Kids on the Move

When Conrad Hartmann heads outdoors, it’s not necessarily to play tag in the backyard or practice cannonballs at the pool. Nor does he hop on his bicycle for a simple spin around the neighborhood. It’s not that he doesn’t enjoy swimming, running or riding his bike. In fact, he covers about 20 miles walking, running and cycling while also swimming for up to three hours each week. And he practices changing his shoes and equipment for each of these three sports — as fast as he can. Conrad is a dedicated triathlete and cyclist. And he’s 9 years old.

Conrad has found three sports that he can continue for life.

Building fitness habits

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that researchers observed double-digit increases in the prevalence of overweight kids and teens when comparing data from 1976 to 1980 against 2003 to 2004. Recent data shows almost 19 percent of kids aged 6 to 11 are overweight, as are approximately 17 percent of kids aged 12 to 19. As these numbers rise, the risk of diseases associated with being overweight climb as well.

Lamenting these statistics as inevitable and giving up aren’t options for parents who care about their children’s health and future. Helping kids find an activity that they enjoy and that becomes part of a lifelong habit of activity is as important as teaching them to brush their teeth. For some parents, finding sports that provide individual motivation and competition is a valuable step on the road to a healthy, active lifestyle.

Alisa Wright Colopy of Fit & Able Productions sees kids learning to love running and fitness. But she also shares the perspective of a mother whose sons competed as they grew up and remained active in sports as college students. One son is involved in event coordination, and the other is a competitive runner.

“Though very different, [my sons] have a keen understanding of a healthy lifestyle that has followed them into adulthood,” Colopy says. “That is the goal.”

Unlike team sports, which are rarely fun to play alone, running, swimming and biking can be great solitary activities, and the equipment required (a pair of running shoes, a bike, a swimsuit) are within the budgets of most families. Local organizations that support these activities strive to teach kids at an early age what they can accomplish and to instill lifelong fitness habits.

Learning lifelong skills

Participating in an individual or non-team sport involves setting personal goals. Moving from a sedentary lifestyle to an active one takes discipline. However without a coach or a team, if your child wants to compete in a 5K race, she has to find time to train and increase her weekly mileage slowly and steadily. Local running and fitness groups provide support for kids to help them set and safely meet their goals while providing tools that positively impact other parts of life.

Maylene Jackson, director of Kids in Training (KIT), believes the skills that enable kids to compete in triathlons are used throughout their lives. “In Kids in Training courses, kids learn to set goals, train for those goals and meet them,” she says.

She also says KIT athletes can apply those skills to their everyday life. “A triathlon is a unique experience. Learning these skills hopefully prepares kids for every kind of challenge they face in life.”

The local chapter of Girls on the Run (GOTR) is another group that provides a support system for runners. Girls enrolled in the GOTR programs study teamwork, wellness, goal-setting and self-confidence.

“Our curriculum is built around goal-setting,” explains program manager Caroline Johnson. And these goals go beyond the distances they run. The GOTR lesson program includes training, running and nutrition, but also covers real-life challenges such as bullying or gossiping.

“Girls are encouraged to think about things outside the context of Girls on the Run,” Johnson says. “We challenge them about how these scenarios apply to real life. We hope they take this beyond running.”

Training reaps rewards

Realistically, every kid isn’t going to finish at the top of the pack. Conrad’s mom Pam Hartmann shares her son’s love of triathlons. The Durham mother and son agree that the joy of the event isn’t about the win at the end.

“Conrad’s first event with KIT was the Cary Park triathlon last May. Even though he came in last in his age group, he actually enjoyed it,” she says.

Hartmann and her son have competed together in triathlons, duathlons and cycling events. Aside from the fun mother/son time they spend together, Hartmann has seen real advantages to her son’s training.

“[There are] two true disciplines that Conrad is learning: doing the practice even when you really don’t want to and [having] a clear head under pressure. The KIT participants are under the same strictures for transition as the big-time triathletes,” she explains.

Mike Walsh, a Cary dad, avid runner and past-president of the North Carolina Roadrunners, has proudly watched his 7-year-old son start running. Although his son hasn’t always finished in first place, he has experienced the opportunity to compete and to challenge himself with his distances.

Says Walsh, “He has found a lot of pride and lot of self-esteem through running. [Though] he’s not ultracompetitive, he knows all [of] his times on all his different courses.”

Walsh believes that the pride his son feels at his accomplishments encourages him to keep trying. “With something like running, you can continuously challenge yourself. It is a distance and it is you. You can push yourself and you can achieve something more,” Walsh says. “My son is very proud of his accomplishments, I think because he knows they came from within himself.”

Anne Scott is another KIT mom who sees daily benefits from the efforts of her three children (ages 9, 6 and 3). “My children are learning to train for an event and then give it their all on race day,” says the Raleigh mom. “They cross the finish line with nothing left and are proud of their efforts. They don’t always win, but they know they put in the practice and do their best. Hopefully this will transfer into their studies and relationships.”

Parents join in

Parent spectators at triathlons, marathons and duathlons may get an urge to strap on their own running shoes.

“Before my children started [competing], triathlons were not even on my radar. Now I’ve done the Ramblin’ Rose [local women’s sprint triathlon] and am thinking about doing another,” Scott relates. “My son’s immediate response when I told him that I was going to do a triathlon was ‘Go Mom!’ ”

And Scott wasn’t the only member of her family who was hooked. “My husband is also planning to do a triathlon this year. It’s been fun to train towards a goal together. It’s also great that our children have the opportunity to cheer us on,” Scott says.

GOTR encourages families to become part of the fun and for girls to find running buddies to help them train. “Most of our girls run with parents or family members,” Johnson says. “Sometimes the running buddy is a grandparent. They are so proud of what they have accomplished, they want to share it.”

The benefits of these sports carry over to the parents, as well. Single mom Hartmann says she has experienced personal growth.

“Since working with KIT, I really don’t fear trying new things, because I know the joy comes in the doing. Frankly, growing up, I never tried sports because I was always the last kid chosen and I wasn’t very good,” she says. “But watching my son, along with hundreds of other children [compete], I realized there was no reason for me not to get out there myself.” And her achievements have exceeded her expectations.

Participating in individual sports at a younger age may create lasting fitness habits and feelings of accomplishment, perseverance and achievement to fuel a lifetime of self-reliance and confidence. What more could a parent ask for?

Robin Whitsell is a freelance writer who lives in Chapel Hill. She has completed two triathlons and looks forward to the day her three girls will compete alongside her. She can be reached at

Group Run & Fun

The following are some of the local organizations that provide opportunities for kids or families to run and train:

Chapel Hill/Carrboro Pacers Running Club

Kids in Training

Fit & Able Productions

Girls on the Run

North Carolina Roadrunners

What Are These Sports?

A guide to common terms:
Triathlon – A race than includes four components: a swim, a bike ride, a run and the time it takes to transition between sports.
Duathlon – A race that consists of a run, then a cycling leg and a final run.
Transition (time) – The time it takes to get from the water to your bike for a triathlon and from your bike to the run course for a triathlon or duathlon. Transition time is included in your total finish time.
Splits – The time of each stage of an event (e.g., in a triathlon, the time of the swim leg versus the running leg versus the cycling leg).
Criterium – A multi-lap bike race typically held on a closed course where the goal is to move quickly.
Marathon – A running event where the lengths and terrains can vary.
Sprint or Mini – A shorter version of an event. This usually is considered an entry-level event that the average adult or child with a couple months to train can compete in and complete.

Play It Smart

With any sport, there is an opportunity for injury. Keep the following tips in mind:

– Start slow. For any athlete, distance (mileage) and speed are increased gradually to lessen the chances for over-use injury.
– Wear the right equipment. Too-tight or worn-out shoes or an ill-fitting helmet can be the difference between completing an activity and completing it injury-free. Wear light-colored or reflective clothing when on open roads.
– Build flexibility. Encourage gentle stretching before and after practice and competition.
– Focus on safety. Whether biking, running or swimming, being over-tired can lead to injury or carelessness. Watch your kids to help them learn when it’s time to rest and keep an eye on the traffic around you.
– Remember fuel and water. Even in cooler weather, staying well hydrated is a key to good performance. Unless your kids are participating in hours-long events, water and simple foods like bananas and trail mix should do the trick.
– Listen to pain. If your kids are experiencing pain in daily activities, they should see a physician.
Source: American Academy of Pediatrics Web site