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My first day as a high school running coach didn’t go well. In May of 2004, just before school let out for the summer, I offered sign-ups to join the cross country team, and I was pleased with the number of students who showed interest for the fall. By July, when I started making phone calls and emailing about summer practice, the response was less enthusiastic. The second parent I contacted by phone could be heard asking their child if they had signed up to run across the country. “No, cross country,” I replied, “The longest race is 3.1 miles.” The student could then be heard in the background explaining (with great enthusiasm) that they had no desire to run three miles. Ever.
Slowly, my once-robust list dwindled to a few names. I was dejected, but deep inside I understood that distance running — which has been a passion for me for decades — is viewed by many as nothing more than cruel punishment handed down by sadistic physical education teachers and military drill instructors.
I get it. I’ve been there. I’ve been the teenager reveling in the freedom of summer and central air conditioning. Somewhere along the line, though, I laced up my shoes and started running. Now, in my mid-thirties, summers are still hot and air conditioning is still appealing. But I’ve learned something that I wanted to share with those high school athletes and, now, with my own children — running, hard as it may be at times, offers tremendous rewards.
One in five children living in the United States is obese according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And that increase in BMI has led to a whole host of health problems typically associated with older people, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. In a nation where healthy food is widely available to most, children are suffering from an epidemic of our own engineering. We as parents need to do our part to protect our kids.
Maybe you never managed to get off the couch. Maybe your role as a father has made personal fitness a low priority. Perhaps the statistics about childhood obesity frighten you because you know that your own kids are falling into the trap of inactivity. Regardless, there’s a solution to this growing health crisis and it’s right outside your door. You’ll be an active participant in the plan, and both you and your children will benefit greatly.
A 5K race is 3.1 miles. That’s where we’ll start. It doesn’t have to be fast, and it will probably be uncomfortable. But it may be the best thing that you do with your children this year. Here are seven key reasons that it’s time to find a local race this fall, circle that date on your calendar, and hit the trail with your kids to train.
1. You’re Competing Against Yourself
Whether your goal is to walk, run, or drop 30 seconds off your PR (personal record), your primary opponent in the sport of distance running is the person you see in the mirror each day. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve lost a step (a pretty generous understatement) compared to the 5K times I ran in high school, but I set a personal goal for each race. Moreover, I set a personal goal for myself each week and every day. Your children can do the same thing. Will your times draw attention from major sponsors? Not likely. But when you and your kids reach your goals, you’ll enjoy a sense of accomplishment and have cause to celebrate your achievements,.
2. Signing Up For a Race Will Keep You Motivated
The arbitrary desire most of us have to “get in shape” doesn’t provide effective motivation to stick with a workout and diet regiment. But when there’s a deadline — a date on the calendar with the words “5K” written in red and circled — there’s an impetus to keep moving. Once you and your family have accomplished your goal of running a 5K, you can sign up for another race and try to beat your time. Or you can train for a new event — a 10K, half or full marathon, a duathlon or triathlon, or even an obstacle race. So long as you have a race in the future, you’ll have the motivation you need.
3. Runners Lift One Another Up
It’s rare to find a sport where competitors are consistently supportive of one another, but distance running is an exception. As a runner and as a coach, I’m consistently impressed by the level of sportsmanship on display at any race. And while there are always exceptions, the vast majority of runners are cheering for those around them. It’s not unusual to pass another runner and hear them congratulate and encourage you. This courtesy seems to be extended even more noticeably to young runners.
4. Running is Good for the Mind and Body
Running is a great way to lose weight and improve your overall fitness level. Depending upon your age, weight, and pace, you’ll likely burn more than 100 calories a mile, and running has been proven to improve cardiovascular health. But running also improves mental health and the release of endorphins during exercise can reduce stress and anxiety. That’s a benefit for everyone, but it’s especially important for adolescents who are coping with the challenges of entering young adulthood. Running is a way for kids to unplug.
5. The Cost is Minimal
Running is one of the few sports for which you already have all the necessary equipment, even if you have never participated. Find a pair of shorts or jogging pants, a t-shirt, some comfortable athletic shoes, and you’ve got all the running gear you need. A cell phone full of music and a cheap pair of earbuds are an added bonus, but if you have friends or family who are willing to run with you, leave the electronics at home and take advantage of the time you have together to engage in conversation (so long as your oxygen supply is sufficient to allow you to move your body and speak simultaneously). Most races are quite affordable — you can enter a local 5K for as little as $10 — and with the rise in popularity of road running you probably won’t have to travel too far to find a race on any given weekend. If you choose not to enter a race, simply map-out routes near your home and run for free.
6. Running Teaches Life Skills
Running is rarely glamorous and the goals you achieve may seem minor compared to the hours and miles required to reach them. But the lessons that I’ve learned as a distance runner — patience, persistence, overcoming obstacles, appreciating my successes without constantly comparing myself to others — have proved beneficial in every aspect of my personal and professional life. I hear adults complain frequently that children are conditioned to expect immediate gratification. Running doesn’t provide immediate rewards. Success is incremental and every personal record is paid for with miles and toil. Your child will, at some point, have to deal with an unforgiving professor or boss. If they’re a runner, they’ll be better equipped to overcome those challenges because they’ve performed for the least forgiving boss of all — the stopwatch.
7. Your Kids Need To See You Struggle
What possible benefit could there be in allowing your children to witness you stagger across a finish line having missed your goal time in a race? Why should you let them see you at your worst, your mouth hanging open, sweat pouring down your face? Simply put, our children need to know that adults aren’t perfect. They need to know that not everything comes easily for us. They also need to understand that trying your best means that, on occasion, you will fail. In fact, you may fail more often than you succeed. Running humanizes us, makes us vulnerable. Our weaknesses are on full display. But having the courage to display those weaknesses teaches our children that struggling is part of life — and that working through hard times can be rewarding.
Brad Fitzpatrick is a full-time freelance writer based in Ohio. His wife Bethany is a high school guidance counselor, and they have two children, Audrey and Caleb.