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Developing a Running Program for Kids

2016 Red Balloon Run and Ride

2016 Red Balloon Run and Ride, held April 23 at Children’s Medical Center Plano.

Photo by: Red Balloon & Ride

Running is enjoyed by both adults and children for the benefits of fitness as well as the excitement of competition. In fact, the earlier a child starts running, the better the cardiovascular fitness foundation they will develop for later years. Running can help strengthen a child’s heart, lungs, circulatory system and muscles, as well as enhance performance in other sports such as soccer and basketball. This overall improved physical fitness allows young athletes to play better, adapt better to new skills, prevent injuries and speed recovery when an illness or injury does occur.

However, it is important to remember that a child’s body does not respond and adapt to training programs the same way as an adult’s. Following are some of the concerns parents and coaches should consider when developing training programs for young runners.

Kids are not miniature adults.

In children, unlike in adults, endurance training does not substantially improve VO2 max, the maximum amount of oxygen that an athlete can use, which is associated with aerobic capacity. A child’s heart size limits how much blood and oxygen can be delivered to active muscles, and studies have shown that kids can only achieve a 10% increase in VO2 max at best. Instead, the majority of improvement in a child’s running performance comes from better economy of motion and improved strength. In adults, it is assumed that as training aerobic capacity improves, more blood and oxygen are delivered to muscles for a given heart rate. This is not as easily applied to kids and should be considered when designing a training program for young runners.

Children may also be limited to the amount of endurance activity they are capable of sustaining – a function of lactate threshold. Lactate threshold is the rate of exercise at which the fatiguing byproduct, lactic acid, is accumulated in the blood. In kids, it is unclear if training improves lactate threshold, meaning they are limited in the amount of improvement in endurance training. This is why it is important to be careful when trying to adapt the same training principles in adults to kids.

Beware overtraining and burnout.

Given sensible training and avoiding pushing a child too hard or too much, running poses no real increase in danger to damaging muscles, bones, growth plates or joints. Most injuries occur from overtraining, which can be prevented with proper rest and using proper technique.

One of the real dangers for young runners is psychological burnout. Well-meaning but over-enthusiastic parents and coaches may often push a young runner “too far, too fast, too soon.” Quite often these young running stars never reach their running potential because of early dropout. A child does not have the experience to determine a sense of pace and restraint, and it is the responsibility of coaches and parents to regulate a young runner’s training and provide the appropriate running program for that child.

Set healthy goals.

In general, experts agree that an exercise program for children should accomplish two major goals: enhance physical fitness and promote long-term adaptation of a physically active lifestyle that will be carried into and throughout adulthood. Whereas most adults run for internal rewards such as relaxation, good feelings from exercise, socialization with running friends, competitiveness and the joy of winning, when it comes to children and adolescents, the focus should be on the health and psychological benefits, not the victories and trophies.

Informal competition is the best in the early years of a runner. Racing teams and intense competition that involve intense interval workouts and a regimented racing schedule should be reserved for the older, more mature runner in high school or beyond, or else the risk of early burnout or injury increases. For younger runners, an occasional fun run or school competition is most adequate, and marathon training and racing should be reserved for later on. There is no need to rush.

The following are recommendations and guidelines for training a young runner:

  1. A running program should first be positive and enjoyable.

  2. A training program should take into account intensity, frequency and duration. With kids, the program should not be too intense and should allow plenty of recovery time.

  3. Aerobic exercise is used to improve endurance performance, while interval and speed work develops anaerobic and short-term power performance.

  4. The “perceived exertion” scale may be more appropriate to gauge intensity rather than a specific heart rate. A scale of 6 to 20 is used, with 6 being very easy and 20 being a maximum “all-out” effort. Kids tend to rate exercise at a certain physiological level lower than adults.

  5. The duration of a workout should range from 15 to 40 minutes or more, depending upon the intensity of the training session. Young athletes generally do not respond well to prolonged, monotonous efforts. Workout sessions should consist of repetitions of shorter periods.

  6. Keep trainings to a minimum of three to a maximum of four or five sessions per week. Individual differences in training tolerance and ability should be taken into account. Three to four races per season is reasonable. At age 15, a physically mature and talented runner, if ready, can compete in national competition.

  7. Pre-season training should focus on a progressive increase in volume, with increases in intensity beginning at the onset of the running season.

  8. A young runner’s training program should be conservative and easily tolerated. Avoid high mileage above 40 miles a week.

  9. A warm-up and cool-down period including stretching exercises should be included in every workout session.

  10. Overtraining should be avoided since this will undoubtedly lead to injuries.


1. Galloway, J. Galloway’s Book On Running. Random House. 1984. Pp. 262-63.

2. Ratliff RA. The Pediatric Athlete. Edited by Sullivan JA and Grana WA. American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. 1990. Pp. 7-14.

3. Pate RR and Ward DS. The Child and Adolescent Athlete. Edited by Bar-Or O. Blackwell Science LTD. 1996.


Read More Articles by Dr. Smurawa regarding youth athletes:

Soccer Injury Prevention and Treatment

Hydration Guidelines for Youth Athletes

Surviving Two-A-Day or Prolonged Practices

Dr. Troy Smurawa

Board-certified in both pediatrics and sports medicine, Dr. Troy Smurawa is the director of pediatric sports medicine at the Children’s Health Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine in Plano, Texas. Dr. Smurawa earned his medical degree from The University of Texas Health Science Center and did his residency in pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin. He completed a sports medicine fellowship at Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Akron, Ohio.

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