Why runners are going faster and shorter

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The running community is going short. According to recent data, the 5K distance made up 56 percent of all races in 2016, up three percent from 2015 (the only race distance that grew in popularity besides the half-marathon). 

​​“Three-quarters of the runners I meet in class are signing up for 5Ks and 10Ks,” says David Siik, creator of Equinox’s Precision Run program. Even long-distance elites (Sara Hall, for example) lace up for shorter hauls. 

“Some traditionally distance-only runners are realizing there are so many other races and reasons to race them—charity, speed work, ability to run with more friends—that they are not giving up their long races, but instead adding the short ones to their calendar year,” Siik says.

Plus, running shorter distances has its benefits, infusing variety, different landscapes, and excitement into distance training, he says. “Short, accessible races are a great way to feed the soul and keep a love of running alive for years to come.” They can also make you a better half or full marathoner. 

“If you have five hours a week to train and it’s all long, slow running, then you truly will never get any better,” says Michael Olzinski, a Precision Run coach at Equinox Market Street in San Francisco.

Shorter, faster efforts, on the other hand, improve cardiovascular capacity, or V02 max, how your body takes in oxygen and delivers it to working muscles, says Linette Guelen, a group fitness instructor and Precision Run Coach at Equinox in New York City. “This trains the body on how to consume the maximum volume of oxygen in order to perform at peak levels.” Sprints and short workouts utilize fast-twitch muscle fibers and build strength, too. “You will be incorporating more leg muscles by running faster speeds,” Guelen says. And training fast-twitch muscle fibers—by sprinting, for example—can contribute to a more efficient, powerful stride. 

With lower over-all mileage, the likelihood of overuse injury and burnout is minimized and you have more opportunities for strength training, which can help develop the strong glutes, hamstrings, and hips required to sustain the stressors of the long run, she says.

You also train yourself to find comfort in the uncomfortable. “Learning to relax and keep running during a hard speed set can help you keep the effort strong in the back half of a marathon,” Olzinski says. 

But an arguably bigger benefit involves the days you’re not going hard. “My favorite thing about showing up ready to do true hard, fast training sessions is that everything else about your life needs to be in alignment,” says Olzinski. You need to be well hydrated, fueled, and rested. “Athletes who are physically weak, overstressed, or malnourished will not succeed in workouts like this.”

Running, after all, is all about balance. “Mixing in a variety of lengths is only going to create more balance as a runner,” says Siik. “And a balanced body is one of the tickets to longevity.”

Try it: Once or twice a week, add in an interval run, set of hill sprints, or a short, fast run, suggests Guelen. You can access her guided interval workout above. Add at least three shorter-distance races throughout the 12 to 16-week marathon training window, too.

Also, at the beginning and end of any training run, practice a few short sprints called pure striders, suggests Olzinski. They force you to pay attention to form and call for bursts of speed. For 15 to 30 seconds, exaggerate your running form (pick up your feet fast, pump your shoulders, push through the ground) and finish with 10 seconds at a strong effort. Rest 30 seconds and repeat.

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