Justin Sardo (right) leads the Santa Monica Youth Running Club down the median on San Vicente Boulevard on Wednesday.

As a freshman at Santa Monica High School, Anya Sturm won an Ocean League title in cross-country and added an individual conference championship in track. This past year, she captured league crowns in the 1,600- and 3,200-meter races while helping the Vikings set a school record in the distance medley relay.

But before her prep running career ever began, Sturm built a foundation for her future accomplishments a member of Justin Sardo’s training program in Santa Monica.

“She has a lot of innate strength, but it was about getting people more comfortable with running before they got to the team at Samo — because it can be really intimidating,” Sardo said. “I’m trying to get a lighter start going.”

Sturm is one of the success stories of Santa Monica Speed Academy, which is entering its fifth summer of helping local students prepare for the rigors of high school running before they set foot on campus.

Formerly known as the Santa Monica Youth Running Club, the group is offering a free session July 11-29 with afternoon practices Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays that convene at Ocean and Montana avenues.

The leader of the pack is Sardo, a 2014 Samohi alumnus and former track captain who holds school records in the 550 meters and in two relay events. Sardo, who has enlisted the help of Vikings distance coach Harley Richards, will provide guided running workouts and strength training as well as instruction on form and stretching.

Sardo is offering what he wishes someone had offered him many years ago: a chance to try the sport of running in a fun, encouraging setting.

“If I’d had the opportunity to explore it earlier, maybe I would’ve started earlier,” said Sardo, who played tennis for many years before getting into running. “I saw there was a need in the community for a place where kids could enjoy running — because there’s this stigma of running as punishment. If you get started young, it pays off so much for your later years.

“Other sports have feeder programs to help build up kids strength before they get to Samo. We want to create that program for running.”

Sardo works in conjunction with Vikings head coach Tania Fischer, who has been instrumental in developing the after-school training program that organizers are hoping to launch in October. Such a program would be based at Samohi and allow kids to run throughout the year.

“Coaches have trouble getting kids from other sports to join track and cross-country,” Sardo said. “Coming to join track after a long history with another sport is not easy. With this, at least they’ll have the foundation.”

Sardo started the running club as an impromptu gathering in 2012, the summer before his junior year of high school. But attendance was spotty, the schedule was irregular and the workouts were somewhat disorganized.

“We didn’t have any idea what we were doing,” he said.

Word spread, though, and Sardo saw progress in his club and the kids who participated in it over the years. Currently a student at Williams College in Massachusetts, Sardo has come up with a structure that allows young athletes to acclimate to running and slowly build up their mileage totals. He’s also incorporated interval workouts and stair climbs.

“I’ve seen a huge payoff,” he said. “Kids are doing stuff they didn’t think was possible.”

For more information about the training sessions, email justinsardo@gmail.com.