Keep it Simple, Yo! Distance training, from 5k to 50k

Some ruminations on training:

Kara Goucher just won the Millrose Mile, running a strong 4:35, only a second or two off of her lifetime PR on an 11-lap to the mile board track. She also happens to be in marathon training, pounding out 90-100 mile weeks so that she can be in her best marathon shape by the end of April. I’m no Kara Goucher (in more ways than one), but I had a very similar experience this winter, running 3:51 for a hilly trail 50k a couple weeks before running 16:18 for 5k on a windy and hilly course. At first glance, this might seem strange. How is it that Goucher can be very near her peak shape in the mile while also shooting to be at her peak shape in the marathon? How is it that being in good shape for 50k means also being in good shape for 5k?

The answer is simple: proper training for shorter events like the mile and the 5k is almost exactly the same (I’ll talk about the minor differences, too) as proper training for longer events like the marathon and a trail 50k. Understanding why this is the case will help you understand how to train intelligently—for every distance.

The Problem
The reason why training for shorter events like the mile or 5k does not differ substantially from training for the longer events is because the problem that training is meant to solve is basically the same for all of these events.

Many athletes make the mistake of thinking that what training is supposed to do is make them faster. It’s no wonder: we’re always talking about how we want our next race to be faster. How we want to run 5k faster, or 50k faster. Yes, of course, we do.

But what limits your pace in endurance running is almost never your speed. What limits your pace is your ability to maintain your speed for the length of the event. Whoever runs a 5k faster will be able to sustain a speed closer to their top-end for longer. Watch the start of your local 5k. There will always be one or two young kids shooting off the front, but fading quickly. They’ve got plenty of speed, but no endurance.

So, the problem of the mile: I can run 400 meters in 75 seconds. How can I train my body to hold that pace for 3 more laps? The problem of the marathon: I can run 10 miles at 7:00 per mile. How can I teach my body to hold that pace for 16 more miles. It is, essentially, the same problem. The problem of training is how to build endurance.

The Solution
Want to build endurance as a runner? Well, there’s only one way, and it is simple: run a lot. The technical term for this is “build a base”. That’s what Goucher was doing at the time of the Millrose Mile, and that’s what I was doing when I ran my 5k and 50k.

Though the answer is simple, running a lot is hard, for a couple reasons. First, it takes time. But secondly, many runners cannot build the sort of base that will allow them to take their running to the next level because of injuries. So, the key to building a base is staying injury-free.

Here’s how I do it.
1. See the forest, not the trees. Running a lot means running a lot. It means thinking about your running in terms of weekly, monthly, and yearly mileage totals instead of any single run. The purpose of running a lot is to build the system of capillaries, to awaken the mitochondria, to strengthen the heart, to lose weight, to transform the body into a running machine. This transformation happens over the long haul. These changes are not the result of any single run, but the accumulated effect of months and years of running.
2. Run easy most of the time. If what matters most is the forest, then don’t stress too much about any single “tree.” Running hard too often wears you out, both physically and mentally. 80% of your running (at least) should be comfortable, easy, and fun. If you’re feeling really good, then you might once or twice a week turn an easy run into a spontaneous tempo run.
3. Do your workouts by feel, not by pace. Do not concentrate on making yourself hurt. Concentrate on making fast easy. I plan one workout a week during the base period, usually on Wednesdays. This workout is run at a tempo effort: running as fast as I can while staying relaxed. Sometimes I’ll do 4-6 miles around half marathon pace. Sometimes a 10 miler at around marathon pace. Sometimes 3 x 2 miles at 10k pace.
4. Run some strides every now and then. 6-10 60m accelerations a couple times a week will keep you in touch with your basic speed and keep the neuromuscular system ready to roll.

For Example
A sample base building week, taken from my recent training (week of Dec. 15th)
M: Easy 14 (7:15 pace)
T: Easy 8 (7:05 pace)
W: AM 5 miles continuous tempo @ 5:40 pace. 10 miles total with w/u and c/d (avg 6:29 pace)
PM 6 miles easy (7:35 pace)
Th: AM 5.5 miles easy (7:17 pace)
PM: 9 miles very easy (8:27 pace)
F: AM: 4 miles easy (7:30 pace)
PM: 6 miles very easy (10:00 pace)
Sa: AM: 8 miles moderate (6:03 pace)
PM: swim 1600 yards
Su: 14 miles easy (7:15 pace)
Tot: 83.2 miles

The base work will prepare you for any distance. It will take you 90% of the way there. No long runs required. No gut-wrenching 400’s. Just run a lot. Teach your body to endure. Make the long term changes that separate the bodies of the elites from the bodies of everyone else.

The last 10% takes specificity. This is where the difference in training for the mile and for the marathon comes into play. Once the foundation has been laid, you can spend 4-6 weeks (no more!) honing your body for the particular event. For the 5k, this means gut-wrenching 400’s at 5k pace. For the marathon and the 50k, this means adding some long runs. Spending a month or so doing race-specific work will put the icing on the cake. But it’s the cake that matters. If you don’t believe me, I’ll let you in on a little secret: I did no single training run longer than 14 miles before my most recent 50k. But I had my share of 80-90 mile weeks. Plenty of cake. And I can put on the icing whenever I like.

Keep it simple! Keep it fun! Run a lot! Build that base!


  1. wow,,amazing post..i found my fav blog on running

  2. Hey, great post. I have been looking for something like this. Thanks.

  3. Interesting blog, I find myself agreeing with all your points... I have been following the same logic of training, but it is nice to see it expressed so clearly.... Thank you!

  4. late to reading this but good stuff. -scully

  5. Great Post. I have issues with my feet that require me to take days off between each run (I swim a mile on the off days). I typically run shorter distances (6-7 miles) at a faster pace than I probably should be running. Thinking about slowing it down for these runs and lengthening them.


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