Transitioning from the Marathon to 5K

How to Transition from the Marathon to 5K

The 5K/10K and marathon/half marathon aren’t mutually exclusive events. While peak training will differ, a well-trained runner who develops endurance, lactate threshold, and speed will thrive in any of these events. Need more evidence? Some of the fastest marathoners in the US also hold titles in shorter distances. 

Once fall marathon season wraps up, 5K or 10K races such as Turkey Trots and other holiday runs appear everywhere. And why not race them, once you are recovered from your marathon? You’re well-trained and either riding on a post-PR high or determined to end your season on a positive note after a bad race. You can successfully transition from the marathon to the 5K with some simple tweaks to your training and mindset. 

How to Transition from the Marathon to 5K

Why Race Shorter?

Why race a 5K or 10K after focusing on the marathon? Your endurance and fatigue resistance are high after training for a marathon. Physiologically speaking, this means you have the aerobic capacity to develop speed and race a fast 5K or 10K. From a mental standpoint, the resilience from racing long distances will aid in tolerating the pain of a shorter race. 

The benefits also go the other way. Most likely, the speed you develop from racing a 5K or 10K will then translate to a faster marathon. 

Develop Leg Speed

While not as pronounced as the “ultra shuffle,” many marathoners lack leg speed. This is especially true if you have trained for several marathons in a row without racing shorter distances. Marathon training requires high mileage, long runs, and race-specific workouts such as tempo runs and marathon pace runs. Becoming economical at marathon pace can sacrifice fast-twitch muscle recruitment for many runners.

Generally, that’s not a problem for the marathon itself. You sometimes have to make sacrifices in training, especially when time or injury risk are factors. But once you are reducing mileage (especially long runs) and able to change your workouts, you will see significant improvements if in your 5K race times if you focus on developing leg speed.

The simplest and safest way to develop leg speed is to start with strides and surges. Marathon runners often note that their form deteriorates at faster speeds. These short 20-30 second burst of speed develop the necessary neuromuscular connections and patterns for a quick turnover and good form at top-end speeds. 

Once you are comfortable with strides and surges, you can begin to lengthen the duration of faster running with short intervals and VO2max workouts. These workouts are often done at 5K race pace or faster, which will improve your speed and running economy. More importantly, these workouts make you more comfortable at race pace; if you can run faster than 5K or 10K pace in a workout, race pace is less intimidating. 

Build Power with Plyometrics

Plyometrics are not a magic bullet, but they can inject explosive power and speed into your legs. Plyometrics also improve the tensile strength of the muscles and tendons, which can help runners maintain their form when running fast and reduce injury risk. You can incorporate plyometrics as part of your strength training or by adding drills such as high knees and butt kicks into your warm-up. 

Transitioning from the Marathon to 5K

Get Comfortable at Race Pace

Race pace workouts for the 5K and 10K are essentially speed-endurance workouts. Speed endurance is how far you can sustain a fast pace. The higher your speed endurance, the longer you can sustain a certain pace before fatiguing. For a marathoner, race pace workouts teach you how a shorter race should feel so that you don’t settle into your normal moderate effort when the gun goes off. Try these 5K workouts for long distance runners or these workouts to run your fastest 10K

Embrace the Lung-busting Discomfort

The marathon is a slow-burn in terms of discomfort. By the time these distances hurt, you’ve been running for a good amount of time. The 5K and 10K, however, hurt from the start – and by the end, they’re a gut-busting effort that leaves a metallic taste in your mouth. 

When you transition to the 5K and 10K, include some workouts in your plan that train you to tolerate the discomfort of running fast. These can include race pace workouts or deliberately uncomfortable workouts such as progression runs or fast mile repeats. Don’t avoid workouts that normally intimidate you; push yourself outside of your normal routine and your comfort zone. 

Pretending the race won’t hurt by downplaying the distance will ill-prepare you for the pain of racing. However, psyching yourself out too much about the race will not do you any favors either. Know that it will hurt, develop some strategies for coping with the pain, and embrace the new challenge. 

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Do you prefer to run a marathon or 5K?

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2 Responses

  1. Great advice! It’s like you wrote it for me, lol! In all seriousness, I am looking forward to racing some 5ks next year. I do want to throw in a couple longer races, just to keep my endurance.

  2. I used to say the 5k was harder than a marathon because one had to run so much faster even if it was for a much shorter period of time. These days I love running an occasional 5k even if I’m finishing in 30 minutes rather than 20.

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