Go The Distance

5K road race or 30-mile fell run? Here's the lowdown on every race type


Posted: 5 August 2002
by Hugh Jones

There are thousands of races in Britain every year. Where do you start to look for one? When you flick through a race diary, what are you looking for? Chances are that you'll focus on an event that's close to home. Never mind if it's a one-mile fun run, a tough multi-terrain event or a marathon – you do it because it's there.

That's a minimum requirement, of course, but it does mean that you ask more of yourself than you should, and perhaps get less out of yourself than you could. You'll only get the best results if you're well-prepared for the demands of the event and have a realistic idea of what you want to achieve. So let's start with the most basic question:

Fun Run or Race?

You could argue that this is a false distinction. The competitive instinct is strong, and fun runs are still races in the minds of many participants. Nevertheless, a fun run is ideal for a first-time competitor, the lowest rung on a ladder that might lead all the way up to the marathon and beyond. Do one or two to make sure you can go the distance before jumping into a more competitive event.

You can enter a fun run soon after taking up running. Don't be embarrassed if you need to walk some of the way – lots of people do. Fun runs are usually held as a sideshow to a bigger race. Distances start at one mile, and very few are longer than three. If you can confidently complete a three-mile fun run without walking, you're ready for a race.

5Ks

When you race for the first time, don't be too ambitious: limit yourself to four miles or less. A 5K (3.1 miles) is ideal. You need to get used to the new demands that will be placed upon you, one at a time. You know you can last the distance; now you're getting used to the mentality of racing, and the pace that comes with it.

Fun run starts can be just as frenetic as in ‘real' races, and finishing sprints can be just as competitive. What is different is the relentlessness of racing: you don't let up much at any stage. You have to concentrate throughout the race, and you have to judge your pace so that you don't overreach yourself and end up walking, or run too easily and have too much left at the end.

You'll need to do some of your training at faster than race pace to get used to the feeling of speed, and to learn to resist the fatigue that comes with it. A steady, fast run – a bit like a race on your own – or a series of repeated shorter runs with fixed rests between them (ie interval training) will help you to do this.

Beginners should start by alternating fast running with an equal amount of walking to recover – a minute of each, say, repeated three or four times. In the next few sessions, work this up to two or three minutes, then start to jog instead of walking to recover. Finally, cut down the recovery time so that it eventually amounts to only half of the time you spend running at pace. A typical progression would look like this:

  • 1 min fast/1 min walk x 3
  • 90 secs fast/90 secs walk x 3
  • 2 mins fast/2 mins walk x 3
  • 3 mins fast/3 mins walk x 3
  • 3 mins fast/3 mins walk x 4
  • 3 mins fast/3 mins jog x 4
  • 3 mins fast/2 mins jog x 4
  • 3 mins fast/90 secs jog x 4

Do this intensive work in the middle of a training session, preceding and following it with several minutes of easy running. But you needn't wait to complete the progression above before starting to race. As you get used to the pattern of this training, you'll find that your racing becomes more controlled.

10Ks

This is the most popular race distance in the UK, and deservedly so. Many people find 5K races a little too short to satisfy them if they have to travel far to the race, while half-marathons can be quite stressful. The great thing about a 10K is that you should be able to recover quickly enough to race again the following weekend. Indeed, even before metrication made 10 kilometres such a nice round number, six-mile races (only 350 metres short of 10K) were common.

When you're training for short races, most of your runs will approach race length, but as the race distance gets longer, you'll be less used to completing that distance in training. Including one long run in your weekly training will overcome any doubts about your ability to complete lesser race distances. The further your long run exceeds race distance, the more confident you'll be. If you're training for 10Ks, a long run of 10 miles will give you a comforting margin.

In the race itself, there's enough time to settle into a steady pace, so it's all the more important to know what that pace should be. Interval training will help you to identify instinctively a pace you can maintain. You should increase the number of reps slightly compared to the session suggested above (see ‘Short road races'), but don't then stick to the same work-out of, say, 5 x 3 minutes. Think of it as 15 minutes of running at faster than race pace and concoct a sequence of reps that fits this workload: for example, 4 x 4 minutes, 7 x 2 minutes, or a pyramid session of 2, 3, 4, 3, 2 minutes.

In a session like this you will need to concentrate fully on what you're doing for up to 25 minutes, but more than this will be required during a race. The variation of pace in the session will help your pace judgement, so that you'll know what pace you can maintain for different distances. Find a 10K schedule

Half-Marathons

This distance – 13.1 miles, or 21.1 kilometres – has the magic word ‘marathon' in its title. But will you be content with half measures? The main variations in how you approach a half-marathon will depend on whether you see it as a goal in itself, or a stepping stone on the way to competing in a marathon.

The main demand of the half-marathon, apart from going the distance, is learning to run at a fast pace in the face of increasing fatigue. When you get tired you tend to slow down and jog along at a comfortable pace, so you need to devise a training session in which you try to run at race pace after having already completed enough running to tire yourself. This will increase the powers of concentration you have at your disposal in a race, particularly in the second half.

Try running a short but intense set of reps (say, 3 x 3 minutes with a two-minute recovery), and then set out to run four miles at race pace or faster. This training session might only add up to nine miles, but it can simulate the demands of going the full distance.

You may not need to lengthen your long run beyond 10 miles, although it would still be worthwhile to do so. If your ultimate target is a marathon, then a long run of 15-16 miles will help you to build up towards a full marathon training schedule as well as contributing to your half-marathon performance. Find a half-marathon schedule

Marathons

Do you really want to do it? A marathon is a race apart – long enough, yet fast enough, to place unique demands on your body, and more particularly on the energy reserves your body draws on. In order to be ready to meet these demands, you may have to change your habits on a significant scale. You'll need a consistency in your training that isn't required to the same extent for shorter races, and enough sleep and dietary support for your body to absorb the training properly. You may need to change your daily or weekly routine altogether.

The long run now becomes all the more important, both for the distance covered and the length of time you're out. You won't need to cover race distance in training every week (or, indeed, at all), but you must get a realistic sense of the distance, which will maintain your confidence that you can finish the race and help you to judge your effort. Pace judgement enters a new phase, as you will probably feel that you're running well within yourself for the first part of the race and may be tempted to increase your efforts too soon.

‘Hitting the wall' is what can happen – often between 18 and 21 miles – when your body switches its energy source from readily-available muscle glycogen to the metabolisation of fat. However, you won't experience this if your body is used to making this transfer (ie if you're a well-trained athlete), or if your pace is slow enough to draw on fat as an energy source from the start.

Your choice of going the distance or going for a time thus has crucial implications for the sort of training you need to do. Clock-watchers should extend the session used for half-marathon training: run down your muscle glycogen through a series of repetitions, and then try to maintain a steady, fast pace for six to eight miles. Find a marathon schedule

Ultras

There's a limit to how much training your body can take, or how much you can contemplate before your mind rebels. This fact is blissfully ignored by the organisers of ultradistance races. Can you imagine doing the Melbourne to Sydney (a mere 550 miles), a trans-America race, or a 24-hour race involving 600 laps of the same track? People really do these things.

The crucial battleground shifts from your muscles to your brain. Above all, you require an unwavering will to continue as your body screams at you to stop. A few long, slow, half-day training runs will help you make up your mind. If you enjoy them – and you should give yourself a chance by choosing a scenic route – then try an ultra race. Unlike shorter races, it will feel like a training run in company – until you start to suffer, that is.

Cross-Country

As a road runner you probably train a lot on grass, but racing on it is a different matter. Cross-country is a winter sport, so you'll encounter lots of mud, and on a muddy course you'll need to wear spikes to prevent you from slipping. Keeping warm and warming up also demand more attention.

Apart from the view, one road is much like another. Not so on the country. Pace varies much more as you climb and drop more frequently and abruptly. The variation in terrain also lends itself to tactical injections of pace. Cross-country runners must be able to cope with both these aspects.

The training sessions which are most useful for this purpose are fartlek and hill training. Repetitions on hills will develop strength and muscular coordination; a 300-metre incline is ideal, as long as it's not too steep. Take particular care with the return jogs downhill.

A fartlek session is one in which you repeat fast runs of variable length over variable terrain. Attack the uphills for strength and stride out on gentle, grassy downhills for speed; the cumulative effect will improve your stamina. If you're training in company, take it in turns to decide (unannounced) the bursts you're going to do, to simulate real racing conditions.

Fell Running

Some good marathon runners have arrived at the event from a fell-running background, but the reverse route is more tricky. Many runners can manage the uphills, which demand strength, effort, determination and regular hill training, but little more. It's on the downhills where a fell runner's special talent is obvious.

Maybe it's a matter of leg-eye coordination, maybe it's to do with fast twitch fibres in the feet, or maybe it's all about bravery to the point of foolhardiness – the fact is, you will soon know if you have enough of what it takes. One race should be enough; you'll find yourself either teetering nervously over the rocky ground or bounding down the mountainside like a gazelle.


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