While in many circles the marathon is held as the ultimate goal of running, it remains a challenge for most runners to comprehend. After all, the challenge of covering 26.2 miles in one go is no small feat. Even with the rising popularity of distance running, still only a fraction of self-reporting active people have reached a marathon finish line.
There is, however, another path to marathon success. It’s not some crazy supplement or short cut – you still have to train and race, but the good news is that the marathon finish line might not be as far off as you originally thought. Instead of just focusing on the miles, you can look to build year-round running fitness through regularly scheduled 10k races and then use that fitness as a launching pad for your marathon goal.
Road Race As Fitness Test
A 10k, or 6.2 mile, race is a fantastic distance for runners of all ability levels. Short enough to encourage the beginners and just long enough that even the most hard-core runner can still get a great workout. Better yet, there’s probably a 10k held in your area at least once a month and most likely year-round.
What makes the 10k relevant to your marathon goals, however, is the distance. At 6.2 miles, it takes the “average” runner just under 50 minutes to complete, with some of the speediest age groupers finishing in the mid-30 minute range. Regardless of your finishing time, know that a well run 10k is essentially the equivalent of doing a functional fitness test.
The minute you hit the finish line, you’ll have a hard number (finishing time), an average speed (pace per mile/kilometer), and maybe even some heart rate data (not required). Using this information, you can begin to determine proper training paces and even extrapolate an approximate marathon performance.
Running Fitness Is Your Speed at Threshold
Benchmarking your running fitness is a critical step in measuring your progress in training as well as ensuring that you aren’t over (or under) achieving in your workouts. The best benchmark is a functional test, a measure of the work your body is doing — in our case, a 10k. Your pace at this threshold level is your personal golden standard of fitness.
For a long time, fitness was measured in terms of aerobic capacity (VO2); but having the biggest VO2 isn’t necessarily a predictor for performance. The actual work your body can do, and by work we mean running, over the course of a 10k is a much better metric. Better yet, if you can do it on a measured course in your neighborhood, you can retest and be confident in your results all year.
Rising Tide Lifts All Boats
“But going fast doesn’t help me run longer, does it?”
To be clear, running longer in training is most certainly a prerequisite for any marathon. However even the high intensity training of a 10k is still aerobic (as defined by being under your functional threshold). The training of high intensity track mile repeats in Zone 4 (Where 1 is Easy and 5 is Super-Threshold), for example, will still improve your aerobic capacity in all the zones below it.
For the geeks out there, yes, you are training Fast Twitch muscles, but the Slow Twitch muscles are still benefitting. And in fact, the more you recruit and train those Fast Twitch muscle fibers, the more they beging to take on the characteristics of Slow Twitch muscle fibers. And with an effort such as the marathon being all “slow twitch”, the more muscles you have to recruit come race day, the better.
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Fast First, Mileage Can Wait
Another plus for a 10k training program to kick off your season — or build fitness in the off-season — is the fact that mileage isn’t required. Long training runs might fill you up with wonderful endorphins, but they also beat you down. The consistent pounding, week after week, eventually dulls your fitness and hampers your ability do speed work normally associated with 10k training.
Over the course of an eight-week 10k training program, you can see upwards of a 1- to 3-minute improvement. That’s as much as 30-seconds per mile on your functional threshold pace! Now when you begin to do your longer marathon-focused mileage, your Easy Pace will also see similar improvements.
Consider it an alternative to the constant mileage of marathon training. A 10k program will provide a welcome respite from the traditional mileage oriented training programs. Done properly you’ll not only get a mental break, but a physical boost as well.
Speed vs Distance, the Injury Conundrum
The biggest concern around any speedwork is the potential risk for injury. There’s no doubt that running with intensity poses a risk, but experience has shown that runners have as much to fear from consistent runs longer than an hour as they do from the shorter, harder workouts — if not more.
This is especially true when you consider a program that uses the results of your own 10k time as a guide for determining your training paces — this way you will only run as fast as your body says it can, not some evil taskmaster of a program or coach.
Faster running does have it’s upside as well. In addition to recruiting those Fast Twitch muscle fibers, you’ll be working at a faster cadence which can serve to improve your running form. And let’s not forget the rush of flying down the road.
When To Pull The Marathon Trigger
Before you go and register for the next available marathon, keep a few things in mind. You’ll still need a quality trainnig program for at least 12 weeks before your race, if not longer. And you’ll ideally have been running pain- and injury-free for a few months. In this way, you should consider the 10k to be your ticket to year-round fitness and speed.
It’s safe enough to train and race repeatedly, and it’s close enough to its marathon cousin to be part of the running foundation that sets you up to achieve your long-distance running goals as well.
Additional Running Resources
- If you liked this post, you’ll enjoy Your Best Marathon, a guide book from Marathon Nation on crafting your ideal race. Click here to learn more.
- If you are looking for our other top blog posts, be sure to check out Rapid Recovery for Runners and The Couch to Marathon Transformation
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