Girls On The Run Builds Confidence, Skills For Young Runners

Young girls start a race for Girls On The Run

Running is a gift. It brings us fitness, confidence, community, purpose. What if you could give that gift to someone and better their life? Strategically designed programs called Girls On the Run (GOTR) do this very thing for girls in elementary and middle school across the country. GOTR empowers them to realize their inner power (they call it “star power”).

What is Girls On The Run?

GOTR started in 1996 with 13 girls in Charlotte, North Carolina. It has grown steadily since then and now serves well over 185,000 girls in over 200 councils in all 50 states. It’s an extracurricular program that uses running to teach pre-teen girls about self respect, confidence and healthy lifestyles.

Because GOTR is more than just a running program, its curriculum is targeted to help pre-teens navigate their social, mental, emotional and physical development. While GOTR is geared toward third through fifth graders, a sister program called Heart and Sole is offered for sixth through eighth graders. For both programs, participants meet after school for 10 weeks to learn practical skills and lessons in a fun and interactive environment. They play games and learn about the importance of teamwork and healthy relationships. They learn about citizenship by completing a community outreach project with their teammates and coaches. And they run—a little at first, as the program “sneaks” exercise into the games and lessons.

Of course, the lessons don’t always come easily. One parent of a GOTR girl reported that her daughter tried to quit the program on three separate occasions but persisted at the request of her mother and coaches. “She learned that when things get tough, not to quit,” the parent says. “She also gained a huge amount of self-confidence.”

[Editor's note: The author is a board member of Girls On The Run.]

Two young girls celebrate after a Girls On The Run race

Why is Girls On The Run Important?

An unfortunate fact of which we’re all aware: Women and girls are marginalized every day. So, would it surprise you to hear that most girl’s confidence begins to drop by the age of 9? In fact, one study reported that girls’ confidence drops by a staggering 30 percent between ages 8 and 14.

To compound the issue, girls’ physical activity starts to decrease around age 10, which often leads to further confidence drops. In a Jama Pediatrics study, females engaged in less heart rate-raising physical activity than their male counterparts in all demographic categories. Among girls, other studies have shown that relational bullying is common and can cause feelings of exclusion during a crucial time in social development.

In GOTR, girls learn to set realistic goals in life and athletics and pursue them week after week at each practice. At the end of the program, they complete a non-competitive 5K run to challenge themselves, prove what they are capable of and celebrate their accomplishments.

One coach in Western North Carolina reported that her team needed a lot of extra motivation to run during the season. However, once the 5K came around, things really clicked for them. She says, “It was awesome to see them change when they had a crowd cheering them on.” Many of her girls, she says, ran their fastest times at the 5K and were immensely proud of their achievements.

But well beyond the 5K, research from Girls On The Run shows that the program has lasting positive effects on young girls’ lives. Not only do they establish healthy exercise habits, but they also make meaningful, lasting gains in their life skills. Specifically, they increase their ability to manage emotions, make intentional decisions, resolve conflicts and help others. In University of Minnesota’s longitudinal study of three GOTR councils, 85 percent of girls surveyed reported that they improved in confidence, competence caring and character.

The study also shows that the program has the strongest impact on the girls who need it the most—those who come in with the lowest levels of fitness and the least family support. That’s one reason why many chapters of GOTR make it a priority to welcome all girls into the program, even if their family can’t afford the $150 program cost.

Runners race in a Girls On The Run 5K

How To Support Girls On The Run

It’s not easy to provide such a powerful program to students who can’t afford it. In fact, supporting the girls can be a huge struggle since GOTR is a nonprofit, and therefore dependent on support from donors and grants. This is the case in low-income areas like Western North Carolina (WNC).

“We serve large numbers of girls in WNC communities where jobs are scarce, and many families have food insecurity,” says WNC Executive Director Rebecca Tucker. “Nationally, the organization model is built on program payments funding the majority of their budget, but our council cannot rely on fees received as a major source of income.

“We subsidize the majority of our participants’ fees. Last year, that equated to over $84,000. Through direct fundraising, community partners funding sponsorship and grant funding, we also make sure every participant at each Title 1 school received a healthy snack before each lesson.”

So, generous donors can literally say they give the gift of running to young girls. In turn, this improves our communities. Here’s how you can help in your community, too:

Two young girls wearing finisher's medal from a Girls On The Run race

  • Donate. Find a council near you, and provide life-changing funds. Your support helps girls access the program and pays for necessities like shoes and healthy snacks.
  • Coach. If you have the time and energy, this is a huge way to support the girls in your community. It will probably change your life, too. One coach signed up after losing her mother to cancer, in an effort to help herself heal and build confidence. “I really enjoyed it,” she says. “I’m not sure who benefited more—the girls learning from me or me learning from the girls!”
  • Volunteer at a 5K. Hand out water, be a course marshal or paint faces and hair before the race.
  • Sign up to be a running buddy. Each girl is paired with a running buddy for the 5K. Community runners are needed to join girls without a family member to run with.
  • Race the 5K. Many GOTR 5Ks are open to the public, but it depends on the council. Your race fee will support the program while you soak up the positive energy that makes the race so fun.
  • Start a council where you live if there isn’t one already. Girls on the Run International provides resources to help create these programs in areas that are not already served.

By Kate Schwartz. Schwartz has been running competitively for 20 years, and she currently runs with the Asheville Running Collective. She lives in Asheville, NC, with her husband, Alex, and their cat, Clementine.