Four reasons to run shorter distances

By Karen Poole

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I started running after college by signing up for a local 5k. I admittedly knew nothing about what I was getting myself into. It was a tough race because I didn’t train much and had never really run that far. With a little bit of adrenaline and determination I finished and have been hooked ever since. 

After that first race I entered the lottery for the Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco. As a new runner, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I jumped way too quickly from running a shorter 5k distance to the full 26.2 miles and paid the price with overuse injuries. 

Looking back, the 5k race is still one of my favorite distances. You can train hard and work hard, without beating up your body as much as longer distance races do. If you are experiencing injuries or just want to mix up your routine, the 5k might be for you.

4 Reasons to Run Shorter Distances

Shorter distance races are sometimes seen as "lesser" than long distance races. This is not the case. You can train incredibly hard for distances, such as the 5k, with a huge amount of effort. 5k races require more speed and endurance at a higher threshold than many distance races such as the marathon. Running fast is not easy, no matter how many miles you are running. Training and running a 5k at your best and fastest pace can benefit you in the following 4 ways. 

1. Reduce overuse injuries. Injuries often occur because runners tend to run too many miles. When your body is constantly moving in one plane of motion and something is feeling tight or sore, chances are it is an indication of the beginnings of an injury. I tend to have weak IT Bands which will flare up when I am running long marathon distance training runs. When this happens, I will train for shorter distances to avoid long lasting injuries. 

The 5k distance allows you to run shorter miles, 2-5 mile runs every time you run. During this time you can vary your workouts from speed runs, intervals, tempo runs, and easy runs. This mixes up the way you run and which muscle fibers are firing (fast or slow-twitch). You also will have more time to work on core or weight lifting activities since all your spare time isn’t spent training. Mixing up your training by adding a few days or strength training or lateral movements can make a world of difference in whether you get injured or not. 

2. Build your body up with focused training. Focused training allows you to build your body up instead of break it down. A marathon or even half marathon requires a lot of long miles. When you focus on a 5k you are focusing on fewer miles at a quicker pace. Reducing the mileage on your legs and increasing your pace allows you to maintain your running, and even gain speed, without sacrificing any level of fitness. You can race more frequently, without as much fear or injury or burnout. 

3. Develop fast-twitch muscle fibers. Fast-twitch muscle fibers are thick fibers that contract quicker than slow-twitch fibers. However, the tradeoff for speed is that they wear out more quickly than slow-twitch. Practicing running shorter distances, faster, helps to increase the endurance of your fast-twitch muscles and in turn increases your 5k speed. This is especially important as you age. We tend to lose fast-twitch muscle the older we get, so training for 5k and shorter distances can help you maintain speed and quickness as you age. It’s never too early or late to start!

4. Increase your lactate threshold. Increasing your body’s ability to function when working above your lactate threshold allows you to go faster, for longer periods of time during short distance events, such as the 5k. By training above your current lactate threshold for longer periods of time, you increase the body’s ability to clear lactate, which allows you to run longer, faster. For one run a week, try to run a few minutes above your comfort level. Gradually add 10% longer time to these runs. This will help you dramatically improve your ability to sustain this amount of work. Better lactate threshold means a faster 5k!

How to Train for a 5K

Training for a 5k involves 4-5 days of running for an hour or less. Ideally, I have my clients run 4 days a week and cross train for 2 days. Here is what a sample week of 5k training might look like. Notice that you are not running everyday, so your body has time to recover and you can work on more speed on fresher legs. 

Sunday: Off/Yoga
Monday: 3 miles easy
Tuesday: 2-3 mile Tempo Run
Wednesday: 20 minute core work or group fitness class
Thursday: 3 miles moderate effort
Friday: Cross train (tabata, HIIT)
Saturday: 4 miles

If you would like a detailed program on how to complete your first 5K, click here to get access to City Fit Girls' 5K training program + training tips delivered to your inbox every Monday morning. 

Karen Poole is a RRCA certified running coach, personal trainer, and lover of all things fitness! She believes that dark chocolate and a good run can solve most problems. You can follow her on Instagram at @superwomankw