Run Happy Like a Kid: Lessons to Help You Enjoy Every Mile

When you see kids running, they tend to run happy and carefree, unconcerned about mile pace or PRs.

What if you approached your training or next race like kids, running for the pure joy of it and nothing else?

Every thought about that?

In this post, we'll show you how to run like a kid. We'll also introduce you to 7 amazing kids who run happy.

Run like a kid & be happy

At what age did you begin running

Some of us began running as kids, many of us as part of a middle or high school track and field or cross country team, and others in adulthood. 

Now, reflect upon the following question: 

  • What is your earliest happy memory pertaining to running?

Hold on to that happiness.

And I’ll share mine, which is also one of my earliest childhood memories, at around age five.

It goes like this:

  • I was running upstream through a creek with my identical twin sister.
  • We were pretending a tiger was chasing us through a river. 
  • We threw ourselves down in the deep pools, squealing as the tiger came closer.
  • We flew, leaping over wet rocks.
  • We ran against water that came up to our ankles, knees and waists in some spots.
  • Finally, we outran the imaginary tiger. 
  • We had survived.

Each time we played this game, we ran farther and farther upstream. 

Once, I found myself alone in the game. 

In my solitude, an idea formed:

  • To find where the stream began.

Pretending the tiger was in pursuit, I fled.

Eventually, the banks of the creek began to get steeper, the stream began to get smaller, the trees faded away, and a green valley appeared. I had arrived at a neighbor’s cow pasture.

Was this my intended destination, the beginning of the water source? 

I’m not sure, but I know one thing for certain: the journey to arrive at this spot was more exhilarating than the destination itself. 

Knowing not whether I found what I had sought, I turned around quickly and ran hard downstream; I had the feeling I had strayed too far from home.

That day was one of self-discovery. I now knew the following about myself:

  • Running to find something, anything, even if it was just a field full of bovine, felt amazing.
  • Running until I could feel where my heart beat in my chest was prolific.
  • Getting head-to-toe wet and muddy while running was the best thing I had ever experienced in life.
  • Running made me smile while simultaneously feeling focused and calm.
  • Greatest of all, running made me happy.

Overall, it was a pivotal moment, a profound experience, for a very young girl. 

1985: Author Brynn Cunningham, age two, at her dad’s house near the West Virginia/Pennsylvania state line, where she first discovered running through the woods. (Photo/ Marci McGuinness, Brynn’s mom)

Kids running: Let's get happy

The early days spent running carefree through creeks and forests established the foundation for my relationship with running. 

The premise of the relationship was simple: Running + being outside = happiness. 

It wasn’t until running turned into racing that I sadly found out that others did not share the same sentiment. 

Elementary school

At age 11, my fifth grade teacher, who was a high school cross country coach, saw that I was good at running. 

He placed me in lots of events for the fifth grade track meet, and I went on to win, to my surprise, five first place trophies, more than any other girl.

Middle school

In seventh and eight grade, I ran the 100 and 200-meter dashes and the 400 x 100 meter relay and won them all but one. 

In the early days of competitive running, things were good. That happy feeling was still my center, my why.

It wasn’t until high school when my childlike view of the one thing I loved showed its ugly side.

High school

My freshmen, sophomore and junior years of high school track and field were peaceful. I ran the same events as I did in middle school, with one difference: I didn’t often win first place, mostly seconds and thirds. That made no difference to my happiness, because working hard for the team, which I loved, brought great satisfaction and purpose. 

Then, in my junior year, my coach moved me from the short sprints to the dreadfully long (in my sprinter eyes) 400-meter-dash. 

Leaving the camaraderie of the sprint team broke my heart. The coach, however, assured me that the farther I ran, the faster I got. She thought that I would make an excellent 400-meter runner. 

I thought she was wrong.

Still, I was no rebel, and even more, I respected and liked the coach, so I made the transition without complaint. 

The hard efforts began to pay off.

Sprinting one lap felt less and less daunting. My shyness about winning first at a high school meet was replaced with and became irrelevant to the depth of happiness that running to my fullest potential brought. 

In my senior year, I began to win race after race.

And that’s when things got a little bit ugly.

Girls from other high schools began sending nasty messages by word of mouth, telling me they would be the one to break my winning streak. 

The first time I received a message from a stranger on another team, I laughed. 

The second time, I laughed again, and thought:

  • Aren’t we all just racing for a good time, to support each other and drive one another to be our best?  

Carrying that happy running feeling into competition was so natural that my perspective on competing remained a positive, jovial one; to me, competing was about:

  • Lifting one another up 
  • Being together, united as powerful girls 
  • Running side-by-side, simultaneously for and against one another, for the greater good of expressing our best selves

It was sad to find out others did not feel the same way. Was I naive to think that running as I had in that creek would really stand up in the wide world outside my small forest? 

Nonetheless, I ignored the shit talkers.

I toed the line beside them and harnessed that little girl who ran wildly through a creek just for the pure joy of it and ran my heart out.

And I beat them all, remaining undefeated in the county and setting my high school record. 

After all, running, as I had learned at a very young age, first and foremost, made me H.A.P.P.Y happy; the happiness it evoked was my center, and not a single person could put out that flame.

Period.

Advice from kids who run

Recently, inspired by my childhood memory and curious to see if happiness was at the core, I asked seven kids (four boys and three girls) from ages four to 11 how they feel about running.

Harlan Flinn followed by older brother, Carter, and mom, Emily. (Photo/Jeremy Flinn)

The seven children, including two of my own, share one thing in common...

All of them have one parent or two whose way of life is running; their parents influenced them as runners, and they primarily run with their guidance and encouragement.

On the other hand, I was a free-range child gifted with endless hours of alone time or time with my twin in the woods, always outside unsupervised, discovering long distance running on my own at first, and then making it a more formal thing with the influence of an elementary school teacher. 

Yet, the children and I have a shared feeling around running. 

Keep reading to see what it is.

Meet 7 kids who run happy

Carter, age nine, and Harlan Flinn (leading) age six, sons of ultrarunner Emily Flinn
Larkin Carroll, age 11, daughter of runner Ashley Carroll
Madeline DeCarlo, age 10, daughter of runner Keli DeCarlo
Grey (leading) age four, and Avie Harder, age eight, sons of author/ trail runner & ultrarunner Brynn Cunningham
Charlotte Cappadora, age seven, daughter of Nichole and Vinny Cappadora, ultrarunners, race directors and owners of happilyrunning.com

Q: What's your favorite thing about running?

Carter: Going through all the trails and seeing all the nature and running with my mom.

Harlan: I like being in nature, and it makes me feel happy!

Larkin: Pretending it’s a game where I explore different kingdoms.

Madeline: My favorite thing about running is running with my mommy and being fast!

Grey: Chasing Avie to try to catch up with him.

Avie: I just like running for no reason, just because it’s fun.

Charlotte: Being surrounded by beauty. 

Madeline DeCarlo running beside her mom, Keli DeCarlo. (Photo/Keri Adams)

Q: What's your favorite thing about being on the trails?

Carter: I like running on trails because of the views and the snow because it is really pretty and so different from the other seasons. Plus, the obstacles are fun, and it’s kinda like an adventure.

Harlan: I like trails because I can see wildlife.

Larkin: I like to experience the beauty of nature when I am on the trails.

Madeline: My favorite thing about running on the trails is seeing nature and how pretty it is.  I like to be free like a butterfly. 

Grey: Being with mom and dad and Avie. 

Avie: Seeing animals, foraging for teaberries and searching for mushrooms. Every time we come to a creek, we stop.

Charlotte: It's beautiful, you can see the sun right through the leaves. 

Larkin Carroll hopping down from a log with older sister, Lincoln, following. (Photo/Ashley Carroll)

Q: What's your favorite thing about running races?

Carter: At the end, I feel accomplished. Also, I’m happy and sometimes surprised that I did it. 

Larkin: Having competition. I can compete to be my best self.

Madeline: My favorite thing about running a race is passing people and doing my very best.  

Avie: I like running on trails - when am I going to do a trail race?

Charlotte: You can always challenge yourself to go faster 

Author’s son Avie Harder finishing the 2021 Mount Summit Challenge, with mom on the left, and Kristen Muscaro-Winters, who escorted him up the mountain, on the right. (Photo/Eric Harder)

Q: Why do you run?

Carter: I run because my mom is really good at running and I wanna be like her.

Harlan: I like to run because it is fun and gets my legs stronger.

Larkin: To become stronger and to explore new areas with my family.

Madeline: I like to run to exercise. It's fun.

Avie: Because I like to.

Grey: Because I just like to.

Charlotte: Because my family runs, and I like it.

Charlotte Cappadora, running toward the finish line. (Photo/ Nichole Cappadora)

Q: How do you feel while you're running?

Carter: I feel focused, happy, but also sometimes it is hard, and I feel tired.

Harlan: It makes me feel happy.

Larkin: Happy because I am exercising while enjoying my surroundings.

Madeline: When I'm running, I feel like talking a lot.

Grey: Hot and cold.

Avie: Really happy.

Charlotte: I feel free. 

Avie Harder, eight, running at Virginia Beach with his brother, Grey, age four, following. (Photo/Author)

Q: How do you feel after running?

Carter: I feel accomplished, super happy, tired and ready to rest, but glad I did it.

Harlan: After, I feel happy and like I want to run again soon!

Larkin: I feel buff!

Madeline: After I'm done running, I feel tired and hungry. I am also proud of myself. 

Grey: Sweaty.

Avie: Hot and happy. 

Charlotte: Tired and exhausted. I come back, and I'm like, "I needed that, wow." 

Carter Flinn, age nine. (Photo/Emily Flinn)

Happiness = running like a kid

Yes, Charlotte, we can relate to that.

As you can see, the theme of happiness is spread throughout the children’s answers, as well as running to be together, for strength and for the mere sake of running. 

Maybe that’s just it - perhaps runners have the heart of a child, and togetherness, happiness and pursuing one’s best, strongest self is the driving force that keeps us coming back for more miles, more runs, more races.

What do you think? 

Regardless, I think one thing for certain: may all of our children, as they continue to grow as runners, keep happiness as the foundation for their relationship with running, and may that bit of inner light keep them running through the good, the bad and the ugly, for a lifetime. 

A parent’s reflection on running with kids

“Just seeing my daughter out there doing a sport I love is inspiring enough to keep doing what I love. I'm giving her (and others) the gift of running and all it has to bring," says Keli DeCarlo, mother of runner Madeline DeCarlo.  

"The best part is seeing her doing her best and knowing I created that within my child,” 

Keli continues: “Running lasts a lifetime and brings much more than exercise - it's a lifestyle that instills so many irreplaceable qualities that I'm thrilled my daughter wants to learn and do with me. It's the best feeling there is!”

What is the feeling to which Keli is referring? 

Happiness, of course. 

Are you interested in running with your child? 

Then read this for inspiration: Running with Kids: 6 Trail-Tested Lessons to Enjoy Every Mile

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Brynn Cunningham
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Trail runner, ultrarunner, white water boater, cyclist (mostly MTB), swimmer, backcountry skier, yogi, mom and writer. www.inhaleexhalerun.com

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