Jan 21, 2021

Performance vs. Distance

Should you aspire to go longer or faster?

A similar pattern often occurs when people get interested in endurance sports for the first time. They start out wondering if they have what it takes to complete a 5K, a sprint triathlon, a criterium, etc. When the initial goal is accomplished, they push harder by targeting a longer distance. The focus is the length of the course, not how competitively they are racing it.

By all means, we celebrate those who choose to race long distances at SportTracks, providing that health and safety are prioritized. Most serious athletes put great care into finding their ideal race distance, and sometimes ultra-endurance events are the best choice. But when you look at the racing community on the whole, distance seems like it's often prioritized over speed.

Why is it far less common to strive to improve performance in shorter races? An obvious answer is pain. Trying to outdo your best in high-speed efforts is profoundly uncomfortable. But there's also pressure to go longer that sometimes comes from outside forces, and sometimes within.

A male runner nearing the finish line of a marathon

There's a sense that you'll never truly be a runner if you don't complete a marathon, or you're not a real triathlete until you do a full Ironman. Your family and friends won't fully appreciate the gravity of besting a middle-distance personal record, but they do react to long and demanding distances. Whether you race for yourself or others, distance seems to always win out over performance.

Shorter distance does not mean entry-level

It's understandable why people mistake shorter races like the 5K or sprint triathlon as entry-level events. You can show up at these races without months of training and still cross the finish line with a pulse. The same cannot be said about the marathon or full-course triathlon. If you compete in those events without preparation your suffering is guaranteed, and finishing is unlikely.

The reality is that shorter races are incredibly demanding if your goal is to be competitive — not just a body crossing a finish line. Consider the 50-meter freestyle in swimming, or the 100-meter sprint in track. Anyone can complete those distances, but to be competitive requires an unwavering level of focus and commitment. Bump it up to middle-distance endurance races like the 5K and sprint triathlon, and the discomfort required to be competitive increases exponentially.

A sprint means you need to completely throw down the hammer.

By definition, a sprint triathlon isn't a short race for beginners. A sprint means you need to completely throw down the hammer. It's an all-out effort from start to finish. There is no space to settle into a smooth pace, you've got to give it everything you've got the entire time. The same applies to 5K runs. Sure, you can always go at an easy pace and enjoy the social aspect of the event, but if the point is to be competitive, you've got to push yourself hard for the duration.

If you search the internet for the world's toughest races, you'll quickly find names like Marathon des Sables, The Barkley, and Tour de France. There's no doubt that ultra-distance races are grewling and deserve to be recognized as extremely difficult, but the hard work that's required to be competitive in middle-distance endurance races is far less appreciated. Just because it's overlooked by the general public doesn't mean you should ignore it yourself.

A cure for the post-race blues?

There's an implied sense of progression in endurance sports that seems inexorably tied to distance. Couch to 5K, 5K to 10K, 10K to half-marathon, and so on. You've got to walk before you can run, and once you can run should you keep going until you're competing in 200-mile ultras? At a certain point the all-important progression of distance loses its meaning.

Post-race depression is a real thing, and long distance events are often the culprit. Because it takes months of focus and commitment to train, the non-stop preparation dominates your life. When race day finally arrives and months of your hard work culminate, a sense of listlessness can set in. 

If your driving force had been to push further and further, what are you supposed to do once you've crossed that big finish line? This is when it can be healthy to have a different outlook on shorter races. Finding meaning and reward on shorter courses can stave away feelings of being lost afterward. Your training cycles won't be as lengthy and time consumptive, and your workouts can have more speedplay and dynamism. It's feasible to improve your ranking in your age group, and even strive for the podium. The sky's the limit when you're not bound to bigger and bigger miles.

Comments

Hi Sam, one additional thought.

If you are training for endurance race, shorter distance races at high speed have an inherent higher risk of injuries.

Paul

Thank you for the comment. I hear you, but I still think it's possible to make injury prevention a priority when training for shorter races. Always listening to your body, taking recovery seriously, never increasing intensity or volume too quickly, doing HRV readings every morning and following the feedback, getting advised by an experienced coach, etc. There's a lot you can do to try to stay injury free, even when going long.  

Sam,
Great article and so true. It seems to be that nowadays in all walks of life "quantity" is recognised to a greater extent than "quality". In 45 years of competitive running over all distances from 800m to ultras, the first question I get asked when told I am a runner is "oh, do you do marathons?" and there is a sense of disappointment when I answer that I have done marathons but it is not my distance and I mainly train and race over 5k to half-marathon as those are my optimum distances. It is also true that most people do not have enough time to train to do a marathon justice and only train to get round. It would be better to use that limited time to train to optimise performance over a shorter distance and get the fun of seeing progress more frequently. Anyway, a story I have told many times over the years!!!
Alan

The time required for proper training is a big one for me. I often enter local shorter course races and enjoy the challenge of trying to outdo my older times. When I get into it, I'll then get tempted to enter longer course races, but the reality of my limited available time to train usually keeps me from doing so. Two young children, full-time job, a partner who also works and depends on me to help out, etc. I also have other interests that I don't want to ignore completely. Things may be different in the future, but for now going short is the more compelling option. To each their own, though. If someone wants to do a marathon just for the sake of doing it, I have zero problems with that. :)

Thank you for the article, and I agree. Here is another article that supports the notion that distance isn't everything:

https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-5k-not-the-marathon-is-the-idea...

I personally feel more anxiety in the day or so leading up to a 5k than I do for a half marathon. They both are challenging and physically taxing in their own ways, but that feeling of pushing your HR to near max and holding it is unique to the shorter race distances. Leading into a half, I am much more calm knowing that those first 5-6 miles, I will be running well within myself. The 5k is a controlled heart attack, when done properly. :)