If you attended public high school in the United States, you likely remember having to do the battery of yearly fitness tests in gym class, including the much hated mile run. The mile has likely cemented the hatred of running in many a teenager, and likely haunts the dreams of many an adult. I think I’ve heard they’ve switched to this weird, sprinting-across-the-gym exercise in some cases, but honestly, it serves the same purpose: forcing the adolescents of this nation to run longer and harder in one class period than most of them will again all year. For me, never having to run again was a perk that came readily to mind upon graduating high school.
So how, seven years after graduation, do find I myself running 5K’s for fun? It’s a long story, but my journey to liking running has made me realize we as a society really don’t think about this type of exercise correctly. At all.
Running is a sport. You need to be taught the proper techniques and you need to build up skill over time. And no, tag and a sprint down the block with the dog are completely different from something like a longer run.
I don’t know about you, but the only time I had to run longer than a quick dash was that forced mile, and I’m sure that was the case for the majority of the other kids. There were the athletes, all finishing with time to spare, and then there was everyone else. Suffering.
Gym class never properly prepared me to be a runner. In fact, high school gym class probably deterred me from becoming a runner sooner by making it an awful chore required by the state when, in the proper circumstances, I would have enjoyed it. We should introduce kids to running, teaching them to increase their endurance slowly and safely, leading up to a mile. Endurance is important- many a person has tried and failed to sprint the entire mile, which isn’t sustainable. Remember: to a seasoned runner (or gym teacher), a mile is nothing, but to a non-runner, a mile is daunting! Kids should be taught the basics, things that seem obvious but really aren’t, like breathing and pacing. When I started running for fun, I realized that what usually made me stop was a side stitch, something easily fixable with a change in breathing and pace. If only my gym teacher taught me how.
Kids should be also taught proper stretching techniques. They may experience common running ailments (side stitches, shin splints, dehydration, etc.) and learn how both to address and avoid them. Learning how to stretch doesn’t just make today’s run easier- stretching regularly when you’re young will lock you into a healthy habit and prevent long term running damage over time.
Kids should be taught how running can have mental health benefits, and how this exercise can be incorporated into a routine of self care and mindfulness when they become stressed. Personally, running has had an incredible impact on my anxiety, and if I had taken up the sport in high school, it could have had the potential to make some rough spots a bit smoother (as a supplement to medication, not a replacement).
Also on the curriculum? How to safely and effectively train for longer runs and races. For extra credit, encourage teens to sign up with a local 5K that coincides with the end of the unit in addition to completing the mile run. Introduce them to age appropriate running clubs, such as girls on the run, or, if there isn’t one nearby, encourage them to start their own! Basically: give them the tools to succeed and make it fun and familiar, rather than a once a year torture.
Teachers wouldn’t grade kids on unfamiliar material, so why don’t we teach them to run properly before whipping out the stopwatch?
There are always going to be people who hate running or any athletic activities. And that’s fine. But if kids are taught what they’re doing and are eased into running, I bet more of them would find running enjoyable, or at least get through the mile run with a passing time – which, when you’re a teenager, is the entire point of gym class. Though this shouldn’t be just about beating the clock or passing an exam any more than any other class should be. Running should be made relevant to life beyond high school, and learning to run the mile should be about building confidence and health and feeling good about yourself, not just another hoop to jump through (or track to run).
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