Get Your Kids Into Running With Tips From an Olympian

Running can be a fun part of a healthy lifestyle for kids. Rod Dixon, Olympic medalist and winner of the 1983 New York City Marathon, was recently in Dallas for the ING KiDS ROCK event.

His love of running started as a 10 year-old in a running club in his native New Zealand, and now his passion is to pass running on to the next generation.

"My love of running came from running alongside my friends in a structured training environment. The running club really laid a wonderful foundation for me," Dixon says. "I played rugby and cricket when younger, but I was really at peace with myself when I ran."

Dixon now promotes kids' running across the world with his KiDSMARATHON program, an eight-week training program for 7 to 12 year-olds. He tells kids that it doesn't matter how long it takes to finish, but the important thing is to commit to start and then cross the finish line. This philosophy grew out of Dixon's personal experience after winning the New York City Marathon.

"After I finished and did all of the press interviews, I went back to the finish line. It was hours later, but runners were still crossing the finish line, putting their hands up in celebration just as I had. I realized that I wasn't the only winner that day. Thousands of people had won their race. Since then my mantra has been 'finishing is winning and winning is finishing.' "

Dixon says that one key to getting kids excited about running is to help them see their progress. Kids start out wanting to run as fast as they can, which means they tire quickly and start breathing hard. Dixon encourages them to slow down and keep track of how far they can run in a certain amount of time.

"When the kids realize they are running farther in the same amount of time, they see improvement. When they see improvement, they get really excited about it. I encourage them to run more like the tortoise than the hare," Dixon says.

It's important for parents to lead by example by exercising themselves and connecting healthy eating with exercise. Parents also need to make sure to keep their running kids safe and provide lots of positive feedback.

Most kids can comfortably finish a 5K with proper training by 10 to 12 years of age. While some kids may have the will and ability to train for farther distances, Dixon discourages focusing on longer races until high school. Then they can focus on running competitively with their school's team or use their running skills for other sports.

 "As parents, we must always encourage and provide the right environment and facilities so kids can run safely and securely," Dixon says. "Running and cardiovascular fitness is the basis of every other sport. Those skills will transfer to any other sport your child chooses."

Dixon inspired a love of running within his own family. After his New York City Marathon win, his then three-year-old daughter said that she wanted to run a marathon with her father. Twenty-five years later, that wish came true. Dixon and his daughter stepped up to the starting line of the 2008 New York City Marathon together.

"We started together, ran every step together, and crossed the finish line together. Now my three-year-old grandson wants to run a marathon with me, but I don't know if I will hold up that long!"

Dixon's KiDSMARATHON program began in a school in New Zealand in the early nineties and is now in schools across the world. For more information on the program, visit kidsmarathonfoundation.org.

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Dallas Running Examiner Sara Johnson is an RRCA-certified running coach who has been running for more than ten years.

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