A Perfect 10
by Fatima Ahmad
If God had invented road races, it’s likely that instead of resting on the seventh day, he would have created a 10-miler. After all, there’s a certain biological symmetry to the distance: a mile for each finger—what could be easier?
What’s not always easy is racing the distance, which falls into that “tweener” category, requiring a tricky mix of both speed and endurance. “It’s really a strength race,” says Brian Sell, who seems perfectly suited to the distance, having placed second at April’s Papa John’s USA championship, and fourth (first American) in the Crim 10M last August. “I can beat a lot of guys at 10 miles who I couldn’t come close to in a track 10,000,” Sell admits.
The distance serves as a competitive middle ground for track and 5/10K specialists and marathoners dropping down to work on their speed. And as such, training for a 10-miler can help both types of runners.
“Bringing your 10-mile time down can help both marathoners and 5/10 guys,” says Sell’s coach, Kevin Hanson of the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project. “If their performances have become stagnant, it can kick things to another level. The marathoners work on their speed, and the shorter distance runners improve their endurance. Both of these are going to make their primary race times faster.”
What also makes the distance unique is the different approach the elite and average runner bring to it. “For an elite runner, it’s kind of like a long 10K,” says Jack Daniels, coach and author of the two Running Formula books that act as the training bible for many runners of all levels. “But for the average runner, it’s more like a short half marathon.” This dichotomy is due to the different amount of time each takes to race 10 miles: 45 to 50 minutes for national-class runners, but over an hour for the rest of the pack. For those runners, the distance is long enough to be challenging but not so much as to leave you destroyed for several weeks.
But both groups must walk the racing tightrope of running hard, but not too hard, for a distance that requires more than just casual training. “Ten miles is not something you can dumb your way through,” says Sell.
“Ten-milers are raced at very close to lactate threshold pace,” says Pete Pfitzinger, author of RT’s monthly “Lab Report.” Daniels, and others, define this as the pace a runner could hold for about an hour, thus making it almost identical to 10-mile pace for better runners.
Pfitzinger recommends 20- to 30-minute runs at 10-mile pace or slightly faster as the most effective way to improve one’s 10-mile time, interspersed with longer intervals such as 5x1600m. “Also, five-mile and 10K races, which are 50 and 62 percent of the race distance and run at faster than 10-mile race pace, are excellent preparation.” He continues, “If you could design the perfect schedule, it would probably have a five-mile race, then a 10K, then a week without a race, and then a 10-mile race.”
Daniels’s 10-mile training prescription is similar. After establishing an endurance base with several weeks of steady, moderately paced running, begin adding in fartlek intervals, which consist of four to five minutes of hard running with a recovery of easy running for one minute less than the hard interval. The hard sections should be run at 5K intensity, bringing the heart rate up to 95–100 percent, and should total 20 minutes. “Now and then you could go to the track and run 4 or 5x1200m, but by and large you’re better off running these on the roads. If there’s a hill on a hard interval, run the hill hard. You’re going to encounter different terrain in a race, so it’s better to get used to running hard whether it’s up, down or flat.”
After a month and a half of doing a weekly fartlek interval session, Daniels would substitute cruise intervals, such as 4 or 5×2 miles at threshold pace, and steady threshold runs, alternating each week. “You could also do some longer tempo runs, up to 40 or 50 minutes, at a reduced pace,” which is detailed in a table in the second edition of Daniels’ Running Formula. He also suggests doing some of these longer tempo runs by running 30 to 40 minutes easy, then throwing in two or three threshold runs of about two miles. “That will get you used to pushing it when you’re tired.
“The early intervals will optimize your VO2 max and work intensity, then the threshold runs will help you maintain your pace for 10 miles.” To build basic endurance, Daniels prescribes a weekly long run of up to 90 minutes or 25 percent of the weekly total.
At their training clinics in their four suburban Michigan stores, the Hanson brothers coach many runners who want to do well at Crim, the premier race in the state.
“We always approach it from two angles, depending on where the runner is coming from,” says Kevin Hanson. “If it’s a school kid coming off track season or someone who’s been racing shorter distances, we put them on a downscaled version of our marathon schedule, to build the endurance they’ll need for 10 miles. If it’s someone who’s more of a marathoner, who might be doing Crim as a checkpoint in their training, we’ll kind of train them like a 10K athlete and work on their speed.”
Both groups follow the Hansons thrice-weekly “Something of Substance” training philosophy (detailed in “Marathoning the Hansons’ Way,” March 2005), but the emphasis is different for each. “The speed person will do tempo runs increasing from four to seven miles one day, four to five miles of repeats at slightly faster than 10-mile goal pace another, and a long run the other,” interspersed with three days of easy runs and a day off. “The emphasis for them is on getting in the miles,” says Hanson. “They have to learn to do long runs of 10 to 12 miles but not race them. Just put away your watch and cover the distance.”
For the endurance-based athlete, “the emphasis is on speed, so that workout becomes more important.” Those workouts would be faster (5K pace) repeats totaling three miles, and a four- to five- mile tempo run at current 10K pace. The third workout is a long run, “but that’s going to be less effort for them than the speed person because they’ve got the endurance. But once again they have to treat it as an easy recovery-type run, just to put in the miles and get their legs back for the speed sessions coming up.”
Before running 47:37 at Papa John’s, Sell would do workouts of 3×3 miles at 4:50 pace, and long runs where he’d do the last three miles hard. “The last three miles of a 10-miler kind of hurt, so that’s a good simulation,” he says.
Keith Dowling is known primarily as a marathoner, but in 1993 he ran 47:26 to place fourth at the Credit Union Cherry Blossom against an international field. “My coach at that time was really into complex fartlek workouts, and that helped me run well at 10 miles,” he recalled. Digging out his training logs, Dowling listed some key workouts in the five week runup to the race. One was five minutes hard, one easy, 10 hard, two easy, five hard, one easy, followed by 8×2 minutes hard, with alternate one and two minutes easy. Others were six times three minutes hard, two minutes easy, 10 times three hard, one easy, and 5x600m at 5K pace with a 400m jog.
Beyond the speed and endurance, it’s wise to train your body for some other aspects of the race, particularly if it’s held under hot conditions, as many major 10-milers are. “Runners probably need to make some serious attempts to practice drinking on their long runs,” says Daniels. “They’re going to be out there over an hour, so they have to rehydrate, and know how much.” To determine that, he advises doing longer runs under warm conditions and weighing yourself before and after to determine your fluid loss. Plan to replace it during the race.
The final consideration is pacing, which might be the trickiest part of a 10-miler. If you’ve run some shorter races during your buildup, use them and some equivalent performance tables as a guide, but err on the side of caution the first half, knowing you have the strength and speed endurance to run negative splits, which should have you passing hoards of runners who are slowing down after starting out at 10K pace. “Try not to go out too fast and ruin all your training,” says Daniels. “For most runners, the best advice is to think of it as a short half marathon.”
If you do the training, and pace yourself intelligently, you should cross the finish with a PR for 10 miles, as well as an increased fitness that means faster times at longer or shorter races too. When all is said and done, you might agree that on the running scale, it’s indeed a perfect 10.