When Running a 5K is as Good as a Marathon (or Better)

Molly Hurford
by Molly Hurford
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When Running a 5K is as Good as a Marathon (or Better)

Let’s get this out of the way: We don’t all need to be marathoners. In fact, most of us would do much better — in terms of health and race results — to focus on going harder and faster, not longer.

For some reason, the allure of the marathon, or even the ultra-marathon, sets in for many runners as their Everest. The common trajectory is that we finish our first 5K, then move to a 10K, then a half-marathon, then it’s time for the marathon. But there’s value in focusing on improving our time in the short distances, rather than seeking longer challenges.

A personal story before we get into the ‘why’s’ of going short. As a longtime triathlete, I must have explained, “Yes, I race triathlon; no, I haven’t done an Ironman,” a hundred times in the first two years of my racing. And I was a good triathlete! Like many impressionable athletes, I thought to be taken seriously meant I needed to do an Ironman, the longest triathlon distance. So I signed up. After a year of grueling training, I crossed the finish line and heard the booming phrase, “You are an Ironman.” I was an Ironman … who needed four years to recover from the overtraining and excessive stress my body sustained in the process.

Now, a few years later, a lot better researched and a whole lot smarter, I’ve realized the allure of going long isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Here’s why:

GOING HARD SHEDS POUNDS FAST

High-intensity interval training has been proven time and time again to be one of the most efficient ways to drop weight. Going hard burns calories during and after exercise. Bonus: When you only train for 45–60 minutes, the odds of feeling ravenous after a workout compared to how you feel after a 2-hour run are much lower, so your caloric intake will also be lower.

IT’S EFFICIENT

Instead of cramming 10–15 hours a week into an already-overloaded schedule, the requisite 5–8 hours of higher-intensity exercise saves time and helps your speed. You’ll also have more time for proper sleep, eating healthier and taking time for recovery tools like foam rolling, which could lead to fewer injuries. Additionally, you won’t constantly feel exhausted at work or when you finally do have a free day to enjoy.

IT CAN BE MORE FUN

In addition to scorching calories, HIIT — the kind of work you’ll be doing to hit your 5K PR — has been shown to release endorphins in your brain. So expect to feel a lot happier after your workout. Interval training like fartleks can feel like playtime, especially if you have a running buddy to chase. One study showed it also reduces anxiety and, unlike a long run, which can leave you feeling like you have a huge to-do list and not enough time to do it, you’re less likely to start thinking about that report you need to finish or the grocery shopping that needs to get done.

YOU CAN STILL RUN LONG

No one is stopping you from heading out on a long, slow run when the mood hits you. In fact, when you don’t have a three-hour run constantly on the training schedule, it can feel like a treat to just go out and plod along for a few hours, versus when it’s an every-weekend occurrence.


READ MORE > HOW HOROMONES AFFECT OUR RUNNING AS WE AGE


THERE’S ALWAYS TIME FOR A MARATHON

Real talk: The oldest marathon finisher was 92 (and a female!). On the flip side, your chances to run your fastest 5K diminish as you age. Sadly, we all slow down sometime. Save “finishing” races for when you’re unable to go hard, and focus on going fast while you still can!


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About the Author

Molly Hurford
Molly Hurford

Molly is an outdoor adventurer and professional nomad obsessed with all things running, nutrition, cycling and movement-related. When not outside, she’s writing about being outside, travel and athletic style on TheOutdoorEdit.com, or she’s interviewing world-class athletes and scientists for The Consummate Athlete Podcast. You can follow her adventures on Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat at @mollyjhurford.

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