Finding Your Distance
by Gail Kislevitz
If we assume that some runners are more gifted at certain distances, how do we find out which one is best for us? It would be simple if we could determine our personal niche in the racing world through a DNA sample—and that may some day be the case. But, for the present, finding your optimum racing distance lies somewhere between the lab and the track, and for good measure throw in a deck of tarot cards. If you don’t have a clue about the racing distance to pick and stick with, don’t worry; you have a lot of company. It’s not an easy task, but there are some tried and true methods at your disposal.
The Scientific and the Practical
Let’s look at the scientific tests prescribed by many sports physiologists: Maximum oxygen consumption (VO2 max) and muscle fiber twitch type. Measuring VO2 max requires running on a treadmill to exhaustion while wearing a breathing apparatus that measures the rate of oxygen transport to the muscles. The results show the relationship between oxygen consumption and running speed. The readings, however, can be affected by age, gender, training and altitude, so VO2 max isn’t always an accurate measure. In addition, VO2 max is only a reliable predictor for shorter distances. Derek Clayton, who held the world marathon record, had a relatively poor VO2 max, but he ran efficiently. A strong believer in mind over matter, Clayton attributed his world record to mental fortitude. No doubt mental toughness plays a huge part, but other physiological factors not measured also made him suited for the marathon.
Another common test measures the muscle fiber twitch effect: fast-twitch (FT) versus slow twitch (ST). To determine muscle type, a needle is inserted into the muscle to withdraw a small sample of fiber so the amount of capillaries, mitochondria and myoglobin may be measured, along with the size of the fibers, all of which distinguish ST from FT. Elite marathoners have a much greater percentage of ST fibers than elite sprinters. A fast twitch runner is not likely to break any marathon records. They can, however, gradually train their fast twitch muscles to act as slow twitch fibers. Some runners, like Alberto Salazar, who had a high proportion of slow twitch fibers, are able to run 10Ks at the elite level, and then move up to the marathon with great success.
Should your next running route take you to an exercise physiology lab? “Laboratory tests such as VO2 max, muscle fiber composition, blood composition, all serve as valid indicators,” says Mark Conover, winner of the 1988 Men’s Olympic Marathon Trials and coach at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. But he adds, “If access to these tests is out of the question, actual fieldwork, things like 400-meter speed and ability and rate of recovery from specific workouts, can be useful gauges of optimal race distance.”
Conover uses both workouts and races to assess an individual’s potential: “Predicting race distance can be based on the athlete’s ability to handle certain workouts in combination with their best times at other events. A person with a better 10K time than 5K may mean that person is more suited to longer distances. Likewise a strong 800-meter runner may want to try a 1500-meter and eventually a 5K.” He adds one important caveat, however: “To attempt these varying distances, training should always incorporate aspects that apply to a range of the distances.” In other words, you can’t judge your potential in a marathon on a base of 400 meter repeats, or a mile based on weeks of long slow distance.
Assessment on the track or roads shouldn’t be seen as second best, according to Tim Noakes, Ph.D., one of the world’s leading exercise physiologists, who found that the best predictor of running performance at any distance is a running test, preferably at the 10K distance. He states in The Lore of Running, “because the best predictor of running performance at any distance is running performance at other shorter distances, you can predict with reasonable accuracy your potential running performances at all distances even without ever entering an exercise laboratory.”
One of the simplest ways to evaluate our performances is with a race time equivalent chart (at right), which predicts the time you are likely to finish a longer distance race based on the performance in shorter races (or vice versa). If your performance deteriorates as the distance gets longer, you may want to concentrate on the shorter distances. If your half marathon is off the charts compared to your 5K, you may be naturally inclined to the longer treks.
Beyond the tests and the numbers, many runners rely on their gut instincts. “Certainly there is a scientific method involved to some degree, as a 5K runner is genetically different from a marathoner,” says Steve Plasencia, track coach at the University of Minnesota, a member of the U.S. Olympic track team in the 10K in 1988 and 1992, and the fourth place finisher in the 1996 Olympic Marathon Trials. Plasencia continues, “but there’s not much difference between the 5K and 10K runner. So to some degree it boils down to what the runner likes.” Mindset plays a big role, in Plasencia’s view: “The distance where you feel the most comfortable plays a major factor. Do you like the long runs? Can you stay focused for that long a time or are the shorter runs better suited for you?”
Kenyan Paul Tergat, five-time World Cross Country champion, has similar thoughts on the subject. “Basically I run where I am comfortable. It takes training, discipline and a tough mental attitude to find your right distance, stick with it and do well in it.”
Conover notes, “Most athletes usually have a pretty sound idea of their best distance but need to be experimental.” He warns, however, that “Younger athletes come in thinking they know their best distance and are reluctant to try something new. That’s where I step in. An 800-meter runner could be a better 1500-meter runner as there is a good deal of crossover in those events. They just need to be pushed and coaxed into trying new distances.”
Moving Up Over Time
Plasencia feels that decisions regarding distance are usually made at the high school level, where most runners experience their early success. He also points out that eventually most runners move up out of necessity. “As the leg speed slows endurance plays a larger role and competitive runners move up to the longer distances. I feel it is my role as a coach to challenge my runners to test their mettle and try other distances as the younger runners are reluctant to change their distance once they’ve tasted victory.” He introduces them to new training techniques and gives them the nudge to try other events varying the training methods for each.
Rod DeHaven also feels that age becomes a factor in deciding on a distance. Starting his running career in college in the 800 to 1500 meters and ending up as the only American on the 2000 U.S. Olympic men’s marathon team, Rod has sampled the spectrum. “It’s not unusual for a gifted athlete to run more than one distance, but it better be done before the age of 30 or you just won’t be able to compete in the shorter distances. As you get older, the body doesn’t recover as quickly from a 5K and 10K. The aches and pains don’t go away so fast.”
Tergat, a former world record holder in the 10K and the current world record holder in the half marathon, moves up to a new event when he feels he has nothing more to prove at the prior distance.
In April Tergat jumped to the marathon, running his debut in a stellar time of 2:08:15. There is little room for scientific methods for Tergat. He’s never done the laboratory tests and is not even sure what they could possibly do for him. “It all boils down to competition and finding the competitive edge that works for you. For me, running is easy.”
What God Left Out
Tergat probably should qualify his statement by saying “distance running is easy”; he’d likely not find a 100 against Maurice Greene very easy. At some basic level, our body type determines our best event. Arthur Lydiard stated back in 1978, “As far as I’m concerned, the sprint test is the best way to judge your potential. Your basic speed, not your build, leg length, or weight, should determine what distance you run.” Basic speed can be increased with strength work, but its pure elements are a gift.
DeHaven alludes to this by stating, “An elite 5K runner should be capable of running a 3:55 mile. You need that type of ability to compete as a world-class 5,000-meter runner today.” Elites without the capacity for such blazing speed should look to longer distances. While the specific time cut-off would be different for a casual competitor, the principle is the same: you need a good deal of natural speed if you’re focusing on the shorter end of the spectrum. But, don’t make this judgement without adequate speed training to ensure a fair test.
Conover also nods toward the body type and running mechanics as determinants of one’s forte. “These two are valid factors in determining a runner’s best race distance. The mechanics—stride length, turnover rate, and heel recovery—combined with body type, all play a part. A coach should use these variables in training and determining optimum race distance. The runner with that short, quick stride and low knee lift could be a better marathoner based on the energy-efficient stride pattern, while the classic longer stride makes that athlete more geared toward middle distance.”
Luck and Listening
DeHaven has his own scientific equation for finding the right racing distance; 50% speed and 50% luck. With his diverse background, DeHaven has learned a few things about the challenges of each distance. “It’s difficult for a great 5K runner to move up to the 10K without the right mentality moving up with it. There is some headway to make up time in the 10K, but not much. And it would almost be impossible for a miler to move up directly to the grind of a 10K.”
Personally, DeHaven discovered, “I like the half-marathon because I can run hard for an hour at a 4:50 to 5:00 pace and feel good. That’s one reason I decided to leave track behind and concentrate on the marathon. I listened to my body.”
Beth Chernalis also found her best distance by listening to her body. Winner of the women’s open division of the 2000 Atlantic City Marathon, Chernalis tried all the distances when she decided to become a serious competitor five years ago. “The 5K was too much for me,” Chernalis found. “I could hold a fast pace but I was in pain most of the time so [I] moved up to the 10K. My body was saying go longer not faster so I tried the marathon and it was love at first run.”
With her coach, she worked on increasing the distance and frequency of her long runs, and, after suffering from over-use injuries, had to learn to train hard and stay injury free at the same time. The results: a negative split marathon in Atlantic City, with the last two miles at a 6:30 pace. Chernalis has definitely found her comfort zone with the marathon. Just three weeks after her win in New Jersey she ran the New York City Marathon in 3:08.
Going for the 26.2 Mile Monster?
Many runners move up to the marathon after either being successful at shorter distances, like Tergat, or never feeling comfortable at shorter distances in the first place, like Chernalis or DeHaven. Age and speed become factors, which is why many accomplished marathoners are in their thirties. Their legs aren’t pumping as fast as they did in their twenties so they rely on endurance and mental maturity to beat the pack. The top echelon of elite marathoners is filled with latter day track runners such as Frank Shorter, Grete Waitz, and Moses Tanui. Another age factor affecting speed is that over time, muscles lose FT fibers leaving us with more ST fibers.
Some coaches feel that a runner’s lactate threshold is the most accurate predictor of marathon performance. At the threshold, the oxygen supply to the muscles becomes inadequate and the muscles turn anaerobic, releasing lactate in increasing amounts. Conover says, “Physical training will determine a runner’s lactate threshold level. Some people can handle lactate threshold workouts—like tempo runs—better than others: an 800-meter runner who struggles with tempo work may be better suited to a 400-meter distance, while [one] who does well could move up towards the 5,000-meter range. The same holds true for a 5,000-meter runner who increases the workouts and mileage and may be ready to move up to the 10K.”
When a 10K runner looks to the marathon, he must also consider the mileage factor. Most marathon coaches believe that distance training is the way to go with an average of 90 to 100-mile weeks. Add in speed workouts, hill training, strength training, all while staying injury free, and it’s not surprising that the cache of elite marathoners is slim. It’s an exhausting regimen, especially when combined with work and family.
Your Own Experiment
If you have access to a reputable laboratory, a VO2 max index test and a muscle fiber twitch test can provide interesting data in the quest to know yourself. Lacking such access, however, does not relegate you to wandering in the dark.
Race time equivalent charts, which can be found in many training books, are a good place to start. The charts, combined with your own trial and error research on the track and in road races, can give you sufficient data to learn your comparative advantage.
Keep in mind your best distance should fit not only a scientific profile but your own personality and lifestyle as well. Do you have the time and patience to train for a marathon, or is your personal life better suited for a shorter distance routine? Some runners simply opt not to do any scientific probing, not wanting to get caught up in the psychological head games of comparing their results with what is “expected.”
One of the most effective tools is keeping a log of the different distances you race. Record not only your time, but how you felt mentally and physically and how you recovered afterwards. Race the distance several times before making a judgement.
Finally, the best advice just may come from DeHaven: “In the end it all boils down to personal preference and a bit of luck.” Now, pull out those tarot cards.
Gail Kislevitz is the author of First Marathons: Personal Encounters With the 26.2-Mile Monster.