It’s about the most common question I get – how can I get to the start line of a marathon uninjured and ready to race? A curiosity of the running technique coaching work I do is the disproportionate number of high achievers that bring their Type A drive to the sport of long distance running. Hiding their running obsession under a well cut suit, coveralls or white coat, their steely determination and sinewy muscles only ever on show during a sneaky lunchtime run and hard-fought weekend competitions.
Not people to do things by halves, these runners look upon a 5 kilometre Park Run as being not far enough to present a meaningful challenge. Inevitably, nearly all the runners I see have completed or want to run a marathon. But is going longer the best way to develop your ability and longevity as a runner?
Running longer doesn’t necessarily make you better
Often the marathon question comes relatively early in the running love affair, charged full of endorphins after knocking off a 10km fun run, the next step is surely to run a marathon? Unfortunately the answer is no. The problem begins with the body’s annoying ability to build cardiovascular fitness much faster that it develops strength in the muscles, tendons and the bones.
I’m not saying having a long term goal to run a marathon isn’t a good thing, but it pays to spend more than six months trying to sprint towards such a difficult achievement. For an early career runner or someone coming off a significant injury break, two years might be a more realistic time frame to work up to a marathon. And even then I’d argue this isn’t time enough to maximize your development as a runner.
Even a runner with a haphazard technique can quickly improve their capacity to run further with a structured running training program. But these early gains can mislead you to the assumption that if I just do more, I’ll continue to get better. You’ll ignore those growing aches and pains as you unkindly subject your body to greater abuses, determining your way through until the body finally breaks.
Unless you want to present miserably at the physiotherapist’s clinic nursing sore shins, knees riddled with ITB syndrome and broken feet, it’s best to attack running from a different angle. If a premature marathoner can be convinced to first develop the strength, coordination and technique to run with a stronger, more durable and ultimately faster style, they will be well placed to make a better fist of marathon training when the time is right. You want the experience to be enjoyable right?
If you run slow enough you can run long enough. It took me a few years to get my head around the concept that running short distances faster was more challenging than plodding a long way slowly. Running faster requires strength and some technical ability. A running program should always include a strength and coordination component because strength training is running technique training.
Give your body time to adapt and learn
The key is to develop fitness in concert with strength and skill, if any of these three factors get out of balance you’re headed for trouble. Unfortunately there’s no quick fix to immediately catapult you to marathon glory, the answer is in gradual progression over months and years. Running is a game of patience and quiet persistence, you can’t rush it. With the exception of those who want to tick a marathon off their bucket list, a good guideline in running performance levels that you should try and reach before you step up training and racing distances is 5 minute kilometre pace.
Can you run 5 kilometres in less than 25 minutes?
This is a great first goal for someone early in their running career or it could be a new target for a runner who feels the need for speed. Once you can run 5km in less than 25 minutes you can try and break 50 minutes for 10km, but accordingly you’ll need to be able to run the 5k in 23 to 24 minutes to crack this next challenge. Ultimately if you want to run the marathon you should try and first complete the half marathon distance in less than 1.45. If one day, as I do, you want to break three hours for the marathon, the capability to run the 5k in the 17-18 minute range is going to be necessary.
The advent of the Park Run movement is a big plus for runners with competitive instincts; free timed 5km runs in many locations in Australia and around the world are a great way to benchmark your progress in a relaxing environment. They’re on weekly, so you can do them regularly as a jog combined with some social running and every four to six weeks really open up the taps and see how fast you can move.
Enjoy running faster with less demanding training
It’s about that time of year when many have abandoned their faux new year’s resolutions and are about to knuckle down and focus in on a few specific goals. Consider making your running ambition a faster, more enjoyable experience before rushing to embrace the slog of marathon training. When you have an achievement oriented mindset, it’s easy to translate that obsessive drive into other facets of your life.
A big goal like the marathon can weigh heavily on your mind and lead you to overdo the training and progress your fitness faster than your body can safely adapt.
When you run for enjoyment and to race shorter distances such as 5 to 10 kilometres, missed days are not a crisis. Rest days sometimes seem like a trial for running compulsives, but denying your addiction is healthy for the mind and body. You want to be hungry and wanting to go on your next run, not begrudgingly hauling yourself out the door because you have to hit a new mileage target. And happily for your friends and significant others, you don’t need to spend three hours of your Sunday running and another freezing in an ice bath trying to sooth angry muscles and tendons into submissive numbness.
Completing a marathon is a worthy achievement, but it doesn’t define your ability and character as a runner or a person. If running is something you love, take the time to smell the roses, running shorter distances with a spring in your step can be a rewarding and ultimately more enjoyable way to run.
Written by Brian Martin