The races you should be running

Training for these alternative distances can make you a better, stronger runner.

Among road races, the marathon has always been king. For years, 26.2 embodied the epitome of athleticism and accomplishment; it was reserved for top runners and branded as an exclusive club for only the best athletes. But then charity initiatives and event management companies like Competitor Group— which hosts races all over the world—aided in popularizing road races of all distances, transforming “the” road race into the mass-participatory events that they are today, says Mario Fraioli, a coach for elite and age-group runners.

Now that, for many, 26.2 has been checked off the bucket list, competitive runners are seeking new challenges. Running races—including half-marathons (the most popular U.S. distance, according to Fraioli), 5 and 10Ks (brought from the track to the road), and other distances—have experienced 300 percent growth since 1990, according to Running USA.

And while arguably less recognizable as 26.2 and 13.1, odd distances—a single mile (think: the NYRR Fifth Ave Mile); 4.7 miles (like the historic Manchester Road Race); or 7 miles (the Falmouth Road Race on Cape Cod this month)—not only add variety to your lineup, but also help you become a better, more efficient runner. Here, the why, and how to adjust your workout routine:

(1) You'll sidestep a plateau.
“From a coaching perspective, if you’re doing a few full or half-marathons year after year, you can get stale in your training,” says Fraioli. “Inevitably, most athletes will plateau if that’s all they are doing.” By taking a fall to focus on some new distances, you’ll spark motivation, but physiologically, you’ll also work different energy systems, he says. After all, marathons require longer and more frequent runs and can increase your aerobic capacity. Shorter distances will force you to incorporate speed workouts into your training, boosting power and explosiveness. “To be a well-rounded runner, it’s important to have a healthy mix of both of those,” Fraioli says.

(2) It can serve as a training check-up.
“If you’re training for a marathon, doing some 10Ks along the way can help you assess your performance,” says Mark Coogan, a Team New Balance elite running coach, who coaches runners at Falmouth. These races can help gauge your fitness and see how you’re doing without much muscle damage, he adds. Ten- and 20-mile races can also be perfect tune-ups to half- and full-marathon training, says Fraioli. You’ll be able to sneak a long run in and put yourself in the competitive mindset needed to succeed on race day.

(3) You'll take the pressure off.
Race day can be stressful—especially if you’re staring at your watch every mile. That’s where “weird”-distanced races prove particularly useful. “You usually won’t have times to match up to, so that’ll take a little bit of the pressure off,” says Coogan. “You can run your hardest without comparing it to anything. Mentally, it’s easier to do a race like this. You take the edge off.”

To pull it off:

(1) Train for a popular distance.
So how do you go about prepping for a race that may not have a standard training plan? A familiar workout routine: “Train similarly to how you would for the closest ‘legit’ distance,” says Coogan. “For example, if you’re running a 20-miler, you can train like a marathoner.”

(2) Consider the variables.
As with any distance, it’s important to consider obstacles like humidity or a hilly course that could slow you down or make the run more difficult, says Coogan. “A seven-mile race can easily feel like 10,” he says.