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Running With Children: Effective Tips for Training With Kids

Balancing Competitive Skyrunning and Family Life: Insights from a UK Champion.

Looking after children doesn't have to sideline your running ambitions. It might be more difficult to follow a rigidly structured plan when you factor in the unpredictability of children, but I’ve found that with the right approach, it’s possible, and even beneficial to both parties, to maintain a consistent training pattern concurrently to your childcare duties. Once we found our routine I was able to execute my most successful racing season yet, winning the UK and Ireland Skyrunning Series while conducting the majority of my training with my daughter in tow. Like any adjustment, it takes a while to get used to the change, but perseverance is worth it and the process might be a little easier with these tips to help you out.

My daughter is two years old and we’ve been training together since she turned one, when my wife returned to work. Therefore my experience is based primarily on running regularly with a toddler whom I can communicate with, and who can walk when they wish to. Every child is different, our aims as running parents differ from each other, what works for me might not work so well for you. Regardless, I think there are some broad themes that can be applied by most parents to help find a way of enjoying running with a child, even if the method ultimately differs from mine. 

1. Set the session up to be enjoyable for your training partner.

With consistency being the keystone for endurance training it goes without saying that training together must be enjoyable for both of you, or else it simply won’t happen on a regular basis. Even the most empathetic toddler is likely to care little for the maintenance of your aerobic base, so setting your run up as an engaging activity, or comfortable rest, for them is crucial. Personally, I’ve had great success with setting up busy mornings that tire my daughter out and then leaving my early afternoon free to start my run as soon as she is looking sleepy. But in the rare instance where a nap clearly isn’t on the cards, we normally go looking for something like butterflies or ducks, and I make sure that I’m running at an intensity where I can talk. Answering endless ‘why?’ questions is a great way to ensure that you're keeping your easy runs at a comfortable, conversational pace.

2. Hold loose expectations of your run.

Don’t set yourself up for failure by kidding yourself that your run is going to go to plan every time. My daughter and I have been training together most days for the last year and there are still rare days when she simply isn’t into it. You have to be okay with that, or else you’ll stop going after a few ‘failed’ sessions. This will likely happen more regularly early on while your child gets used to it. Don’t force it, and if you aren’t able to appease them and continue running, either return home or let them out to do something else and continue when they’re ready. It’s important that they associate the buggy or carrier with having fun, or else they won’t be willing to head out in it on a regular basis.

It’s also important to give yourself some slack. It can be hard to get out the door with a child, let alone to do something physically demanding after a poor night’s sleep; just keep trying and remember that by starting the session you’re at least leaving yourself open to the chance that you’ll have a great run together.

3. Don’t compare your buggy runs to runs that you do by yourself.

Your pace will not compare to your normal runs. It sounds obvious, but you really do need to treat this almost as an entirely different sport and totally let go of pace as a useful metric for your session (unless you are comparing it to other buggy runs, but personally, I don’t even find this particularly useful as terrain, wind, and elevation all have such a huge effect when running with a buggy). Heart rate and/or RPE (runner’s perceived effort) need to be what you lean on to gauge your session. But remember, hold these targets loosely; things may not pan out and if they don’t, at least you got out and tried. There’s still value in that for both of you.

4. Focus on the benefits of increased resistance and the benefits of being outdoors.

I can honestly say that I am a stronger runner since training with my daughter, despite doing lower mileage and managing less gym time. If you plan your own training, you can get creative with sessions that utilise the extra resistance to build the strength and power that are needed to perform in the mountains. Pushing around an extra 20kg suddenly turns that gentle road incline into something that feels more like a leg-burning mountain trail; embrace this and use it to your advantage!

If anything, having a buggy to push around makes it easier to train for the demands of running in the mountains if you live in an urban environment away from that terrain. For me, buggy runs tend to be steady-state miles, shorter hill efforts, or longer intervals on the flat, all based on heart rate. You can also capitalise on the unpredictability of children to train yourself for the unpredictable nature of racing in the mountains. For this, select a hill close to home and simply do repetitions of it until nap time ends; I can guarantee there’ll be a three-hour nap on the day you try this. We also head into the mountains using a carrier, but more on that in my final point.

Putting all the training benefits aside, there are countless benefits to you and your child from simply being outside together. By making sure you are carrying the clothing to allow them out to play if needed (and to keep you warm when stopped!), even a ‘failed’ session is transformed into positive time playing outside. Also, don’t underestimate the effect that normalising exercise will have on your child. Provided you’ve set the experience up as enjoyable for them, even a five-minute jog with their favourite person is a powerful way to role model healthy behaviour, and those ‘failed’ sessions will foster a connection with the outdoors through play.

5. Invest wisely in the gear that you’ll be using.

Baby gear is expensive and there’s a premium to be paid for well-designed stuff for an active lifestyle. BUT, a lot of people buy these products and don’t read this blog, and thus there is a great deal of excellent second-hand equipment out there with very little use. Getting your purchase right will improve comfort and convenience for you both.

With buggies, look for large wheels, pneumatic tyres (like a bike), a fixed front wheel, and a brake if you run on steep hills (a good rain cover is also a must for regular use in the UK!). We bought our out’n’about nipper sport for £150 second-hand, and despite daily use on trails year-round in the Scottish Highlands, my daughter has never once been wet and sleeps like a log even on rough trails. I can’t recommend it enough and would say it is easily worth the price tag brand new. That being said, if the price is a barrier for you, focus on large wheels, ideally fixed at the front.

The other piece of equipment that we use regularly is a backpack-style carrier. This allows us to access more rugged terrain and allows me to train my hiking strength that is so useful when hiking my way around mountain ‘running’ races. Due to the relatively heavy weight being carried, fit is very important. Ideally, try some on with someone who knows how to fit a pack and take your child so that you can gauge its comfort when it’s loaded (and their comfort when they’re in it!). After fit, look for a good rain cover/sunshade and storage for enough stuff for the kind of hiking you intend to do. I love our Osprey Poco carrier, it has a Scottish-mountain-weather-proof rain cover and is comfortable enough for my daughter to spend a few hours in if she’s in the mood. My wife, who has a smaller frame, does not find it as comfortable, empahasing the importance of trying one out before you buy. Had it been her doing the majority of carrying we'd have opted for the smaller, lighter Osprey Poco LT.

6. Stay close to home, or if you don’t, be prepared for the eventuality where your child wants to get out.

I’ve touched on this theme a few times but it’s worth expanding upon, not only for your child’s enjoyment of the activity, but also for their safety if you are considering heading into wilder places. Well-designed carriers and buggies offer fantastic protection from the elements and so, provided your child is dressed for the temperature, they’ll be safe while contained in the carrier. But, as mentioned previously, you always want to keep open the option for them to leave the carrier and explore. I personally keep in my carriers an all-in-one rainsuit, spare warm layers for both of us, shoes, snacks, water, and nappies as a minimum.

My approach generally is that if the weather is so bad that I really wouldn’t want to be playing outside, I try not to venture more than 15-20 minutes from the house or the car. I’m comfortable that I can keep her entertained for this long in a pinch and so buy us the time to get somewhere warm and dry without setting up a negative experience. I do not head into the mountains with my young child in arduous conditions. Accidents happen and I’m very aware that should something happen to me, my child is totally unable to help or call for help; poor conditions could turn a situation such as this into a tragedy really quickly. Follow guidelines for heading out safely and you’ll be setting yourself up for a lifetime of mountain adventures together.

Epic three-hour (500m at toddler pace) wanders down mountains closely inspecting every rock, nappy disasters, and a very memorable 45-minute walk in a downpour holding a constipated baby with a baby carrier on my back, punctuate a largely very happy and consistent training routine that we have established. It’s not all plain sailing, but if you accept it for what it is (fun time outdoors, training as a bonus), with a child dragging you out the door to look for ducks, you’re on the right track to becoming fitter and faster as a running parent than you ever were before.

If you’re looking for a coach to help you with the challenges of training with your child, I can highly recommend TMR Coaching as they have worked with me to shape my training around childcare, and Jon at E3C, a member of the Run The Highlands team and father himself. Additionally, please do reach out on our social media platforms for advice on this topic, we’d be happy to help.

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