This is the third article in a series of blog posts on the subject of running. In Part I of this series, I covered the benefits of running and the kinds of people that running might appeal to. In Part II, I covered what you need to know in order to get started. In this post, I will help you discover which distance is right for you. I’ll also offer a few training tips which I hope you’ll find useful.
What distance is right for you?
Technically, you can run any distance. You can also run for any length of time. It really depends on how much time you have, your current level of fitness and what you’re trying to achieve. If you’re thinking of entering a running event, there are three main options: the 10k, half marathon and full marathon. Having trained for each of these events over the years, I feel comfortable about discussing each category and comparing them with each other. But first, let me tell you a bit about where I fit in.
These days, I call myself a 10k or middle distance runner. Having spent 10 years as a long distance runner training towards many half marathons and one full marathon, as well as dabbling in a bit of off-road running, I finally found my niche at the age of 30. It was quite a journey to get here. In a way, I’m not sorry that tried a range of distances because long distance running gave me a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction over the years. It was an economical way of exercising while I was a student and couldn’t afford a fancy gym membership with access to fitness classes. It also served me well while I was living in France, where there isn’t much of a gym culture. Running outdoors ensured that I maintained a good level of fitness while I was living overseas. I worked long hours and sometimes travelled for business. Running was easier to fit into my schedule.
However, as much as I trained and competed in long distance running events, I always felt quite disheartened with my times. I would have saved myself a lot of heartache had I listened to a fitness instructor from the university gym which I attended when I first started running, who told me that I had the classic physique of a middle distance runner and that’s what I’d excel at. The fastest marathon runners are tiny, which I am not. I think this is the main reason why I struggled with long distances. When I returned home in 2010, my cousin and some family friends encouraged me to enter into a series of 10k running events with them called Run Auckland. Up until that point, I had never done a 10k run before. I soon became hooked, especially when I achieved a PB of 50 minutes in one of the races without much training.
What I’ve learnt over the years is the value of quality over quantity. When it comes to running, longer isn’t necessarily better. A good run can be a short one. As the saying goes, sometimes less is more. I used to think that the more I ran, the better a runner I would become. Sometimes, in order to improve, you need to cut back a little.
The great thing about the 10k run is that it can be over and done with in around an hour, depending on your level of fitness. This means that it’s not as difficult to fit training in around work and other commitments. For me, this distance makes running more enjoyable as you move at a faster pace and it’s easier to stay focussed. You’ll find you have time for cross-training. You’re also less likely to become injured, as longer distances can be quite hard on the joints.
If you’re thinking of entering a half marathon, you’re looking at running for about two hours once a week, as well as squeezing in a couple of shorter runs so you can work on speed and hill training (more about this below). Half marathon events are very popular both in New Zealand and overseas. When I first started running while at university, a half marathon was my first event. Many more followed both in New Zealand and overseas during my 20s. It’s not a bad place to start as it gives you a good goal to work towards. When you finish an event you’ll feel a real sense of achievement. Half marathons are a good way to train if you’re living in a country where exercise options are limited. I lived in France for four years during my 20s. Unlike New Zealand, there isn’t much of a gym culture so I found that running was the perfect way to exercise and it was easier to fit into my schedule than exercise classes at the gym, not that there were many options.
The full marathon should be on every serious long distance runner’s bucket list. You’ll need lots of time for training, which needs to be fitted in around work or study and other commitments. I completed the London Marathon in 2008 and used to allocate five hours for my long run over the weekend, plus up to four hours for two shorter runs over the week. It’s not easy training for a marathon during the winter. At the time, I was living in Paris so a lot of my runs took place while it was dark and I spent a lot of time on the treadmill at our work gym when it was snowing outside. Running such long distances can leave you injury prone. I found it very hard on my joints. Running for such long periods of time was also tedious. To be honest, I didn’t enjoy the training or race much. I concluded that it wasn’t for me but this isn’t something I would have known unless I gave it a go.
As mentioned in Part I of this series, by its nature running is high impact and can cause injuries, especially wear and tear to the legs. To minimise this, make sure you warm up and stretch before each run. After your run, make sure you cool down and stretch properly to avoid injuries. Try to avoid running on consecutive days so you allow time for recovery. On other days, cross-train. Upper body resistance training, swimming, boxing, pilates and yoga are all good options which complement running nicely. Runners need strong legs, so it’s also important to build lower body strength. Resistance training can be helpful, especially squats, dead lifts, leg press and calf raises. Just make sure you allow enough recovery time after running sessions before doing heavy leg work at the gym. Runners also need a strong core. I’ve never found sit-ups very effective. I find the most effective core conditioning is in yoga and pilates classes. It’s also a great way to stretch and re-lengthen as running can take quite a toll on your lower body.
Run smarter, not further. Increasing the distance of your runs won’t improve your speed as effectively as interval and hill training. What is interval training? Instead of running at the same pace all the time, you vary your speed. For example, you might run at 10 k/hr for 2 minutes and then reduce your speed to 8 k/hr for the next two minutes. By introducing these short, explosive bursts into your training, you’ll find that your overall running speed increases. Incorporating some hill work into your training will help improve your overall performance as a runner, not just your ability to cope with running on an incline. You might choose to have one or two shorter sessions each week where you focus on interval and hill training and do one longer run where you focus on endurance.
Make sure you stay well hydrated both during and after your run. If you’re running very long distances, you may find that water alone isn’t sufficient to replace the electrolytes you lose while exercising. For endurance training such as marathon running, you could try consuming some sports gels or a sports drink such as Powerade.