The most guaranteed way to run your personal best is to train in a manner that improves your weaknesses and race at a distance that plays to your strengths. Knowing whether you are a short distance or long distance runner can help you prevent injury, maximize your training, and enjoy your running!
In American racing, the marathon is epitomized as the be-all end-all goal of running. The 5K and 10K are seen as stepping stones for beginners to build their endurance up so that they can train for the marathon. Even if it takes you 5, 6, 7 hours to finish the race and you don’t have any toenails left, the marathon is the racing distance you should step your sights exclusively on.
I’m not discrediting the marathon in the least (I genuinely enjoy the challenge that racing and training for a marathon offers); rather, marathon is not the optimal race for every runner. It’s not because some runners are incapable of running the marathon; quite on the contrary, with the right training plan and dedication, you can run 26.2 miles and beyond. I want to encourage every runner to pursue their goals, whatever those goals may be. The fact is that different runners have different physiological and mental strengths and weaknesses; some possess the ability to run a strong and fast marathon, while others excel at shorter and faster races such as the 5K and 10K.
Muscle Types and Runner Physiology
Our muscles are composed of fibers and there are three types of muscle fibers: slow-twitch (type I) and fast-twitch (type IIa and type IIb). To give a quick and simple summary, slow-twitch muscles are more common in long distance runners, and short and middle distance runners have more fast-twitch fibers. Slow-twitch muscle fibers efficiently use fuel and more fatigue resistant, so they are used in easy and endurance runs. These fibers are aerobic, which means they produce energy from oxygen. Type IIa and type IIb fast-twitch muscle fibers are anaerobic, meaning they produce energy without oxygen. Fast-twitch muscles are used for powerful, fast movements and thus fatigue quickly.
Hansons Marathon Method draws upon research to compare the percentage of type I and type IIa/IIb muscle fibers in runners. The average sedentary person, according to their chart, has 40% type I, 30% type IIa, and 30% type IIb. The average middle-distance runner will have 60% type I, 35% type IIa, and 5% type IIb. Sprinters will have 20% type I, 45% type IIa, and 35% type, while professional/elite marathoners will have around 80% type I, 20% type IIa, and less than 1% type IIb. That’s quite the difference in muscle fibers!
While you can strengthen slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscles through different workouts, genetics plays a significant role in your distribution of muscle fibers. Some people are just naturally born with more slow-twitch fibers, which is why they can do really well in the marathon, while others have a natural propensity to speed thanks to fast-twitch fibers.
Strictly speaking, the 5K and 10K are considered middle distance races, since they both require a bit of endurance. Short distance races include the 100 meter, 400m, and 800m—sprint distances traditionally raced on a track. Most recreational runners do not compete in short distances races, as these are generally in the domain of high school, college, and professional track and field.
The middle distance encompasses technically only reaches up to the 5K in cross-country and track and field racing, and then long distance is anything beyond that. However, road runners refer to the distances differently, because our racing spectrum goes from 5K to marathon rather than from 100m to 10K. For most road runners, the 5K and 10K are considered short distances, while the half marathon and full marathon are long distance races. Many road runners draw the line at whether the races takes them about an hour or less or more than an hour to complete.
While you can’t easily (or painlessly!) take a peek into your muscles and figure out if you have more slow-twitch or fast-twitch fibers, your workouts and race performances can indicate if you are built more for speed or for endurance. If you’ve raced most or all of the distances across the 5K to marathon spectrum, you may be able to easily determine which distance you are better at. Enter your most recent race time into race equivalency calculator, such as the McMillan calculator or the Jack Daniels Calculator, and you’ll see what times you should be hitting for the other distances. Does your equivalent marathon time seem impossible? Then you may be a better shorter distance runner. If your marathon and half marathon times are consistent with the calculator but you’re nowhere near the equivalent 5K time, then you likely excel at longer races.
Personally, I’m a long distance runner. I love long runs and tempo runs hold the spot as my personal favorite workout. I don’t possess a lot of raw speed, but I am a strong endurance runner. 5K and 10K races don’t appeal to me because they hurt too much, and I prefer to only do a few longer races a year.
Muscle types, individual physiology, and personal preference all play a role in whether you a short distance (5K/10K) runner or a long distance (half and full marathon) runner. Are you a short distance or long distance runner? Consider the following preferences and natural abilities:
Are You a Short Distance or Long Distance Runner?
You’re a 5K/10K Runner if…
- You love to push your pace as fast as possible.
- Daily runs over an hour bore and tire you.
- 12 x 400 meters at faster than 5K pace sounds like a good time to you.
- You prefer to race frequently.
- You do not like runs over 10 miles.
- You enjoy incorporating plyometrics and heavy weight-lifting into your routine.
- You don’t have several hours a week to train and so you focus on quality over quantity.
- Running a high volume of miles in a week leads to injury.
You’re a Half and Full Marathon Runner if…
- The track is your nemesis.
- Any run under an hour feels short.
- You look forward to your weekly tempo run.
- You love being able to zone out and enjoying running during long runs.
- You prefer gentler types of strength training like yoga.
- You have and/or want to run for several hours per week.
- Speedwork often causes your injuries.
- You like to train long and hard for only a few races a year.
- It takes you about 5 or so miles to warm up and get into a rhythm during your run.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with being either strength of runner! Rather, by knowing whether you are a short distance or long distance runner, you can maximize your training in a manner that will strengthen your weaknesses, emphasize your strengths, and prepare you to run your personal best.
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Want to improve on your areas of weakness and maximize your strengths? Consider working with a running coach, who will design a plan that specifically caters to your strengths and weaknesses. You can learn more about my coaching services here and email me at [email protected] to set up a consultation today!
Question of the Day:
What’s your favorite distance to race?
Do you do better at shorter races or longer races?