Over the past few years towards the end of March, I’ve been involved in an annual spring event at my son’s elementary school – a local 5K running race that raises money for the school’s technology department. Last year, I led the school’s training team (humbly nicknamed the “5KTT”), which met after school, and helped the kids get excited about participating in the upcoming race, as well as give them a solid foundation on how to properly train for an athletic event – for many of them, the race would represent their first real effort of athletic “endurance.” As an adult long distance runner, over the years, I’ve trained for countless races and have tried various methods, equipment and approaches – each time learning from past experience and other runners, and adjusting my training accordingly.
However, being the lead “coach” for a group of 130 kids, varying in age from 6 to 11 years old, takes some strategy, planning and thorough organization – not to mention a good sense of humor and of course, patience. There’s no way I should expect these budding athletes to come to the first training session wearing the proper clothing or shoes for running, and the thought of actually pacing their speeds – especially once they were first let lose on the track – seemed as silly as asking them to chose fruits and vegetables over pizza.
My first step was to clearly understand the end objectives of the training program: (1) give the kids a solid foundation of how to properly and safely participate in a running program, and (2) make sure they are enjoying the experience. I had to also clearly understand the requirements – some kids had physical and medical concerns that needed monitoring, others would need a bit more attention or discipline during the sessions. There were also school-specific requirements, such as what time we could exit the building after school let out, the process of safely signing the kids in and out as required by the county, and so on. And of course, I would have been lost if I hadn’t understood the important requirement of having plenty of volunteers to help out each training day.
It was imperative to understand the environment we had to train in upfront so we could effectively plan, create and deliver this program for these very enthusiastic kids. My elementary school 5K coaching adventure involved several initial meetings with the school and race organizers (the stakeholders), as well as reviewing past documentation to really pinpoint the key elements I needed to address from both a logistics and “content” perspective. This comprehensive, upfront understanding is paramount to any effective training program.
I then developed the training program content and delivery methods, as well as outlined logistics, based on this understanding – and included what I consider as best practices from my personal training experiences and prior years’ involvement with the school’s training team. This involved things like the best place to stage the water stations and how to communicate to the kids in a fun way – and so they would understand – the importance of properly warming up, stretching, pacing, keeping hydrated, as well as why sandals and sundresses don’t make for the best running gear.
We used a “blended” delivery approach, which in my experience is the strongest way of promoting absorption and retention of any material – and held a group session with the kids before running each training day to celebrate our successes as a team, and to remind the kids about how they should be dressed, be sure to drink lots of water, take breaks if they need to, how to track their mileage and other important reminders. I also followed up each training session with an email to the parents with the same information, so they could reinforce these concepts at home.
I will admit, the very first training session was a bit chaotic, and we did slightly change our approach to some logistical items based on feedback and some quick lessons learned. But by the 2nd week, (and after procuring a bullhorn) the kids were increasingly enthusiastic about coming to training, more kids were signing up, and parents were overwhelmingly giving me compliments about how well it was going. By the end of our 6-week program, the kids had collectively logged close to 1,500 miles, and the school principal had declared it the best 5K training team in the school’s history.
I credit this success to the approach we took in first understanding the environment and audience, carefully crafting the messages, content, tools and logistics to address these factors, as well as build in best practices and experiences, and then tweaking where we felt necessary.
It was truly an enjoyable experience to see the 6-week transition from a broad mixture of kids with varying backgrounds and expectations to a concerted organization of pint-sized athletes who were ready to take on 3.1 miles in their first running race.
I wish you the very best in your training efforts – retail or running.