Are children losing the art of running?

One of the more interesting but troubling aspects of the running technique coaching work we do in Melbourne is the steady stream of inquires we’ve had from parents worried about their child’s running technique. Many of these young people are not runners as such, but talented Australian Rules football, basketball and soccer players – these team based ball sports also have a very large requirement for running skill and ability. At first we were a bit worried that parents might be over-thinking the issue, but as time has gone on we’ve seen a consistent number of young athletes exhibiting similar problems.

Their skill and ability levels at their chosen sports might be very high, but their running patterns are often weak and disorganized. More than enough problems are frequently present to hold them back in progressing to higher levels of competition, but more worryingly potentially leading to injuries. It makes it hard to enjoy your favorite sport when you’re always sore and often injured, so I’ve no doubt there are many youngsters giving sport away because of injury or lack of enjoyment. We’re currently working on some initiatives to close some gaps in this area – more on that in the coming months.

Mark and I have had to pleasure to get to know and often refer these emerging athletes to local sprinting coach Kathleen O’Connell. Kathleen works one-on-one and/or with small groups of children of similar ages and does a great job in coaxing out the inner runner in these youthful competitors. This running coaching for non-runners is an emerging part of our respective coaching practices and underscores the indisputable fact that many young people have lost or never developed the art, skill and strength of running.

There’s clearly a range of lifestyle factors at play here, enough for an article or even a book. I’ll let Kathleen take over the story here as she shares some perspectives as a running coach and mother of a large family involved in a range of sporting pursuits.

Are young people losing the art of running?

By Kathleen O’Connell

In my work as a running sprint coach I’ve observed an increasing number of young athletes with poor running technique. I primarily coach young people who are involved in track and field through the school system and also Little Athletics. However in recent times, I have broadened my running technique coaching to teaching kids how to run for Australian rules football, basketball, soccer and cricket as well as any other sports that require running as a major component of the sport.

Before I begin to look at why young people might have poor running technique, I will explain the components needed in order for a good technique to be achieved. I believe there are five aspects that need to be addressed to successfully develop good running form in young athletes. I work on each of these elements during my coaching work.

  1. Coordination
  2. Strength
  3. Flexibility
  4. Fitness
  5. Developing, practicing and honing the skill of good running technique

Why are children losing their ability to run?

The same question continues to arise, why am I seeing lack of development and poor running actions in our young athletes today? A major part of the puzzle has been the massive shift in the lifestyles of our young people. Less unsupervised outdoor play, increasing amounts of screen centric sitting (i.e. social media, TV, gaming) are now coupled with the propensity of parents to drive their kids everywhere because of the legitimate safety concerns of riding bikes in busy city traffic.

Modern running shoes are also often cited as a cause of poor running technique and as an inhibitor of foot strength development and coordination. No doubt this is a factor, which combined with the lifestyle changes mentioned above makes for a perfect storm for problems to develop and become engrained.

It seems unnatural when our children are involved in sport that they often switch from sedentary activity to extremely high intensity sporting endeavors with no walking, riding or running about in between e.g. watching TV and then being driven straight to a basketball game – a real shock to the system. Ball sports coaching is often time restricted and focused on the skill and tactics of the games concerned, so there’s sometimes not much gentle running warm-up before full scale activity commences.

Loss of playtime, unstructured physical activity and transport as exercise

So let explore some of these changes in behavior a little further. In years gone by children were kicked outside after school and told not to return until dinner time. During this playtime there was running, jumping and bike riding. Most of these activities were done unsupervised allowing some risk taking and children finding their own boundaries. Going back even a few more years and a lot of this play would have been barefoot or in shoes with very little support.

It was during this play where children developed good all-around strength in their backsides, hamstrings and quads and also learned coordination and balance. By using shoes with little control their feet generated strength and also increased stability in their lower legs. Basically they were just running around having fun, but undertaking very vital activities children’s bodies require to develop strength and coordination while growing.

So where does all this lead?

More remedial work and running specific technique and strength training is needed than in the past. There is a much greater need today to focus on the running component of team sports because of the issues discussed above. The main problems I see when evaluating young athletes today are.

1. Over-striding combined with heavy heel-striking – this action is like putting the brakes on every time they stride. Also there is an increase in stress placed through the feet and legs by placing heel first without first engaging the posture muscles (buttocks and hamstrings). Young athletes using this action usually are quite noisy and flat-footed when they run.

2. Poor buttock strength and activation can lead to the thighs and knees rotating inwards and caving in. This causes many issues especially knee, shin and hip pain. Young runners often have an unstable knock-knee style that leading to heels and arms flapping everywhere.

3. Leaning forwards too much from the waist, which can be caused by a week core, lower back and buttocks and lack of knowledge of correct running form.

4. Ineffective arm action– this is sometimes a coordination issue or a lack of knowledge of good running form. I find improving arm action significantly stimulates development of the overall running technique.

5. Poor coordination leading to uncontrolled foot placement on the ground.

Encouraging engagement with running in young athletes and their parents

When I ask my young athletes why they have come to improve their running technique, the predominant reason given is to learn to run faster. Once they get a taste of what it’s like to move with greater speed and grace they’re often hooked.

As I say to my kids that play ball sports where there is a large amount of change of direction. Just get out there and run in a straight line sometimes.

Then I engage the parents who similarly would like to see their children run more effectively, however quite often their main focus and the reason they sought my advice is to reduce stress related injuries. Both are equally important goals.

So that leads me to the main reasons for teaching improved running technique in young athletes:

1. Reduce the risk of stress related overuse injuries.
2. Improve running efficiency and speed.
3. Improve acceleration (vital in team ball sports).
4. Teaching young athletes about correct body management by educating them of the importance of warming up prior to exercise and stretching after exercise.
5. Teaching young athletes about different forms of fitness.

Unfortunately, I don’t think we can change our children’s lifestyles too much from where we’re at today, especially those growing up in big cities where the imperative to keep them safe is very strong. But we can encourage more free and unstructured outdoor play and support our children in experimenting with and challenging their own limits. More bike riding, climbing and generally just running around will all help in the longer term and where it’s safe to do so, some barefoot activity. Generally we also need to encourage more running programs in school and outside junior running programs like Little Athletics.

Conclusion by Brian Martin

As a footnote having discussed some of these issues with Kathleen and Mark a number of times there seems to be a real gap in the development of running skills in young people involved in team sports today. Perhaps in years gone by this wasn’t an issue, but with our next generation of ball sports participants really battling with running, it seems the perfect opportunity for track and field to assert itself as a training ground for the running skills and fitness of players who might not otherwise be attracted to or involved in the sport. We’ve consistently suggested to many parents that their children add track and field as an off-season sport. Rather than roll from winter to summer sports programs, spend the summer honing your running skill and strength and then take those gains back into your winter team sports. I know for a fact that many of the kids attending Kathleen’s regular sessions find the simple act of learning to run faster to be incredibly enjoyable. No complications, just pure running – how good is that?

Images courtesy of Kathleen O’Connell, Words by Kathleen O’Connell and

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8 Responses to Are children losing the art of running?

  1. Natasha June 14, 2013 at 12:12 am #

    I think, it is all down to parents – if parents run and are physically active, kids will just follow. There should be no excuses like demanding jobs or absence of funds. Time can always be found (and TV is NOT a necessity in the house), and one can run even in old trainers. So up to us totally. Whenever we take part in a run or trail, we always take kids – most of the time, there are short runs for them too, and they “get into the spirit” and really want to progess. My 9 years old, who is normally allowed to run up to 1 or max 2 km, just last weekend suddenly asked to join me in a 10 km rather up and down trail – and has run it beautifully! Yes of course it is more stressful for younger ones, but somehow they know themselves when to stop and how to rest, so we should not worry to much. Just let them run and enjoy it, and create opportunities to do so.

    • Brian June 14, 2013 at 7:22 am #

      Hi Natasha, thanks for those comments. I think you’re right, setting an example goes more than a long way towards keeping the younger ones active. Keep up the good work!

  2. Zofia September 27, 2012 at 3:57 pm #

    I am a grade five kid who has been running since I was six. I live in a city and my mum got me started running to school because she was concerned about the lack of opportunity for exercise, because running was the easiest high-impact (for developing bone density) sport to fit in to the day, and because otherwise I would just read all day.
    When I started running, I disliked it because it was difficult. Over the past five years though, my parents and I have done many fun runs and I have come to enjoy it a lot.
    My mum tells me that when she was young she did a lot of “unconscious exercise”, she exercised while playing with her siblings and did not call it exercise. So when she started competitive running, it was much easier for her because she was already fit. For children who live in the city, there is no opportunity to do “unconscious exercise”. So when kids start running, it is much harder for them, and they don’t like it so they don’t do it.
    I agree with this article in that kids are losing the art of running, but I don’t think that screens are necessarily bad. I run with Garmin satellite running device and it is fantastic. You can look at all your stats and see how many kilometres you have done, as well as see your time. A lot of adults have them, so why not kids? It is a great interface and us kids are used to screens.
    There are actually some pretty cool combinations of technology and running such as this quadcopter called joggobot (not yet available to the public). It recognises a picture on your shirt and then when you start running it hovers in front of you and acts as a training partner, speeding up now and again and tempting you to catch it. See it at this link.
    Fun runs are great community events. There are lots of people there, food and sometimes even a band. When I started running, I enjoyed training much more after I had been to a fun run. They are really good for getting started on running.

    • Brian September 28, 2012 at 8:00 am #

      Hi Zofia, thanks for contributing to the discussion. Good point re technology for kids that could be a great way to get younger runners interested and motivated to continue with the sport. I hope you keep enjoying your running for many years to come.

  3. BILL September 15, 2012 at 6:32 am #

    I don’t know if children are losing the art of running but things are very different than when I was a kid. I was a kid during the mid 50’s and 60’s. We hardly ever watched TV and were outdoors all the time. I grew up in New Mexico. Hiking, camping, Flag football, baseball, kick the can, steal the flag, bicycling, running races/relays. I had a pair of “track shoes” that I wore constantly. No heel, very little support. I could run like the wind.
    At the risk of sounding like an old codger I’ll say I’m not sure kids today really understand how fun these activities can be. They are plugged into their I-pods,smart phones, video games, facebook, computers etc. These are all good tools but they are just that, tools. They should not be occupying all our kids free time.
    We have a responsibility to our kids to teach the value and joy of movement and physical play.
    My son, who grew up with all the new stuff has just started running in Invisible Shoes and is happier than I have seen him in quite some time. He has discovered the joy and is sharing it with his own kids. Makes me happy.

    • Brian September 15, 2012 at 7:06 am #

      G’day Bill, thanks for the comment. I agree with you, physical activity is so much more intrinsically satisfying and healthy than “virtual play” and this shouldn’t be forgotten. Get those kids moving!

  4. shin September 10, 2012 at 11:16 pm #

    Hi from Japan. I am a massage therapist, treating and coaching runners mostly. When I studied in Australia I knew your running technique book. Since then I use your text as a reference mainly.
    I read today’s article interestingly. I just want to share the information happening in my country.
    Now a shoe is becoming the mainstream among the japanese school kids – the shoe that has an angled footbed from right side to left. The purpose is to allow kids to run a corner of the track without falling. In fact many kids nowadays tend to fall when going through a corner because of their lack of balance. Such shoe, however, must change the whole body structure of the kids in the future.

    • Brian September 11, 2012 at 7:18 am #

      Hello, thanks for the comment and for supporting my book. Wow, is this really true about the angled shoes? Can you send a photo?