Lessons from the Playground: How Running Like a 6-year-old Can Boost Your Training

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As runners, we know that athletic improvement does not happen by accident. Dedication and a well thought out training plan are hallmarks of any great athlete; a few haphazard miles here and there aren’t likely to get you too far.

If you’re serious about running, the odds are good that you’re serious about your training. And that’s a good thing. It’s what makes you excel, what helps you reach your goals, and what drives you to keep getting better and better. As runners ourselves, we understand and respect that dedication.

There are times, however, that breaking away from that laser-beam focus can be equally beneficial. Ditching the training plan for short breaks helps avoid burnout, improve motivation, and keeps us grounded. It takes us back to the heart of running — something that a stopwatch or a training log can’t tell us. Oddly enough, most kids seem to have an intuitive understanding of this idea without ever being taught.

If you’ve spent much time watching kids playing out at recess or at the park, you know that the whole thing is something of a well-contained mess. Groups of children chase each other in a zig-zag sprint while another group jogs lazy circles, broad grins plastered on their sweaty faces. A few kids accelerate across the grass, throw in a few stylish cartwheels, and then just sort of stop and plop down in the middle of it all, content to pluck at blades of grass before bouncing up and doing it all over again.

Can we actually learn something about healthy training from this chaos?

Lesson #1: Go as fast or as slow as you feel like

First graders don’t run fast because they know it’s interval day. They run fast because they feel like it and because running fast is fun. They don’t pace themselves, or think about rest periods, or worry about if their heart rate is in the right zone. They run the way their body tells them to run.

Lesson #2: Ditch the data

Go ahead, leave the Garmin at home today. We promise, your body won’t care whether or not your workout was posted to STRAVA. Kids don’t count their steps, track their weekly running mileage, or know their 10k pace. Instead of data-driven workouts, give yourself a real-world challenge every once in a while. Can you make it to the top of the hill in time to see the sunset? Can you run all the way to the grocery store on the other end of town … and all the way back carrying a jar of spaghetti sauce? Can you squeeze in your regular neighborhood loop before that rerun of Seinfeld comes on?

Lesson #3: Make it up as you go 

Know where you’re going to start and where you’re going to end. In between, let curiosity guide you. What’s around that corner? Where does that trail lead to? Don’t be irresponsible about it (you don’t want to pay for that helicopter rescue, do you?), but a little bit of route deviation can be fun.

Lesson #4: Be competitive … or don’t

Some days, you dream of the start line — the gun going off and your competition blasted with the plume of dust left in your wake. Other days, you dream of your bed — the soft pillow under your head and the warm, snuggly blanket wrapped around you. Competition can be healthy, and a great motivator for hard workouts, but it’s not a requirement. If you’re perfectly content jogging along at a leisurely pace, it’s ok to keep jogging along at that leisurely pace, even if Mr. Stevensen from down the block races past you. Be competitive when you want, and if you’re not feeling it, cut yourself some slack.

Lesson #5: Do it because it’s fun

The golden rule of running. The reason we do it day after day. Kids don’t run to be the fastest, or the fittest, or so that they can eat three cheeseburgers and still fit into their favorite jeans. And when it comes down to it, neither do we. We run because it’s fun. Pure and simple.

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Tracie is a former teacher and a lifelong learner who loves exploring. Most at home in the mountains, she enjoys tearing up and down the trails on her mountain bike, and occasionally leaves the wheels at home for a run through the trees. Having recently earned her personal trainer certification, Tracie thrives on helping others reach their athletic goals.

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