The 5K, Not The Marathon, Is The Ideal Race

On a recent business trip, I asked the concierge at my hotel for advice about where to go running. “Are you training for a marathon?” he asked. Nope. I’m racing 5Ks, I told him. He gave me a puzzled look that said, but you look like a serious runner.

It’s an idea that has become fixed in our culture: The marathon is a serious race. A 5K is a “fun run,” a jog, a walk in the park. I get it. Five kilometers, or 3.1 miles, is a distance that almost any healthy person can complete without too much training. As running races go, it’s a nice start.

But not all 5Ks are strolls. The annual Carlsbad 5000 in California draws top runners and sometimes world records. And no one would give a pat on the head to the runners lining up for the 5,000-meter races at the Rio Olympics and say, “Enjoy your jog — someday you’ll be fast enough for the marathon!” (At the last Olympics, Mo Farah and Meseret Defar won themen’s and women’s events in 13 minutes, 41.66 seconds and 15 minutes, 4.25 seconds, respectively.)

“Everyone thinks the marathon is the Holy Grail, when a lot of people should really be doing the 5K,” Jason Karp, an exercise physiologist and running coach, told me in an interview several years ago. Some people aren’t suited to long distances — their natural talents tend toward power and speed rather than endurance. And if you’re exercising for health and fitness, several studies suggest that moderate mileage, which is typical in a training plan for 5Ks, might provide a better way to get there.

At the American College of Sports Medicine meeting in Boston this month, Paul Williams, a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, presented findings from the National Runners’ and Walkers’ Health Studyshowing that running has a long list of health benefits — including reductions in BMI, improved cholesterol, reduced cancer risk and decreases in gallbladder disease, cataracts, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s mortality and respiratory disease. But here’s the thing: More isn’t always better. At the same sessionDuck-chul Lee of Iowa State University presented data showing that after a certain point, additional mileage provided diminishing returns.

Williams’s research also found that the benefits of running might start to disappear at higher distances. People who exceed 30 miles per week may be at some increased risk of mortality relative to people who are at lower distances, Williams said, particularly if they have pre-existing health conditions. But it’s important to keep these findings in perspective: Among heart attack survivors Williams studied, runners never had a greater risk of a fatal heart attack than people who were sedentary.

Training for and racing in 5Ks isn’t just a reasonable way to improve health; it might provide more reward per effort than training for a marathon. When FiveThirtyEight contributor Dan Engber recently wrote at Slate that the marathon is a dangerous, expensive and meaningless pursuit, my initial reaction was annoyance — why do people get such smug enjoyment out of disparaging our sport? Yet I concede that he has a point about the glorification of the marathon. The race isn’t the only means to health, fitness or even bad-assedry. (Ethiopian runner Muktar Edris just ran a 5K in 12:59.43 — that’s three 4:10 miles strung together.) Typical 5K training plans call for something on the order of 10 to 30 miles of running per week or the equivalent in timed runs — in the optimal range for health benefits.

Keeping mileage on the lower end comes with another bonus — a reduced risk of getting hurt. “Injuries are typically related to training volume,” saidMichael Joyner, a sports physician and exercise researcher at the Mayo Clinic. That’s not to say that you can’t get injured training for a 5K — but it’s less likely, especially if you take care to gradually increase your mileage and intensity. 


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