Faster, then further?

A couple of weeks ago Mark and I went to our first Park Run at one of Melbourne’s many great public spaces for runners, Albert Park. 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.

Melbourne Park Run Director Carol Cunningham – doing a great job!

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.

This brings me nicely to the subject of this post, which along with celebrating the good work being done by Park Run, is to briefly discuss why focusing on bringing your 5km personal best time down can help you hit your goal for the Marathon.

Off and running 8am on a cold Saturday morning

So there’s something for everyone at Park Run: run easy or run fast, the choice is yours. A great place for runners of varying abilities to work on bringing down their 5km best times in preparation for the marathon. One of my favorite topics is this: 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.

Covering up for not having shaved by explaining that a bigger butt will help you run better

While I’m by no means a fast runner compared to the fleet-footed folk strutting 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 really slow pace. No disrespect to slow marathon runners intended – it’s just the way I think about the world.

A cold Mark Gorski – when does the running start?

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.

You can get an indication of your capability to hit certain goal times at longer distances by examining how fast you can run over a shorter journey. A regular 5km time trial (say every 4 to 6 weeks) can come in handy to benchmark your progress. The best ready reckoner I have seen comes from the classic coaching text Daniels’ Running Formula. Daniels is an exercise scientist and coach of numerous high-performance athletes and regular runners like you and I.

Nice kick for home from this runner

Daniels 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-kilometer pace.

Note: Mark’s running technique compared to mine at same 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.

As an aside this shot (above) is an interesting one that shows how much more knee and ankle flex Mark is getting compared to me. I’m not that much taller than Mark! One reason his compact technique is more efficient than mine is because he’s loading up the lower limb more effectively. We ran 19.00.

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 kilometer difference in pace is your wriggle room and should make the relatively slower marathon pace more comfortable to sustain over the longer journey.


Find out about Park Run in your area or if you’re feeling inspired – start one in your local community! If you’re intending to run a marathon for the first time it’s a good idea to give yourself plenty of time to build up your training, strength and speed at shorter distances. If you are starting running from a zero base a good way to progress would be to run 5km and 10km fun runs in year one, take on a half marathon in year two and finally run a marathon in year three.

Pictures by Melbourne Park Run, Words and diagram by


6 Responses to Faster, then further?

  1. Jonathan cahill August 9, 2012 at 11:36 am #

    Hi Brian,
    I like the comment about the special insanity of Ironman triathlons,as Bruce Macavenry says, “Special”!
    Do you think that a 5k TT is better than a 10k TT to guage the progress of your marathon training?
    I am due to do a 10k TT tonight but am thinking that I might just do the 5k TT and see what time I come up with!
    I am aiming at running the 5 at sub 18.30 pace but Daniels formula say it an all out effort with no bickies left at end?
    Will look at Daniels formula for more info.
    Keep up the good work.

    • Brian August 9, 2012 at 11:54 am #

      G’day Jonathan, haha yes, very special, I’ll never quite get you Ironman triathletes! Great question by the way, will bounce it off Mark shortly and see what we come up with.

    • Brian August 9, 2012 at 12:14 pm #

      Ok so we’re leaning towards doing the 5k time trial at 90-95%. A longer race i.e. 10k as part of the marathon build up could be done a little further down the track. Freshen up a bit ahead of the 10k race

      • Jonathan cahill August 9, 2012 at 12:53 pm #

        Thanks Brian, will do the 5k TT tonight at the 90 to 95% effort and see what i come up with and will let you know.
        If I can crack the 18.30 it will be “Special”!

  2. Paul Joyce August 9, 2012 at 12:08 am #

    Brian, good post again. In my experience the shorter faster runs and longer slower runs are complentary. I find that my longer run pace benefits from my shorter faster runs and, likewise, my shorter run pace has improved from building a good aerobic base from long slow runs. Keep up the great work, Paul

    • Brian August 9, 2012 at 6:51 am #

      Thanks Paul, agree mixing it up is the key and having a different focus during or between years.