High Knees helps students strengthen the muscles that help them lift their knees and prevent plodding. It can also lead to a naturally longer stride for faster, more efficient running. Students will progress from a knee lift while standing still to adding in arm swing and then forward motion.
Conduct Springy Feet and Bang the Drums before this activity so kids have an understanding of foot placement and arm swing before adding the additional high knees challenge to the mix
Prepare for the Activity
- Watch the High Knees video for an overview of the key elements of the activity.
- While this video is geared toward middle school students, and you will only use the first 2 of 4 phases presented in the video, it will help you understand the rudiments of the form, and the benefits of it.
Introduce the Activity
- Tell your students the name of the activity and why they’re doing it: Good runners have strong legs. This lesson will strengthen the muscles that help you lift your knees, which in turn will help you be lighter on your feet and will help you take longer steps without overstriding—and that makes you feel more efficient as a runner.
- Talk about the importance of using a good knee lift in running. Knee lift can help avoid plodding (moving slowly and heavily) and shuffling, and result in quicker turnover. Demonstrate a “Tin Man” walk—stiff-legged and slow. Ask them how fast they could run in this manner. (The answer: Not very!) Have them try a Tin Man walk.
- Tell the students they will start marching in place with a high knee lift and then they will add in arm swing before doing a little game. Tell them that High Knees exaggerates the knee lift they would normally use in running to strengthen those muscles.
Conduct the Activity
Demonstrate and then talk students through the two phases of learning the activity before doing a little speed game. Progress to the next phase only when students have mastered the previous phase with good form (see Assess the students section). For elementary students it is best not to attempt phase 3 and 4 that are in the middle school video because form trumps all: It’s better to go slower and have the correct form than to go faster and have sloppy form.
- While standing in place, arms at your sides, slowly lift your knees up and down so your thighs are parallel to the ground. This is called “high knees.”
- Add in a normal arm swing (right arm, left leg; left arm, right leg) while maintaining a slow pace for your high knees.
- Game: pair students up and have one student do High Knees while the other stands in front of him, holding his hands motionless at a place where they would be good targets for his partner’s knees to hit. Have students see how many knee lifts they can do in 10 seconds before switching roles with their partner.
Assess the Students
What to watch for:
- Knee lift that is parallel to the ground
- Taking off and landing on the balls of the feet
- Looking straight ahead, with a tall, stable posture. Avoiding a backward lean.
Direction cues to share with students:
- “Lift those knees! Higher, higher!” (For those who are not lifting high enough)
- “Land on the balls of your feet! Not on your heel!”
- “Don’t lean back”
Note: Only give a student one direction at a time.
When you've completed High Knees, talk to your students about their experience with the activity. Here are some sample questions to get you started:
- Why is it good to have knee lift when you run? (Helps you run faster and lighter and not have heavy footsteps)
- What will a higher knee lift do to your stride? (By strengthening the muscles, it will help you be lighter on your feet and take longer steps without overstriding)
- How about your turnover, or how quickly your feet land and come off the ground? (It will quicken your turnover)
- When are high knees most important? (When trying to sprint or run really fast)
- Should you run with your knees as high as we did in this activity? (Not usually; this activity is exaggerated to help your legs get strong)
- Play a version of musical chairs, designating spots with cones or something else. Have one less spot than you have students. Play music as the students march around in a circle doing High Knees, and then stop the music. The students race to the available spots. The student who doesn't get a spot runs once around the circle and then rejoins the group. Continue for as many rounds as you want.
- After the students practice the activity, pair them up and have one student do High Knees while the other stands in front of him, holding his hands motionless at a place where they would be good targets for his partner’s knees to hit. Have them change roles after about 20 seconds.
- For younger students, hearing the beat of a drum may help them get their knees up!
Classrooms are filled with learners who demonstrate a variety of needs and abilities, including ESL students, those with disabilities, and gifted/talented students. Consider these adaptations as you work to modify the lesson for student success.
- For students with mobility impairments, work on arm drive; if possible, allow the student to use spotters and aids to help manipulate the leg movement.
- To get the proper knee height, place a string at the height you want the students’ knees to be at, or have students take turns holding a fun noodle at the appropriate height.
- Have pictures or visual display of the before and after phases of the high knees to show students how their bodies should look before, after, and during the movement.
- Allow students to do high knees at their own pace, walking around the gym, and only when ready, start jogging and doing high knees.
- Allow students to lie on their backs and practice the motions there. If the students still don’t understand the proper movement, assist them with moving their legs up and down.
- Have students partner up and mirror each other, to allow for more practice and a visual with their peer, also working on socialization.
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