Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Five thoughts on how training for 5k can help your marathon.

It's marathon season, and many of you faithful readers are headed towards a marathon attempt after a long bout of marathon training. This is the perfect time to reflect on what you should do next, after that marathon is in the bag. Before gearing up for another long grind, I'd like to suggest spending a season working on your 5k time--and maybe even racing a bit on the track.

The advice I give here is not based in physiology, and I don't even want to say what 5k racing and training means for every person. But I guess these are simple reasons I have come up with just from being a member of the running community for a while and also thinking about my own experience.

1) The primary reason that I suggest working on shorter distances first is simply that this is the most common path that the best runners take; it's a tried and true path to success. There are people who have bucked this idea (some of them are my really good friends) and have run really well, but this is the exception rather than the rule.

2)Running fast requires developing a long and powerful stride. Running is a simple function of stride rate time stride length. There's only two ways to get faster: increase your stride rate or increase your stride length. Racing well over the shorter events requires developing a longer and more powerful stride and being able to control that stride, run it efficiently. This is probably the primary thing that new runners lack: the ability to put power into their stride, and concentrated work at shorter distances like the 5k (or even the 800 and mile) early in your running career will develop this stride and allow you to take advantage of it when you become aerobically stronger.

3) The 5k teaches you how to race. Spending a season on the 5k will allow you to run 5-10 races. Some of these will go badly. Some will go well. It is hard to learn how to race by beginning at the marathon level simply because you can't race a marathon back to back. You can't practice riding the thin line because it takes so much out of you and the consequences of falling off are really painful. In the 5k, you learn how to manage a pace that is aggressive and controlled.

 4) Training for and racing the 5k teaches you how to incorporate quality work. The best marathon training is a grind. You are tired all the time, and you pile miles on miles. The primary thing that makes you better is adaptation to volume. The best 5k training requires learning how to rest so that you can perform your workouts and practice running smooth at race pace. It's easier to learn your body, to feel fresh every now and then. Also, to race well at 5k, you need to balance training and recovery, learn how to target a race. When we marathon train, we train through our races. But since the volume demand for 5k is a little less, you can get away with "resting up" at several points during the season to run your best. Learning what it feels like to be truly sharp can really help you identify whether or not you are properly recovering from your workouts or at the right mileage level.

5) Finally, racing at the 5k distance teaches you how fast you can really be. Let's face it, running is a head game as much as it is a physical game. As long as running X minute miles is intimidating, it's going to be hard to have the confidence to run that pace in a marathon. Racing at shorter distances gets you comfortable running 5 minute and 6 minute and 7 minute mile pace, even if initially in short bouts. You begin to understand how to control these rhythms and bring them into your range.

I am a huge believer in mileage and, in running easy. These are still, all things considered, the most important variables for distance running success. However, it's also true that you can't get fast without running fast in training. Running fast is a skill that can be practiced; you can get better at it. Volume is a huge determinative of distance running success, but so is balanced and progressive training. Taking an occasional break from the relentless slogging of miles to really think about how you can get faster will keep you mentally fresh and also allow your body a different stimulus for training.

When you watch great marathoners like Shalane Flanagan or even a pure marathoner like Ryan Hall, you can see the track running in their background. You see it in the intensity of their focus, the dynamism of their stride, their responsiveness to surges, the timing of their moves. You can also see it in their training: they know when to run fast, when to back off, when to hammer. These are skills they learned as young runners on the roads, in XC, and in track, and they apply as well to the marathon. You don't have to be an elite runner for this to apply to you as well. Everyone can make improvements by taking the shorter distances seriously.

Not to mention, along the way: you might find that you enjoy the 5k more than the marathon. Or, you might even be better at it. Stranger things have happened.

Meanwhile, on a personal note and in the spirit of trying new things, I am headed out this Friday to the Sea Ray Relays in Knoxville to try my hand at my first ever 10k on the track. Wish me luck! And best of luck to all the marathoners out there, especially those headed to Boston on Monday.

If you liked this post, check out these thoughts on how to keep it simple and train from 5k to 50k... just try not to catch me in any contradictions!

15 comments:

  1. Great post Jeff! Very timely as a lot of runners will be coming off spring marathons (like Boston) and this type of focus for the summer is really something many would benefit from. Thanks for writing up these thoughts!

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    1. Thanks, Jake! Looks like you are really fit and ready to roll at Boston. May the winds be at your back!

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    2. (Other readers: this cat Jake is super-fast.) Check out his blog! http://wasatchandbeyond.blogspot.com/2012/04/hopkinton-to-boston-training-analysis.html

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  2. I was going to do just this (my Spring of Speed! speed being as you say a relative term in my case) until my stupid bad back caught up with me at the end of January. I just wanted a break from marathon training and I had a vague idea that it might help me get better at the marathon, too. I'm filing away the training plan I got and will get back to it someday!

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    1. You will be back even stronger--and hungrier--after the layoff.

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  3. Thanks for posting this as to help confirm my passion to schedule some track meets/shorter races in my season even if my main goal is a fall marathon. Or maybe I'm using my training for the fall marathon to help me out with my winter indoor meets and the some spring road miles. I race on the track, road, cross county and throw in a trail race here and there. I love that we can choose from so many distances. Good luck at the Relays!

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    1. It's all synthetic. I loved how you described racing the other day: "I don't like taking the first mile serious and after that its like a game to me. Who can I catch?" I will be thinking of this tonight!

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  4. really enjoyed this post. thanks, jeff!

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  5. Fantastic post, Jeff. Your thoughts and understanding about the long-term importance of maintaining all energy systems are spot on. I think the problem many marathoners have is that they jump from one marathon to the next, which means they never properly challenge their VO2 max or anaerobic systems.

    I actually just posted two very similar articles that I think you would really enjoy. They both share the training schedules of elite marathoners and how they approach their complimentary speed development. The first is from Nate Jenkins (2:14 marathoner) http://runnersconnect.net/running-training-articles/speed-training-for-marathon-runners/ and the second is from my own training logs leading into the 2008 Olympic Trials: http://runnersconnect.net/running-training-articles/post-marathon-speed-training/

    Love your post and your blog, keep up the awesome work!

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    1. Jeff, thanks for reading and commenting. Those articles look great. Thanks a bunch for sharing your knowledge and expertise!

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  6. Great post, Jeff! Keeping in touch with faster paces not only helps you run faster, it adds some variety to your running which most of us could definitely use.

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  7. Wonderful post. For me, this needs to be highlighted: "The best 5k training requires learning how to rest so that you can perform your workouts and practice running smooth at race pace." It names the purpose of "going easy" on your Easy runs -- which is something that I've had a hard time grasping coming from other sports.

    As mentioned elsewhere, I'm taking your advice. I'll check out Jeff G's links. The plan I'm currently going with is Pete Magill's: http://runningtimes.com/Print.aspx?articleID=19258

    It sure would be nice to be fast.

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    1. Stadjak, I followed your running a bit to that last marathon, and I think that if you can stay consistent and be smart in your development, you will find 'fast.' Of course, fast is always a relative term. I'm still looking to get 'fast' myself, 20 years into the sport!

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  8. That's good, great job well done in your marathon training. Congratulations, it gives us more ideas and information about marathon training. Looking forward always for more updates.

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  9. Thank you for this. I've been coming back to this post over and over and have decided that 2014 will be the year of the 5k. Last 5k that I really raced was in 1993! Ran track in high school before that so I'm super stoked about running fast again. My question is, as I'm planning out the season, how often to race? I will be coming off a marathon on March 2 so I'd start with first 5k probably in April.

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