Longer Isn’t Always Better: In Defense of Shorter Race Distances
The 5K is a bit like the redheaded step-child of race distances. Because while completing a 5K is regarded as a triumph for beginner runners, it’s often shunned and underrated by seasoned racers. Why? Because somewhere along the line it acquired “aw, shame” status.
“Which race distance have you entered?”, asks Suzie excitedly. “The 5K”, beams Amy, omitting the fact that she’s been running for three decades, have been training like a beast and is aiming to clock a sub-20. “Ag, shame”, replies Suzie, who has only been running for a year and have two mediocre marathons to her name. “Keep at it, and you’ll soon be fit enough to run a marathon!”. And so goes the conversations of a 5K lover.
The Physiological Benefits of Racing Short and Fast
But is there really a scientific reason for this phenomenon? Are the physiological benefits of running a marathon really superior to that of training for and racing a 5K?
According to Sean Coster, exercise physiologist at the Nike Sports center and joint founder of Run Portland, training for shorter distances may be harder and get you in better shape than going long. Says Coster: “Training for shorter race distances makes the body use more fast-twitch muscle fibers and leads to better leg strength, cardiovascular fitness, and ultimately, faster times at all distances”.
Also keep in mind that not all individuals are best suited to running and racing longer distances. According to exercise physiologist, Jason Karp, many runners’ natural talent lean more towards power and speed.
The Long-Term Benefits of Training and Racing Short
But it doesn’t end at physiological benefits. If you’re one of those individuals inclined to going hard and fast, you can also look forward to some of the following longer-term benefits:
- Less chance of getting injured. Training for shorter distances requires less mileage in training, implying that, if done smartly, you could lessen your chances of sustaining overuse injuries.
- A potentially longer life. A 2016 study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings concluded that more is not necessarily better when it comes to running. The runners clocking the highest mileage in this study showed a clear trend of loss of benefit regarding risk of mortality. It should, however, be noted that the study did have its shortcomings. High-mileage runners also still showed a lower risk of mortality than non-runners. These findings confirmed that of a 2014 study published in the same journal. The latter study concluded that, in patients with a history of cardiovascular disease, running more than 30 miles per week eradicated the health benefits that would have been accrued by running less. Once again it’s important to keep perspective: Non-runners still had a greater risk of having a fatal heart attack than those clocking high mileage.
- Serious 5K training will get you very close to your biological potential for aerobic fitness. Note that the emphasis here is on the word “serious”. According to sports physician, Michael Joiner, the secret lies in HIIT workouts, or short bouts of very hard effort alternated with easier bouts aimed at recovery. Research has shown that these types of workouts, commonly associated with 5K training, result in greater improvements in VO2max than the long, slow workouts required for marathon training.
The Fun and Practical Perks of Racing Short
Apart from the physiological and long-term perks of keeping it short, there are also a number of fun, practical ones:
- Training for shorter races is less stressful. Not only will it take less time out of your busy schedule, but messing up on race day will generally be less traumatic. Since recovery time will be shorter, you’ll be ready to put the disappointment behind you and try again in no time.
- Training and racing short means more time for family fun. Less time spent on the roads or trails over weekends translates into more time with the familia. Plus you’ll actually have the energy to enjoy the extra family time.
- The logistics are a breeze. You don’t need fuel belts, gels, bars, handheld water bottles, hydration packs, gels or chews in order to race a 5K. Instead, you just show up in the most basic of running gear and run your heart out. Boom.
- Race entry fees are cheaper for shorter races. Tight budget? No problem. Shorter races are cheaper to enter. And if you’re completely broke, try parkrun! It’s forever free and for everyone.
- Avoid the race lottery gamble. Run what you want to, when you want to. You’ll rarely be at the mercy of a race lottery system when entering a 5K or 10K.
- Be in a position to make the most of your runcation both before and after your race. While running a marathon requires ample time off the legs before and serious bodily discomfort after the race, a shorter race distance will enable you to run and vacation like a pro.
Find Your Happy Distance and Rock It
And while going short definitely has its advantages, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go long if you want to. If slow, easy miles float your boat, by all means, log them. The important thing is to find your personal happy distance and rock it.
Just remember that, next time you’re tempted to make an “aw, shame” comment about someone racing a 5K, they might just be able to kick your butt over any race distance.
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