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Using Long Races to Improve Your 5K

Date: 
06/18/2015 - 18:45

By Ryan Warrenburg
ZAP Fitness
(From the June issue of Running Journal)

On February 21 Mo Farah broke the indoor world record for 2 miles, running an eye-popping 8 minutes and 3 seconds. One month later, on March 22, Farah broke the European record for the half marathon, running 59:32. Perhaps more incredible than the times themselves is the range he displayed in a short span of four weeks. Over 11 miles separate the two distances, and the 51 minutes and 29 seconds that separate Farah’s marks is a fraction of the time it would be for us mortals. Believe it or not, there are lessons we can learn from the performances of a World and Olympic Champion; I didn’t just mention this to make you feel bad. The training background of most elite athletes allows them to be race ready far quicker than the rest of us, but the concept of using shorter races to prepare for longer races and visa versa is a valuable training tool.

The trick to mastering your versatility as a distance runner is rooted in the understanding that 2 miles and 13.1 miles aren’t as different as you probably think. The major components for success are the same for both distances, namely the underlying aerobic development built through consistent mileage, tempo runs, and weekly long runs. I don’t know this to be true, but I suspect Farah was focusing on the 2-mile world record with a secondary focus on the half marathon. And while the 2-mile performance is a better relative performance, the half marathon was still the best half marathon of his life, and shows that his foundation in aerobic strength was uncompromised by the focus on the shorter event. There are 2 different ways to approach long race/short race training strategy: one is to use the economy gained from training for shorter races to run successfully at the longer distances (as seen with Farah); the other is to use the strength gained from a longer event to jumpstart your training for a shorter race.

The latter of those options is my preference, especially for those of us that make our living doing something other than winning races. The difference for elite athletes is that they typically spend more time developing their aerobic capabilities. There are a variety of reasons for this (including the fact that it takes a lot of time to run as much as the pros!), but the point is this allows an athlete like Mo Farah to focus on a shorter distance and then run a great half marathon. And it explains why you’re better off spending more time training like you’re getting ready for a half marathon than training like you’re getting ready for a 2-mile or a 5K -- the training elite athletes do for a 2 mile looks a lot like the training most people do for a half marathon.

Here in the south there is a logistical advantage in using a half marathon training cycle and target race to prep for shorter races. Most 5K and 10K races tend to be held during the summer months, and it’s much easier to race a 5K than a half marathon during July in North Carolina. It’s easier to train for one too. If you’ve ever trained for a half marathon or marathon during the summer months you know exactly what I’m talking about. Putting in those 18-20+ mile runs takes a lot more out of you in the summer than it does in the winter, and that’s why I always prefer to target longer races from October to April and shorter events during the warmer months.

The key to transitioning properly between a longer race and a shorter series of races is in the recovery. For example, if you take 3 months to prepare for a half marathon you need to make sure your body recovers from both the race and the training. The recovery period is necessary in order to approach the next training cycle with fresh legs. Most people fear that if they take recovery time they will lose everything they worked so hard for, but planned rest is a critical part of training. The type of recovery you take depends greatly on your situation, and therein lies the trick to mastering the long/short transition (sort of) like Mo Farah. If you’re targeting shorter races within 4-8 weeks of a half marathon you want to make sure you take enough rest to allow your body to recover, but not so much that you lose a significant amount of fitness.

It is a delicate balance, but the best way to do this is to take the week following a longer race very light -- at the most you want to run a little bit every other day with no workout or long run, or roughly 15-25% of your full weekly volume. (I’ve intentionally left the marathon out of this “longer race" discussion because recovery is very different for the marathon.) The following week you should target 50% of full weekly volume with no workouts. The 3rd week after your longer race should be closer to 60-70% of full volume with a light workout in the middle of the week. The 4th week back should be a normal training week, and I would encourage you to toss in a 5K race to wake the legs up and see where you’re at. Ideally you should have a few shorter races on the schedule, particularly if you’re targeting a 5K. The 5K hurt is a different kind of hurt than the longer races, and it takes multiple efforts to callous your body to manage that pain effectively, but once you do you’ll be able to capitalize on the fitness from the longer training to boost your performance at the shorter distances.

We may not all be breaking records this summer, but training a little bit more like the people who are can help take your summer racing to the next level.

ZAP Fitness is a Reebok Sponsored non-profit facility which supports post collegiate distance runners in Blowing Rock, NC. ZAP puts on adult running camps during the summer and is available for retreats all year. The facility has a state of the art weight room, exercise science lab for testing and a 24 bed lodge. Coaches at the facility include 2-time Olympic Trials Qualifier Zika Rea, 2007 USATF National XC Champion Ryan Warrenburg as well as head coach Pete Rea. For more information go to www.zapfitness.com or call 828-295-6198. You can reach Ryan at zapfitness@gmail.com.

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