Are Your Kids Ready to Run a 5K?

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As a geeky parent, I’ve found that it’s all too easy to get trapped in a cycle of enthusiastically sharing various hobbies and pastimes with my kids. There are so many books, games, shows, movies, and toys I want them to experience and us to share. Unfortunately, most of these are also sedentary, indoor activities.

2015, I decided, would be the year we added healthier pursuits to our geeky regimen.

When I first told people that I had signed up my 5-year-old daughter for a 5K, they thought I was crazy. Those with kids around that age were especially incredulous. No one could believe that a 5-year-old would be able to run 3.1 miles.

I was fairly confident she could do it. I mean, when you think about it, a typical 5-year-old probably runs twice that much every day. Just not all at once.

Over the last few months, I was training to run my first full marathon—the Walt Disney World Marathon—and I thought it would be fun to share the experience a little by running together.

For little ones, runDisney hosts a series of kids’ races that are actually a ton of fun. Both of my kids have done them before. Depending on their age, there are 100m, 200m, and 400m races. Five-year-olds are lumped into the 200m dash, but I felt that was entirely too short.

There’s also a Mickey Mile, which is open to all kids 13 and younger. I toyed with that idea, but the course is around some baseball fields at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex. The 5K course runs through Epcot. It was no contest.

Photo Jan 08, 7 19 43 AMIf your kids aren’t overly athletic or haven’t run anything before, these shorter distances are perfect. Start there, and then work up to a 5K. You might be surprised at how quickly that can happen.

I would never recommend a 5-year-old specifically “trains” for something like a 5K. Indeed, my daughter didn’t do any real training. We weren’t looking to break any land-speed records. We weren’t targeting any specific time. We were just looking to have fun and hopefully finish. If you keep that as your goal, then I believe almost any kid can get out there and run a 5K. (Any adult, too, for that matter.)

To keep things in perspective, I set a few rules for myself:

  • Encourage her; don’t push her.
  • Let her set and maintain her own pace.
  • Walk when she wants to walk, and don’t make her feel guilty for walking.
  • Let her run her own race; don’t point out other kids who are faster, farther ahead, etc.
  • If she wants to stop, then we’ll stop.
  • Shower her with praise at the finish line.

The closer we got to race day, the more people questioned her ability to finish. “It’s such a long way for such a little kid.” The more skepticism I heard, the firmer became my resolve to see her finish. I knew she could do it.

Photo Jan 08, 7 31 12 AMHowever . . . the naysayers did have a point. It is a long way on little legs. And she’d never run that far in one go before. She’s athletic, is a fantastic swimmer, and takes taekwondo three times a week (currently a Yellow 2 belt). But her longest race had been a 200-meter dash.

On New Year’s Day, we ran a practice 5K at our gym. She surprised even me by running almost the entire way . . . with a respectable time! Success! If she could do it on boring neighborhood streets, she could certainly do it through Epcot.

The morning of the WDW 5K brought atypical Florida weather. It was a predawn start, and temperatures were in the 30s with blustery winds. Everyone was shivering and cuddling up to one another in the starting corral for warmth. It certainly didn’t help that we were in the back of the last corral.

But once we started running, there was no looking back. She set the pace, ran the entire thing, and only stopped to walk at the two water stations. And running through an early dawn, lit-by-sunrise Epcot did indeed provide the necessary motivation to keep her going.

(No, it didn’t really take us 59 minutes to run 1 mile. We were in the last corral and didn’t start running for almost 45 minutes!)

Now? With two 5Ks under her belt already this year, I think she’s been bitten by the running bug . . . and a healthy dose of pride. She’s been telling anyone who’ll listen that she finished a 5K.

It’s been an invaluable self-confidence boost.

Whether you’re an avid runner or desperately clinging to a New Year’s resolution, don’t leave the little ones at home. Strap some sneaks on your kids and get them out there, too!

The best part of running is that you can do it anywhere. You don’t need to run through a Disney park. Start small; start local. Wherever you live, there’s bound to be a 5K within the next couple of weeks. And it’ll be far cheaper than a Disney race, too! Don’t worry about time; make your goal simply to finish.

Skylanders (or whatever) will still be there when you get back.

(It’s important to note that runDisney races are in very high demand, so if you’re thinking about one of them, you pretty much have to sign up the day registration opens. In the case of the WDW Marathon weekend, which took place earlier this month, that meant making a commitment way back in June of 2014. Sure enough, most of the weekend’s races sold out in a matter of hours.)

Photo Jan 08, 7 24 58 AM

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12 thoughts on “Are Your Kids Ready to Run a 5K?

  1. My 4 year old girl has ran a handful of 1 mile fun runs, and I’ve been thinking about when she’ll be ready to tackle a 5K. She doesn’t train either other than running around in the back yard chasing her little brother, but she’s up for it whenever we offer. She seems to thrive off of spectator cheering when running, and it seems to be her prime motivation for doing a run. She would LOVE a Disney 5K for sure, and I’d love to do the Rebel Challenge at Disneyland next January. Hmm…going to have to chat with mommy…

    1. If she has experience with several 1-mile runs, a 5K is the natural next step. So long as she can stop to walk whenever necessary, she should have no trouble! And yes, spectators at the Disney runs are half of what make them so enjoyable! Good luck! Would love to hear a report of how she does!

  2. Congrats to her and you! My wife and I are runners, with my first son we were pushing him in a stroller on 5ks before he could walk. He did his first 1 mile at age 3. He did his first 5k at age five. It was a watergun themed race – everyone was supposed to carry a gun with them and shoot everyone else during the course around the Atlanta motor speedway. He had a blast! He’s done about eight 5ks in the two years since and will be starting junior track this spring. He doesn’t train and has yet to break 40 minutes before – that will happen this year I think.

    Most healthy five year olds are capable. The real challenge is keeping them “distracted” through the course. After the first mile I have to keep a steady stream of conversation with my son or he wants to give up. Two miles of non-stop conversation with a five year old can be challenging! An mp3 player full of kids songs helps but isn’t enough by itself for my boy. But after his races he usually finds a playground and is running around like any other day.

    1. That’s incredible! Eight 5ks is really impressive for him. And that’s a great point about keeping them distracted. For my daughter’s first, I had to keep the conversation going the entire time. For this past one, Epcot (and all the characters) was enough of a distraction for her.

      I’ve never heard of a water gun race. Now I really want to run one! *races to Google*

  3. My oldest daughter (9) signed up for Girls on the Run at school which trained her to run a 5k. They held a practice 5k and my 6 year old decided she was bored and wanted to run too. She started three laps later and finished before a lot of the older girls.

  4. All our kids run with us. The youngest (4yo) has thus far only done one 5k from start to finish but she always comes out and I push her in the jogging stroller and she hops in and out as she needs.

    The older kids (8,9,10,12) all regularly run and we love it as a family activity. The oldest is actually doing her first half marathon this weekend!

  5. Hi Jamie, fascinating to read your story and the comments. My son is 4 (5 next month) and has completed 3 5ks and a 1 mile race to date. The 1 mile race being his first when he had just turned 3, first 5k at 3 and a half years and his most recent 5k just yesterday!

    His first 5k took him about 46 minutes whiched involved him walking at points, I let him pace me always and like yourself never push them. I am a very keen runner and my son has watched me race ever since he was born (normally 10-15 races a year) so as soon as he could talk he always wanted to run with me haha

    He is extremely athletic and I had no concerns about him doing his first 5k at just 3 1/2, most people couldn’t believe it as he obviously looked so young and small haha. His most recent 5k he completed in 36:30 (4 years 11 months), he didn’t even seemed tired at the end of the race and carried on as normal for the rest of the day!

    Even with a few walks along the way I couldn’t believe how fast he completed the race in, very proud moment. He doesn’t do any training he literally never stops running around everyday.

    He has a genuine passion for running, gets so excited when he knows he’s running plus loves showing his medals in school. Time will tell if he has a real talent or has just developed running skills early. I honestly can’t believe how good he is at his age.


  6. I love the rules you set. My son (6) is going to run a 5K next month here in Chicago. I’m adopting those rules for myself.

  7. Thank you for a wonderful article. My daughter ran her first 5K when she was 5, too. She wanted it and pushed for it after seeing her big sister doing one, and some of daddy’s marathons, too. Her first 5K was a tiny local race, low key, no pressure. I carried with me some candies – these served both as little prizes (when we get to the next mile mark you get to pick one) and sugar. Can’t beat the power of small bribe. She had no training runs, yet, so we ran some and walked some, had one pit stop and a short rest, too. We kept talking and playing and cheering runners passing the opposite direction. My only rule was to encourage, give positive feedback and keep her happy (it took more than an hour, so plan ahead some word games, fun stories etc…). She was SOOOO proud finishing it – wow! Talk about the self confidence boost!
    This was 8 years ago. She is now 13, and has just ran 15 miles (!) in her school walkathon last week. She did not plan for that, but she kept increasing her goal as she was making progress. Luckily I can still keep up with her:) We love to run together. Over these years we’ve run together many 5K-s, 10K-s and 12K-s, creating many lifetime memories. For those longer runs we do some minimal training – once a week for a couple months before a 12K race. She loves running, and it’s the good feeling that drives her to run. There is never a push for pace, time, distance, no competitive aspirations, just to stay healthy and enjoy the course.

  8. My son just completed his first 5k and loved it we actually started him with the half mile spartan kids race but he finished in like 5 minutes so he was stoked to try the one mile fun run which ended up being cancelled so he just opted for running the 5k with the adults he finished in 43 minutes and 38 seconds. They gave him a trophy for winning his age group and All the other runners were so supportive and cheered him on at the finish line

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