September 23, 2012

The Hockey Mom: Let kids run in the offseason -- with limits

By April Bowling

It’s hockey offseason in our house as you may know from my column in June. Luckily, this coincides with triathlon in-season since that’s what I make my living coaching. I’m not racing much this year, having a full stable of clients, but my kids are doing enough of it for the whole household. 

April Bowling is a mother of two, including one avid little hockey player named Sam. Owner of TriLife Coaching, a multisport training firm in Essex, Mass., April also co-founded the TriROK Foundation.

Their training consists of hours of swimming out to the float in the local lake and jumping off like crazy people, trying to lose their mother and each other riding bikes around the local woods’ double-track trails (they haven’t succeeded yet), and running me into the ground. But mostly, they just make like kids and play a lot. Then, come race day, they’re finished in about 10 minutes and begging to go get ice cream to “refuel.”

Hockey is an amazing sport for children’s conditioning, but its aerobic demands also can make it a real struggle at the beginning of the season when kids — especially Mites and Squirts — have been hanging out not doing a lot over the summer. Participating in triathlons and kids running events over the summer months can be a great, loosely structured way to build kids’ confidence in their athletic abilities, while not taking away from summer fun.

The first time Sam ran with me after hockey season was over, I knew he was in great shape, but I didn’t expect him to make much more than a mile. But he ran two, in 18 minutes no less, and was annoyed at me for making him stop. The truth was, I didn’t want him to hurt himself, and I also didn’t want to get grief from the other mothers on our running route who thought I was letting Sam run too far at 7 years old.

That worry — kids hurting themselves running — always has made the subject of young children running a controversial one; even at the short distances required by kids’ triathlons (7- and 8-year-olds usually run between a quarter-mile and a half-mile at these events, after a very short swim and bike). One camp of coaches and physiologists say that young bones, growth plates and tendons mean that children’s bodies cannot hold up to the repetitive pounding that running causes. I personally agree that our bodies were never evolved to run on concrete and asphalt, even with the most protective shoes. Many physiologists also make the point that children are natural sprinters, and shouldn’t be running longer distances until mid-adolescence.

Lots of experts and empirical evidence suggest differently, however. I line up with little kids in 5Ks all the time … and much to my chagrin I sometimes get beaten by 10- and 12-year-olds. Children throughout much of the world begin running for miles a day — to school and back, to market and back — at very young ages. Their bodies adapt and some physiologists believe that such ingrained running from an early age is part of what helps produce the dominance of the Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners.

I’m not willing to go quite that far, but I do believe that even the average human body is more resilient than we give it credit for, more powerful than most of us chose to find out, and is made for moving not sitting. But no matter what it evolved to do over millennia, if it spends most of its early years sitting, then that’s what it will be best at once it grows up.

In my own coaching, it’s clear that the most injury-prone runners are those who came to the sport as adults, instead of running throughout childhood and adolescence. And when I say running, it can take many forms — soccer, lacrosse, field hockey, cross country, track — anything that involves sustained aerobic efforts and the impact of running to which the body can adapt.

On the other hand, studies have shown that most lifelong runners — while they may have to cut back on mileage and intensity, or move off the roads and onto the trails as they age — hold up much better physically than non-runners. That includes their knees, which are the common worry of those who don’t run. Running increases bone density, muscle tendon and ligament strength, and cardiac capacity, but the effects in childhood have not been deeply studied so exactly how far and at what ages children should run has not been resolved.

So because the scientists can’t say for sure, I use common sense. (This approach seems to work well for all aspects of parenting, as far as I can tell.) Just as hockey was great for Sam’s running, running will only help him when the season starts. Especially the kind we do, which involves jumping and dodging and lots of lateral movements. And because, like hockey, he’s always champing at the bit to run, I’m not inclined to stand in his way.

As far as I’m concerned, following these rules of thumbs keeps Sam a safe and happy little runner:

* We only run when he asks to run.

* We stop before he wants to stop.

* We run on a mixture of surfaces but mostly off-road on trails.

* We stick to easy routes and don’t include many steep downhills.

* We take lots of breaks to watch frogs, check out cool rocks, and visit friends’ houses.

Either we alternate sprints with walking breaks, or if he wants to run straight, we chat the whole time. If he can’t chat easily, we take a break. I admit — this rule usually annoys the crap out of him.

I followed these same rules with his now-9-year-old sister and she’s run four 5K races (3.1 miles) in the past two years with no problems. At both kids’ requests, we’ve recently started going on short family runs and I must say the conversation starts flowing, the sibling fighting stops, and it’s an awesome bonding experience.

And that’s ultimately, the best argument for letting kids run, at least a little bit. You can do it together, and you can do it for life. And the experiences you have along the way make for great conversation in the car on the way to all those hockey games all winter long.

This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal