The marathon. The be-all end-all of distance events. 26.2 sweaty miles of burning lungs and tired legs. It is likely the first thing your co-workers ask about when you mention you are a runner, and with good reason! They are, to many, a near inconceivable physical undertaking and should be worn like the badge of honor that they are. It is without a doubt Eliud Kipchoge’s recent sub-2 hour marathon will be remembered as one of the most impressive athletic achievements in history. However, your road to the marathon doesn’t have to be a linear journey. Though the marathon may be the ultimate destination, its okay to take detours for different distances along the way, and may even make you a stronger marathon runner in the end.
Having variety in your racing goals is important for three reasons:
1. It improves potential for faster performances down the road
2. It serves as a necessary mental and physical break from marathon training
3. It provides us with new performance markers by which we can gauge progress.
Run Shorter, Run Faster
The marathon is all about aerobic strength. Holding a moderate pace over a long distance. We aren’t worn down so much by the speed of our pace, but rather by the distance over which we are holding it. Aerobic strength takes time to build. It’s not something that happens overnight, or even over weeks. But it does happen. Every time we lace up we are adding a brick to our aerobic base. It is something that we can continue to build and improve on over the course of our running careers. There is no real expiration date on aerobic fitness. However, the same cannot be said about speed. It’s a fact of life that as we get older, we slow down. We tend to lose some of that gut-busting power we had when we were younger. For some this happens in
their early 30’s and for others, like 5x Olympian and Masters world record holder Bernard Lagat, it may not happen until well into their running careers. But the fact remains the same, at some point it does happen. So shouldn’t it make sense that we train speed while we still can?
As we continue to run and improve our aerobic fitness, the “percent of max” we can hold over the marathon distance increases. So in a “rising tide lifts all boats” sense, the higher our max the faster the potential for all of our other paces should become. Looking at professional marathoners, many are athletes who have transitioned to the roads following successful track careers. Eliud Kipchoge was a 5k world champion while Kenenisia Bekele currently holds the world records for 5000m, 10,000m, and the indoor 2-mile. Dathan Ritzenhein is one of only a handful of Americans to ever break 13:00 for 5k and Galen Rupp had run 8:07 over two miles prior to earning a bronze medal in the 2016 Rio games.
The lactic threshold plays a role in race performance even for distances as far out as the marathon. The faster we can run before accumulating lactic acid, the more ground we can cover before having to worry about muscular fatigue. Taking a cycle to improve our vLT (velocity at lactic threshold) can help with our long- term goals. In other words, the higher our threshold the faster our marathon pace. Now this does not mean we need to hammer track workouts and speed sessions while actively training for a marathon. I would be the first to tell you it doesn’t matter how fast you can run a mile if you haven’t done the necessary aerobic work for the big 26. We can’t train like a 5k runner in the months leading up to a marathon and expect that it will translate evenly over an extra 23.1 miles. Rather, this suggests that varying your training emphasis from time to time can lead to success in future training cycles. While high-end aerobic work (like steady-states and progressive long runs) should be the staple of your marathon prep-work, adding a block focused on “shorter” speed in between marathon cycles can set you up for fast times as you transition towards more marathon-centric training. By scaffolding shorter-race cycles with marathon training blocks, we improve our potential at both distances.
A Change of Pace
Not only can emphasizing speed prep us physically for a better race, but it can serve as an excellent mental and physical break between marathon bouts. Getting ready for the full can sometimes be grueling, and focusing on the marathon year round is even more strenuous. Taking a step back on mileage and running a few shorter races can be a pleasant and exciting way to continue to improve fitness while allowing the body a chance to recover. Managing motivation is just as important as managing stress. A well-balanced racing schedule is like a well-balanced diet. Sure, oatmeal is good for us, but if we ate nothing but oatmeal year round we would certainly be lacking in other areas. Not to mention how bland oatmeal would start to seem after a while. Every now and then you need to throw in something new. Running is no different. Our training needs variety too. Doing the same type of training cycle-after-cycle can
make us very strong in one area but it doesn’t necessarily make us well rounded runners. More importantly, it can begin to feel stale after a while, which may make it difficult to keep that drive going year-round. But a change of pace can keep your running feeling fresh. A shifted-focus can give new ambition to your training and serve as a much needed change of pace. It can be exciting training for a new race or doing different workouts, and conquering a big track session can instill some major confidence. This offers our minds and bodies a chance to recover with lower mileage while still making significant improvements to our overall fitness.
New Ways of Seeing Improvement
Similarly, having a range of goals offers yet another marker by which we can measure our growth. Nothing motivates runners like a new PR, and shifting our focus to different distances can help us achieve these new milestones in our running careers. Being able to say “this is the fastest I have ever been” is a great feeling and something many runners chase year after year. Additionally, shorter races like 5k and 10k take less time to recover from than racing a full 26, which means we can run multiple races in a cycle. It’s hard to know exactly where we are fitness-wise if we only get a chance to race a few times a year. But focusing on shorter distances gives us an opportunity to test our fitness several times over a cycle. A bad race isn’t as crushing when you have two more opportunities to race. Finally, it offers a new way to measure progress when you do finally begin your marathon prepping. For example, if in the build up to a marathon you race a tune-up 10k, it can give you and your coach a much more accurate understanding of what that time means when you can compare it to an all-out performance(s) in which you trained specifically for that distance. A wider range of data paints a bigger picture.
As fall marathon season begins to wind-down and you start thinking about your 2020 race goals, keep in mind the shorter distances. Varying your race goals can improve speed and help to make you a more well-rounded runner. It can serve as both a mental and physical break from the mileage of marathon training, and help to instill confidence and ambition by adding a little more pop to your stride. Just like with volume and intensity, good training goals are about finding the balance that allows you to stay motivated and keep running. If you are someone who finds it hard to lace up after a marathon cycle, adding diversity to your training may help to get you out the door and looking forward to training again. While marathons may be your ultimate
calling, it is okay and even beneficial to try your hand at shorter distances along the way.