November 16, 2016

Tips for Coaching Kids to Run

Someone recently emailed me to ask if I had all of the games I play with my cross country kids written down into one post, and I thought I did--but apparently, I do not! When I first volunteered to coach cross country for kids in second through fourth grade, I was clueless. I read as much as I could about it, but I just couldn't find the info I was looking for. My goal was to make running FUN, so that the kids would want to continue to run through middle and high school.

Tips for Coaching Kids to Run

I had a hard time finding games for the age group that I was coaching, so I put my brain to use and came up with some games of my own, inspired by others that I read about. Some games were a hit with my team, and some were a bust. In this post, I'll write all about coaching kids and I'll share all the popular games I came up with.

Tips for Coaching Kids to Run
  • Make a structured plan for the week. We had three practices per week: one for easy and fun running, one for long distance running, and one for speed work. On the easy run day, I would give the kids a certain number of laps to run (the loop of the park we run is about 0.34 miles). Once they ran their laps, then we would play a fun game or two. On the speed day, we did a speed work exercise (I'll list some of those in this post) and then played a game. And on the distance day, we gave the kids a goal number of laps to run, which was usually double what they ran on the other days; no game on distance day.
  • When you're coaching a lot of kids, it's impossible to keep track of how many laps each has run (and even the kids forget). The kids happened to LOVE my system for keeping track--rubber bands. I have a tupperware container full of rubber bands, and I set it at the start of the loop. Each time the kids pass the start, they grab a rubber band and put it around their wrist. Alternatively, you could give them a certain number of rubber bands to start with, and they can take one off after each lap. I have no idea why the kids got so excited about rubber bands, but it really motivated them!
  • Be prepared to hear a lot of excuses from the kids: "My stomach hurts", "My leg hurts", "My foot feels funny", "I'm tired", "I didn't eat before practice", "I ate too much before practice", etc. They claim they can't run laps, and then they are miraculously all better when it's time to play games ;) Throughout the season, there were a couple of kids who really did have an injury or other issue where they couldn't run that day; but on most days, I let their excuses go in one ear and out the other. 
  • Stress to the kids that they should only worry about competing with themselves. I told my team that the main goal for them was to be a better runner than they were at the start of the season. At each meet, I told them to try and beat their own times. Of course the kids love winning medals, but the competition is tough! I wanted them to know that they are still doing great by improving their times, whether they come in first place or last place at the meets.
Coaching kids cross country

  • Start your first (or second) practice with a time trial. That is where the kids will run a particular distance (in my case, I had them do three laps, which was 1.11 miles) as fast as they can. They should treat it like a race, where they run that distance in the shortest amount of time possible. Write down their finish times (I'll explain my system below). At the end of the season, have them do the same exact time trial so they can see how much they improved. Every single kid on our team improved their time! 
  • Keeping track of finish times for a time trial is a bit of a challenge. I've done several of them now and have developed a system that works well for us. First, I cut a bunch of index cards in half, and I wrote numbers on them (1-24, the number of kids we have on our team). I downloaded a stopwatch app for my phone that allows you to keep track of "laps" on the stopwatch. Each time you press the lap button, it would mark that particular time while the clock kept going. 
So, when each kid finished, I would press the lap button and hand them an index card with their finish number on it. (The first kid to finish gets number 1, the second gets number 2, and so on). Tell them to hold on to the index card until you collect it from them. Once everyone has finished, you'll have a list of finish times on your app, and all the kids will have a number. Then, you'll know that the first lap is the time for the kid holding the number 1. The second lap is for the kid holding number 2. And so on. Write down all of their times in a notebook.
Here is an example... Each time you press the lap button, it records that split. The numbers in gray are the splits for each lap (ignore the numbers in black). If this was a time trial, the Lap 1 (5.0) would represent the kid who finished first (who will be holding the number 1 index card). Lap 2 (11.1) would represent the kid who finished second (holding number 2). And so on.
    stopwatch app

  • I had a bag of little toys that I bought at the dollar store. After each meet, we recognized who improved their time the most from the previous meet, and we gave the most improved boy and girl a prize from the bag.
  • If you're able to, it's actually really helpful to run with the kids (usually Renee would, but occasionally I would instead). The kids are less likely to take walk breaks if the coach is on their heels ;)
  • One of the most important things to teach the kids, in my opinion, is good sportsmanship. We always encouraged the kids to cheer on other runners. One thing that I love about running as a sport is that the competition is friendly. Two kids might be racing each other, but as soon as the race is over, they're best friends. You don't really see much of that in other sports. 
  • At the end of the season, I think it's nice to recognize each kid for something special they contributed to the team. Last year, I made certificates for things such as "Cheetah Award" for the fastest boy and girl, "Most Improved Runner" award, "Most Enthusiastic" award, etc. All of the kids got one, and I think it made them feel special to be recognized. 
This post got to be really long, so I'll continue on tomorrow's post with games and some workout ideas for the kids...

Running Games for Kids


  1. great post! Thanks for sharing what you've learned :)

  2. Wow, your idea with rubber bands is absolutely amazing! :)

  3. Thanks so much, Katie! I really appreciate this post! (I'm the one who emailed you!)

  4. I coached a girls running group for two years and this makes me miss it! Love the rubber band idea. We would have a parent or sibling who was not running stand at the start/finish of the track and mark the kids arms with a marker each time they came by. They loved showing off their "war paint" at the end of practice!

  5. Thanks a ton. Love the rubber band idea.


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