Participating in track and field events is one of the best ways to keep fit and to boost health physically and emotionally. And this applies to everyone; adults and kids and both the able-bodied and those with special needs.
Actually, kids with special needs are the ones who require these exercises the most for strong, healthy, and flexible bodies. It’s quite unfortunate, however, that they tend to receive it less.
Most parents prefer having their kids with physical limitations off the tracks for “safety” reasons. Sure, it’s very much okay to fear for your wheelchair-bound child’s safety and more so if they’ll be taking part in, let’s say, a marathon with tens or hundreds of other participants.
But how about YOU running with HIM/HER?
Although they are probably not going to take a single step during the race, don’t take it that they wouldn’t want to be a part of the exciting, humbling, tearful, and prideful feel of crossing the finish line albeit these fun runs being not competitive.
The good news is that there are lots of non-profit and for-profit organizations all around the world that have sprung up to make special-needs kids’ marathon a reality.
It’s easy to feel confused by this whole thing if you’ve never raced with your child before. For instance, what exactly are the benefits of racing for the parent and the kid? How do you even start? Do you require any special safety equipment? How can you make this both interesting and safe for the 2 of you? These are some of the questions that I’ll help you answer in the next couple of minutes.
Benefits of running with a special needs child
It guarantees more fun later in life
We all need to stay active every day to promote healthy growth and development. According to research results, kids who develop healthy lifestyle patterns when young tend to carry them throughout their lives thereby enjoying the benefits for long. This means that every time you help the child cross the finish line boosts their likelihood of getting more fun in the future.
It expands their social skills
There’s nothing that brings loved ones together like sharing some good moments- and anyone who’ve taken part in a run- however short- will affirm that it is such a good moment to be in. Having fun as a group tends to impact almost all aspects of the child’s life especially his/her social skills.
Mind you, delayed social nuances tend to be the main reason why special needs students are left to warm the bench as their general education peers are enrolled in physical education in their school and college lives.
And just as a, by the way, it’s not so easy to create beneficial and long-lasting friendships between hospital visits and therapy sessions.
Build positive attitude
Exercising is considered nature’s painkiller. When we put our bodies to the test, hypothalamus and pituitary gland in the brain produce neurochemicals called endorphins.
Endorphins are also known as ‘feel-good’ chemicals that have been found to boost happiness and a positive attitude.
Using the Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans, medical experts have proved that exercising and laughing (among others) boost the release of endorphins in the brain. And these 2 are guaranteed in a race.
An injection of endorphin in your brain not only makes both the special needs children and their parents happy, but it also elevates their mood while lowering their stress levels.
Consequently, the 2 of you are bound to feel more confident and satisfied with life- and I hear this could earn you an extra 8 years in your life.
Racing promotes self-control and boosts brainpower
In addition to boosting energy, cardio workouts including racing have been found to boost self-control and learning capability.
It is said to do this by boosting the level of Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF) which promotes the growth of healthier nerve cells. This leads to an increased ability to learn concepts as well as enriched memory.
In addition to promoting self-control, running for as little as 15 minutes has been found to help with managing cigarette cravings as well as the resultant withdrawal symptoms.
You lead by example
Kids are generally known to be active and this is actually their job. But did you know that this is something that needs to be taught and encouraged especially for kids with disabilities?
Kids learn by example and this means that the easiest way to promote an active lifestyle is by living it. Actually, there are studies that prove that kids are more likely to participate in physical activities if their parents are involved. Racing with them is a great way to promote self-acceptance of their different ability levels and different body shapes.
Reasons to start running with or for the special needs kids
You become their Hero
“Run for those who can’t” is a common slogan among organizations that plan para-athletics and paratriathletes.
But I believe this slogan makes more sense when you use your legs to help your child participate and finish the race.
It gives you a solid purpose to get out
It’s very easy to lose psych for a race that you’ve actually signed up for if you plan to run just for the sake of it. It is actually very hard to sign up for it in the first place if you don’t have a solid reason for running. Simply running and getting tired seems like just another distraction in our daily routine.
But this changes drastically after imagining all the benefits that the child reaps; think of reduced stress levels, elevated brainpower, positive attitude, and enhanced social skills among others.
It’s a good opportunity to raise funds for kids with special needs
While some special needs children marathons don’t charge an entry fee, others do- but mainly not for profits.
This money goes to subsidizing the cost of early intervention which can be very expensive for a typical family.
The cost of raising a child from birth to 18 years is around $240,000. And the cost of raising a special needs child to the same age could be 3 times higher. It’s understandable that these kids (and parents) need financial support.
You get inspired
On her essay, When Mom Crosses the Finish Line, Adriene Fern, MSC, CPM, says that “raising a child with special needs is very much like running a marathon” that no one signs up for.
Raising up a special needs child is labor intensive and it can be quite tormenting. In most instances, parents of kids who require special care are too tired to figure out how and where to relieve their own emotional stress.
By completing a marathon especially while pushing your child, it ignites a sense of accomplishment that will always propel you in times when you feel like you can’t take the stress and the tiredness any longer.
You inspire and empower others too
Importantly, your efforts to sign up for more races and complete the marathon will also inspire and empower other parents with or without special needs kids to participate. This is a great way of creating awareness on this issue too.
Necessary equipment for running with a special needs child
Compared to other workout activities, the key benefit of running with a special needs kid is that you don’t require sophisticated equipment. A sturdily built and agile stroller is pretty much all that you’ll require.
The Special Tomato Jogger is a good recommendation here. This is an incredibly heavy-duty and very reliable 26-pound jogging stroller meant for children with mild to moderate physical disabilities. It has three 12-inch pneumatic tires that could withstand all types of terrains and a matching suspension system on the rear wheels for smooth rides. This stroller has a manufacturer-recommended weight limit of 110 lbs and may accommodate even 7 year old child.
You could also consider the Advanced Mobility Freedom stroller. This one is meant for adults and kids with special needs and has a weight limit of 200 pounds. This model weighs about 30 pounds. This higher weight could be attributed to its larger pneumatic wheels (16 inches) and dual front wheels (12 wheels).
I reviewed the Jogger and the Freedom in this article about special needs strollers.
5 tips how to starting running with a special needs children
Get ready for it
The idea of crossing the finishing line while others cheer you up is exhilarating. However, experienced athletes and marathoners will tell you that it does not come easy. It needs a good amount of physical and mental preparation and determination. So, 3 weeks before the set date, wake up early and hit the tracks. There is no consensus on the best way to train for a marathon, but experts recommend cutting your mileage by 25% and 50% in the 2nd and 3rd week to the race respectively.
Join a group
Training effectively for a marathon is hard and even harder for a first timer. You’ll need solid support from an experienced runner or at least join a group in WhatsApp or Facebook.
Eat right and stay hydrated
During the training period and on the week of the race, be sure to maintain a diet rich in carbohydrates; bread, starchy vegetables, pasta, and rice. These will help you stay energized by keeping your glycogen ‘tank’ full. Remember to take lots of water throughout the training period too.
Rest and get enough sleep
On the days leading to the race, ensure that you are getting a good dose of enough rest and sleep. You don’t want an injury around this time. If you feel the urge to exercise during your rest day, try cross-training- swimming, yoga, hiking, etc.
Have a family member or friend to accompany you
You need your friends’ or family’s support like never before during a race. So, ask a few of them whether they can come and cheer you. On this note, plan beforehand on the location along the course they will wait for you.