a young athlete or build a lifelong habit through burnout or boredom. Keep it fun for young runners. Warmups may include sprint preparation exercises such as zombie walks for balance and hamstrings -- arms outstretched at shoulder height, the child swings one extended leg at least navel high while balancing on the flat opposite foot, alternating to walk forward.
Knee hugs reinforce balance and hamstring work as the child marches slowly, raising the knee and hugging the bent leg to the chest for a count of three on each step. Tip-toeing strengthens feet and lower legs -- walk forward on the balls of the feet, then do that pigeon-toed, then toes facing the sides. Keep going but switch from toes to heels.
Timed all-out sprints challenge your runners to improve personal bests. But teach, and correct for, good running form to avoid retraining poor habits later.
Foot strike can speed or slow you on your way. The ball of the foot should touch the ground first because runners who land on the mid-foot or ball go faster. A heel strike and roll forward takes more time. Ball strikes are springier and swifter -- a quick touchdown and push-off -- and you can encourage them with hill or incline running. Get them kicking it with the ABC sprint drills, performed on a track with a series of cones spaced 30 to 60 feet apart. Run from the first to second cone at moderate pace, the next set faster and the last set full out.
A Drill: "March" with feet flexed, torso tall, and knees driven to hip or navel height.
B Drill: Repeat A Drill but extend support leg strongly by rising on half-toe as you move forward.
C Drill: Keep hips facing forward and torso straight and long as the knee rises only halfway to hip height and the legs drive like rapid pistons.
Swing and Stride
The upper and lower body are equally engaged in producing speed. Arm swing helps to determine stride. Young runners should run upright, not hunched or bent excessively forward, with their shoulders and hips square. The arms swing from the shoulder, opposite to the leg movements -- left knee and right arm up -- moving in sync to create a smooth stride.
Arms and hands remain at the sides, not crossing the body, not clenched. Remind students to maintain a loose fist and to avoid thrusting their heads forward.
Tightening acts as a brake or drag on forward momentum.
Work with older kids on stair or hill drills to build explosive strength and increase awareness of arm movements. Short strong arm movements will drive short powerful steps. The long sprinting strides of the final race push require longer, stronger arm swings.
Some kids are natural runners -- others not so much. But everyone can run faster and no one has to come in last all the time -- too discouraging. So create a variety of loops for speed drills and give the slow pokes shorter distances: up the slight rise, around the light pole and back to finish versus down a hill, around the field house, back up the hill to finish. Time two or three loop runs -- with brief rests -- average each child's speeds, and let each one compete with himself to take the pressure off in group training.
Switch it up to keep it interesting: substitute lateral skips and crossovers, and obstacle courses for ABC drills some days; do a relay instead of sprint intervals on another day. Encourage relaxed but not floppy hands by having runners hold feathers with the pincer fingers of each hand during intervals or speed drills.
With very young runners, keep a training program light. Repetition will improve their speeds but exhaustion will lead to carelessness, trips and injuries, and unhappy little sprinters. A 1K run might be a great goal for the kindy set. Your own child should be cleared for take-off by your healthcare provider before signing up for a track program -- and develop habits of good nutrition and sufficient sleep to ensure she stays healthy and enthused about her sport.
Cross training helps kids go faster. A child with good flexibility and core strength has the advantage in competition with a peer who's less physically fit.
- Photo Credit SergioZacchi/iStock/Getty Images
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