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Little Feet

Two years ago, an 8-year-old boy from Manlius maneuvered through the crowds at the Philadelphia Marathon and proudly watched his father complete the 26.2-mile race.

Calvin Stauffer, now 10, still remembers the awe he felt when his dad showed him the shiny medal he won for finishing the race. It was a prize he wanted for himself.

Today, Calvin has a pair of running medals of his own, both hanging on his bedroom closet door. He hopes to add a third to his collection by running more than 26 miles over the course of this summer through the Syracuse Track Club’s Junior Marathoners program.

For Calvin—and for thousands of other elementary school children in Central New York—the simple sport of running has become an inexpensive way to exercise, be with friends, reap prizes, and avoid the lure of sedentary activities that contribute to childhood obesity. This spring and summer, nearly every road race, bicycle race and triathlon in Central New York will offer a fun event for youngsters in hopes of inspiring them to get active and stay active.

“It’s great to see the kids loving something that’s really good for them,” says Syracuse resident Dave Oja, a road-race organizer, leader of the Syracuse Chargers Track Club and head coach of the men’s and women’s cross-country and track teams at Cazenovia College. “Name any Charger race,” he adds, referring to more than 50 local road races, fun runs and track meets organized by the Chargers, “and there is a kid component.”

As with most cardiovascular exercise, the benefits of running are huge. Children who run have stronger hearts, more energy, enhanced immunity, happier moods, sturdier bones and increased blood flow to the brain, which fosters learning, according to the Web site JustRun.org, sponsored by the Big Sur International Marathon in California.

It is also inexpensive and convenient. For most children, a quality pair of sneakers, some comfortable running clothes, and a safe place to run are all they need to get started.

“My idea is to expose them to running because it’s something you can do forever,” says Jack Stauffer, Calvin’s father, who likes to take his son and his two younger daughters to the outdoor track at Fayetteville-Manlius High School. “Anybody can do it, and you don’t have to be good to do it.”

Syracuse resident Nancy Volk says her 10-year-old son, Dylan, is performing better in school this year because running has bolstered his confidence. Dylan runs with the Syracuse Chargers Youth Program, which holds regular practices and indoor track meets during the winter at Manley Field House. This summer, the Chargers will also sponsor four outdoor meets at a local track.

During practice, Dylan gets to experience a full sampling of exercises that are good for his muscles and cardiovascular system: warm-up stretches and exercises, sprints, agility drills, long jump and hurdles. His coach, Jasper Royal, says he hopes to expose children to the fundamentals of track in a fun, pressure-free environment. “I’m making it fun, but I’m also making it so when they go to high school, they are prepared,” Royal says.

For the littlest children, like 5-year-old Rebecca McDaniels, running is simply a way to burn off steam. McDaniels’ curly brown ponytail bounces up and down as she stretches, runs over tiny orange cones, jumps on wooden boxes, and leaps into a sand pit during her weekly practices at Manley Field House.

Rebecca also learns about the importance of water breaks and “looking both ways” before crossing the track, which is bustling with runners of all ages. Her coach is longtime Chargers member Lennie Tucker, who has the children hold hands as they switch from one exercise to another during the hour-long practice.

“She is so happy,” says Rebecca’s mom, Kathy McDaniels of Syracuse, who watches from inside the track oval. “She loves this so much.”

The Syracuse Track Club also sponsors summer track meets for kids, with participants doing short races (usually less than one lap) and hurdle events. The kids also enjoy plenty of games like “red light, green light” and agility exercises that include twirling a hula hoop around their waists and jumping on a mini-trampoline.

“It’s just so encouraging to see because half the time the kids don’t want to leave,” says Margaret Hartmann, president of the track club. “They want to run and run and run.”

Despite the emphasis on fun and fitness, parents frequently raise questions about the fine line between “just enough” and “too much” running for their elementary-age children. Can too much running stunt a child’s growth? Can it cause serious injuries? Can children who are already competitive in nature do too much too soon, causing them to burn out psychologically?

For the most part, experts in the field have no set answer to the question of how much is too much. But they agree that running should always be fun and low-key for young children, with no emphasis on winning or racing until at least junior high or high school.

Dr. Wayne Eckhardt, a surgeon and running-injury specialist at Orthopaedic Associates of Central New York, says this point cannot be stressed enough. He calls it “criminal” for parents to pressure their children to run specific distances or force them into races.

“You’ve got to let kids be kids, not little athletes,” says Eckhardt, who is also an assistant team physician for the Syracuse University athletic program.

How much running elementary-age children should do depends largely on age, fitness level and interest, according to the Web site kidsrunning.com, sponsored by Runner’s World magazine. Parents and coaches should never turn running into a chore or pressure a child to race because it will probably lead to burnout by the time they reach adolescence.

“That’s the biggest danger, as far as I’m concerned,” says Oja, the Syracuse Chargers and Cazenovia College running coach who is also a father of three.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, worried about the issue of excessive training among children, published a policy statement in the 1990s that says growth-plate damage, stress fractures and chronic tendinitis, among other maladies, can hinder children who run too much too soon. Children are also less efficient at regulating their body temperature, which means running more than 30 minutes can become harmful for them on especially hot or cold days.

Still, children who run more than 10 or 15 miles per day—the distance cited in the policy—are relatively rare. In the spring of 2006, the worldwide running community raised an outcry after a coach in India allowed a 4-year-old boy to run a seven-hour, 65-kilometer run (40 miles) in stifling hot weather. After the boy collapsed a few kilometers before the finish line, welfare officials in New Delhi banned him from running such long distances.

In America, marathon organizers forbid children to enter races, limiting participants to adults over 18 or 20 years old. Locally, most fun runs for elementary children range from 400 meters, which is about a quarter-mile, to 3 kilometers, which is about 2 miles. Those are similar to the fun-run distances recommended by Mitch Grant, a nationally recognized running coach and contributor to kidsrunning.com.

In the Syracuse Track Club’s Junior Marathoners program, children are encouraged to run a total of 26.2 miles from late June to early October, giving them at least three months to accumulate those miles. Last summer, for example, Calvin Stauffer ran 33 miles, which earned him the medal he had so long desired. He tallies his mileage in a Syracuse Track Club log book that highlights local places of interest for kids.

As with any sport, running creates a risk for injuries, especially among those who do not adhere to a gradual and consistent buildup, according to Eckhardt and guidelines established by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

Parents should also make sure their children do at least a five-minute warm-up, drink plenty of fluids, wear the right clothes, and, if possible, run on smooth and even surfaces to avoid stress on ankles and feet. Quality shoes are “critically important,” says Eckhardt, who treats injuries such as stress fractures and tendinitis in children who run too much.

Despite the risk of injuries—possible in any sport—most coaches and health-care professionals believe the long-term benefits of running outweigh the risks. They want children to view running as a fun way to stay fit, not just a one-time activity that might earn them a T-shirt or trophy.

Laurie Valentine, an 18-year physical education teacher at Fayetteville Elementary School, says she’s seen children becoming more sedentary and overweight under the influences of cable television, video games, and a harsh Central New York climate that makes exercise especially difficult during the winter months.

In fact, about 30 percent of all U.S. children between ages 6 and 11 are overweight, and 15 percent are considered obese, according to the American Obesity Association. Excess weight in childhood, which can cause a litany of adverse health effects, usually leads to the same problems as an adult.

At Fayetteville Elementary, Valentine and her colleague, Matt Murphy, emphasize running and overall fitness in units and activities that span the entire school year. This spring, for example, a six-lane, 200-meter track will be mowed into the lawn outside the school for a “field days” event in June that includes sprints, hurdles, relays and games. To help the children get in shape, Valentine urges children to run one or two laps around the grassy track during regular physical education classes.

“It’s like anything,” she says of the children. “You have those who are naturally self-driven and motivated and those who need a little push.”

Children who find it difficult to run without stopping to complete a full lap can earn points toward a “white ribbon award” for exerting a genuine effort, Valentine says. Children have to work in teams to win points toward the award. They have to encourage each other and show good sportsmanship.

“Every day, I tell them to work at the level they are comfortable with, to think about their own personal goal for the day,” she says. “We really try to create an environment where no one feels intimidated.”

Running can be a great way to achieve fitness in children, but it is not as simple to teach as one might guess. For most coaches, the most difficult concept to get across to children is pacing. That means getting them to run at a steady and consistent speed, rather than sprinting from the starting line and quickly stopping.

For 16 years Tom Bull, a sixth-grade teacher at Liverpool’s Long Branch Elementary School, has been preparing children for the fall Syracuse Festival of Races, which includes a 3-kilometer fun and fitness run. Every year, thousands of elementary school children arrive by the busload to run the event, which also draws internationally competitive runners to the flat and fast 5-kilometer course.

Oja, the race organizer, says the fun run lures the largest number of elementary-age runners in the area. That’s because teachers like Bull and Valentine—whose schools consistently win plaques for having the highest number of participants—also persuade parents, teachers and siblings to run with the children.

Bull starts practices three or four weeks before the event with the goal of having each child run 15 or 20 minutes without stopping. He hopes his emphasis on pacing will discourage them from sprinting at the start. He also teaches them about the importance of nutrition, hydration and wearing the right gear.

“For many kids, this has really set them on the right path in terms of exercising and continuing to run once they leave elementary school,” Bull says.

Despite the worrisome growth in childhood obesity, running enthusiasts refuse to give up hope. That’s because the simple act of running has always been a great source of joy for toddlers and children. In fact, local teachers and coaches say parents who constantly admonish their children to “walk” or “slow down” might want to encourage them to do the opposite—get out and run.

“Running,” says Oja, “is the most natural sort of fun kids have.”                          

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York