Fueled by IHT ZONE heart rate monitors and support from city leaders, Juan Cajina created a running club that doubles as a community physical education program in Union City, NJ.
Through a partnership with the Union City Department of Parks and Recreation and Mayor Brian Stack, Cajina’s running club uses IHT heart rate technology to teach participants how to improve their overall fitness and running ability.
“I approached the mayor and said we needed a program to promote health and fitness, and running will do that for the kids,” Cajina said.
Stack agreed. The mayor authorized the purchase of a set of IHT ZONE heart rate monitors. Then he recruited Cajina to form -- and coach -- the Union City Running Eagles, the first recreational running club in one of the most densely populated cities in the U.S.
Before the program paused during the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, more than 100 different children had joined the club. Participants include many children who wouldn’t normally be inclined to exercise on their own.
“We are reaching children who really don’t have another way to get regular physical activity,” Cajina said.
IHT’s heart rate monitors, Cajina said, have been key tools to help his runners focus on their workouts. The runners pick up the monitors at the start of each practice. Throughout the session, which begins with a dynamic warmup focused on strength and conditioning before members head out on a run, runners see how hard they are working by checking the IHT ZONE on their wrists. During and after the workout, the runners get:
- Real-time feedback indicated by color (blue=resting; yellow=moderate effort; red= extremely hard work);
- Personalized coaching from Cajina during practice; and
- Summary emails with a graph showing their heart rate throughout the practice.
Real-Time Visual Feedback that Engages Students
“They love that lights up and they can interact with it,” Cajina said.
“My goal is to build my speed and my stamina,” said Ryan, a 7-year old team member. “The heart rate monitor lets me know if I’m working hard or not hard enough.”
Cajina also benefits from that real-time feedback. The monitors show the heart rate zone by color in addition to the specific heart rate. That allows Cajina to quickly see how hard each team member is working. That enables him to provide some quick feedback based on that runner’s needs.
“When you’re running a practice or a class with 15 or 20 kids, you can’t fully focus on all of them,” he said. “But the way these light up, I can see at a glance where everyone is…if someone is already in red and I need to slow them down or if someone needs to push a little harder.”
After the initial period of stretching and exercises designed to improve the athletes’ strength and flexibility, each practice ends with a run.
“Each kid chooses how far to run based on what their ability is,” Cajina said. “It could be a 5K, it could be 2 miles, it could be 2 laps around the field . We want everyone to try and do at least two laps.”
The learning doesn’t stop when the Eagles finish their runs. When they return their IHT ZONEs to Cajina’s computer, the system automatically emails each participant – and their parents if desired – a detailed report of the runner’s heart rate during the practice.
The email shows how many minutes the Running Eagle exercised and provides a graph of the runner’s heart rate throughout. Cajina encourages his team members to sit with their parents and review the graph.
“They can learn about their fitness level,” Cajina said. “They are getting a better understanding of what they are doing and how it helps them. They understand how to read the heart rate chart and they are learning to work out.”
Celebrating a Successful First Year
Cajina’s program began in the spring and quickly picked up steam. Participants met with him after school several times each week, and the original plan called for the club to participate in several area events – both large races and fun runs – to reward the runners’ hard work. COVID-19 forced Cajina to change those plans.
Instead of meeting with his runners at the field, he took the program online. He met with team members and led workouts over Zoom. Those who could attend did, continuing their hard work under Cajina’s coaching.
When Union City’s restrictions relaxed in July, the team began meeting outside again. The heart rate data has shown Cajina that the students picked up right where they left off.
“Before we stopped due to COVID, the kids were able to see what it took to be at their peak physical ability,” Cajina said. “Since we’ve gone back outside , we can see who needs a bit more of a push to maintain that peak level.”
The Running Eagles’ first summer wraps up in late August. Instead of celebrating a successful first year by taking part in the annual New York City Marathon’s 5K and 1K runs, the club will wrap up its first official year with a smaller, more socially-distant celebration at its home field. Cajina’s invited the team to come out for a fun run where the runners can earn prizes to celebrate their hard work.
“They have worked very hard and we want to reward them for that work,” he said.
Continuing the Momentum
Though the summer program will wrap up, Cajina plans to continue offering his running practices. He sees the value the program brings to his community, and what it does for the children.
“The Union City population is mostly inner-city Latino,” he said. “We have a mixture of kids as well. I want to bring kids and their cultures together. I see this as another avenue for kids to get introduced to running.”
With the city’s blessing, Cajina will continue to hold practices at Jose Marti Stem Academy. When winter arrives and days get shorter, he’ll work with other Union City schools to find open gym space he can use. The mission, he says, is too important to take a break.
“We are creating healthy kids in our community,” he said. “We can keep kids in shape and with good self-esteem.”