Secret runners’ business: Run further, or faster?

Secret runners’ business: Run further, or faster?

I’m excited to be heading off to my first Park Run tomorrow at Albert Park in Melbourne. For those of you unaware of this growing global community running movement, it works like this. Volunteers set up and administer weekly and free timed 5km runs in major cities around Australia and the world. It’s a concept born in the UK and spreading like wildfire through Australia and Europe.

It’s easy to understand why it’s been so popular. Well, it’s free – that helps  – but the heart of it seems to be in the community and social aspect of running that sometimes gets lost as we pursue individual running goals and achievements. Here we have timed runs with results posted on the web and a vibrant real world culture and plenty of online social engagement.

What’s not to like? Running a personal best time on your own is satisfying; do it a Park Run and you’ll have a hundred or more other runners sharing the love. But it’s not really all about running fast, with plenty of runners happy to roll around early on a Saturday morning to shake off the exertions of a busy week. Participation and fun are definitely on the menu, as is the chance to meet various running professionals who pop along from time to time to share a few insights with the Park Run crew.

So there’s something for everyone at Park Run: run easy or run fast, the choice is yours. This brings me to one of my favorite topics: is it a bigger achievement or harder to run further or to run faster over a shorter distance? I’m not saying it’s necessarily one or the other and it probably comes down to the individual: psychological and physiological make-up decides the issue. Some runners have the mindset to determine their way through long distance such as the marathon and beyond; others can push mind and body to the limit in shorter, intense bursts over 1500m or 5km.

While I’m by no means a fast runner compared to those fleet-footed folk soon to strut their stuff at the Olympics, I do have a bias towards faster running over shorter distances being harder and ultimately more satisfying than finishing a marathon at a plod. No disrespect to slow marathon runners intended – it’s just the way I think about the world. Even runners we see in our coaching practice who are very focused on marathon distance running, or the special insanity of ironman triathlons, are encouraged to work on improving their 5km personal best times. The reasoning is this: if you can run faster at 5km, all of your best times at longer distances will tend to come down in lockstep. You’ll also be stronger, more efficient and less injury-prone as your improved mechanics hold up for longer in testing endurance-based events.

In my previous post I wrote about benchmarking running technique. You can do the same with equivalent performances over different distances. Probably the best ready reckoner I have seen comes from the classic coaching textDaniels’ Running Formula. Daniels is an exercise scientist and coach of numerous high-performance athletes and everyday runners like you and I.

He came up with a way of comparing performances as a means to decide how fast certain types of training should be for runners of vastly different speeds and ability levels. It’s well worth a look. In Daniels’ tables, a four-hour marathon is equivalent to a 25-minute 5km run. So this tells you that if your goal is to break four hours for the marathon, you not only need to do the training volume, but also be fast enough to go 5km at just under five-minute-kilometre pace.

This is where Park Run comes into its own as a way for recreational runners to benchmark their progress. There’s no date or deadline looming; it’s on every week, but because the event is timed and there are other runners about, it gives you that bit of a lift to push harder than you would running solo.

Another benchmark of interest is the equivalent 5km performance needed to power you towards a sub-three -hour marathon. Running sub three hours is very good going for the marathon;  at about 4.15km pace, the 5km equivalent performance is 18.40 (about 3.44km pace). That 30 seconds per kilometre difference in pace is your wriggle room and should make the relatively slower marathon pace more comfortable to sustain over the longer journey.

See you down at Park Run.


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