Coach Culpepper: Easing Kids Into Running


Teaching kids to run requires an approach that goes against the trend in most youth sports these days. Development, intensity and specialization have continued to shift to younger-aged athletes. Gone are the days of starting a sport in high school or participating in multiple sports throughout the year. Here are a few things to consider as you introduce the sport of running to kids and young athletes.

The younger they are, the more fun it has to be

Let’s be honest, running is nowhere near as fun as the likes of baseball, basketball, football, soccer, lacrosse, gymnastics or all the non-
traditional options available to kids. Running is an acquired taste and takes time to develop an appreciation for working toward goals and individual progression. The younger the runner, the more critical it is to make running fun for them. The best way to guarantee your kid will not run later in life is to make it too intense or too serious early in their development. Some kids are naturally competitive, which you want to foster in a positive way; for others, the competitive aspect will take time to develop. Shuttle runs, relays or a reward system with beads, trinkets or popsicles for laps run are a much better approach than simply running races or doing hard workouts.  Trick them into putting in a good effort with variety and games. There’s plenty of time in the future to run for fast times or higher places.

Don’t underestimate the fundamentals

The best thing you can do as a parent, mentor or coach of younger athletes is to teach them the fundamentals. We hear about fundamentals with other youth sports constantly, but rarely is it addressed with running. Often running can be oversimplified to where the basics are undervalued. Teaching young runners the importance of things like having a good routine, hydration, stretching and proper running mechanics will far outweigh doing hard workouts or logging miles down the road. You would be hard pressed to find a U.S. Olympian in Rio who started training hard at a young age. Rather, it would be interesting to poll how many were taught good fundamentals by one of their early coaches or a parent.  My first coach was wonderful at teaching me the basics, and I was able to apply these through the remainder of my career. I attribute my longevity and lack of injury to those good habits.

Always fall back on aerobic foundation

As a rule the fallback should always be good aerobic foundational work. It is far better over the long term to instill a good foundation versus stressing harder interval sessions. We have all heard how East African runners from Kenya and Ethiopia run many miles to and from school each day. This is one of the many factors that lend to their very quick progression and their ability to absorb harder training more effectively later in their development. It can be alluring to do hard workouts or the local races every few weeks, but aerobic foundation work should always be the standard choice, and later, when young bodies and minds are ready for more significant hard training, you can introduce other elements. This is best done through good, steady running and moderate distances. The distance should vary depending on their age and ability. However, long slow distance is not advised as you still want to promote the development of power, efficiency and learning the skill of perceived effort.

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About the Author
Two-time U.S. Olympian Alan Culpepper won national titles from the 5K to the marathon. His first book, “Run Like a Champion,” is available at

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