Where do fast distance runners come from? It’s interesting to note the development of distance runners. You won’t find many examples of runners who go out running marathons and end up getting faster at all other distances later (unless of course they weren’t in good condition in the first place). You will however find that if you get fast at the shorter distances that faster marathons will follow.
Though most elite distance runners gravitate towards longer races because they are comparatively slower than others in the shorter events, they are not slow. Fast distance runners are also fast at shorter events. It would be hard to find a 2:10 marathoner who cannot run a mile under 4:05. In fact many if not most are sub-four minute mile capable. Now, to most of us mere mortals that seems to be plenty fast to keep racing at the mile but, remember, seconds are an eternity at that level. So, why do they move to the marathon? Because, a 3:57 mile leaves them out of contention with the fastest of the milers (all sub-3:50).
A key reason for their speed at the longer distances is because they developed their speed before graduating to those long races. Look at most of the top level 10K races and longer, and despite the race distance, the victor will be the one with the most speed. This holds true in local races on up through world class championships or Olympics. (Remember, nobody, but NOBODY beats us in the last mile.)
The best runners in the world are able to run a sub-4:00 mile for the last mile of the 5000 and sub-4:10 in the last mile of the 10,000. There are miles in the marathon run in the 4:20s – and they are under control! That speed did not happen through long slow distance. 30 years ago we used to think so. But that has long since been disproven.
Let’s look at a few elite examples:
PRs: 5,000m 13:28.24 (1998); 10,000m 27:47:04 (2002); Marathon 2:11:35 (2002)
PRs: 1500m 3:38.64 (1999); 5000m 13:27.52 (2002); 10,000m 27:33.93 (2001); Marathon 2:09:41 (2002)
PRs: 1500, 3:42.29 (1998); 5,000 13:11.77 (2000); 10,000 27:13.98 AR (2001) Marathon 2:10:03 (2003).
PRs: 3,000m – 8:42.59 (2000); 5,000m – 14:45.62 (2000);
10,000m – 30:50.32 (2002AR); Marathon – 2:21:16AR (2003)
Marla Runyan (long-time miler before attempting the marathon)
PRs: 1500m – 4:02.95 (2002); 3000m – 8:39.36 (2002); 5000m – 14:59.20 (2004) AR; Marathon – 2:27:10 (2002)
Certainly you want to play to your strengths mentally and physically. And, it is true that longer runs and higher mileages (built up over time) develop staying power in those longer races. In the end however, the edge will go to the runner who has speed-training background.
So what is the smarter approach? First, speed training is not an afterthought – “I’ll-fit-some-in-close-to-a-race” approach. Doing some kind of solely long run “base training” is antiquated thinking. Speed work, in its various forms, should be run year round. It is a PART of base training. It is integral to better distance running.
Second, it is not advisable to start running marathons or half-marathons and then work on shorter-faster events. True, you can do this. It is simply the reverse of what has been shown to work best. Run those 5Ks and 10ks or track events when you can find them. Get good at those. Then move up in distance. It’s a strength and stamina issue after you develop your speed. Keep building your race distances after getting fast at them.
Last year, I spoke with Steve Jones (2:07:13 former marathon world record holder). I asked him, which is more important in his opinion: training fast or training long. His answer was immediate – get fast first, then go long… and you’ll have to do both for the marathon.
And finally, this is why as general advice I do not advocate taking on marathons or half-marathons as your first endeavors into running. The pounding takes its toll on novice runners and puts them at far greater risks for injuries. Ideally, marathons should not be run in your first year (or more) of serious running. Get good at the shorter stuff. Get stronger gradually through running the shorter stuff. Have some fun. Build on successes. Build up to running longer faster. It’s the documented proven way to better faster running overall.