Running’s got a lot going for it, and I think chief among its attractive characteristics is its versatility. It doesn’t matter if you want to run 100 meters as hard and fast as you can or if you instead prefer to run 100 miles, through the mountains, as slowly as possible. Regardless of your distance or speed, if you run, then you are a runner. Case closed.
For many people, though, setting race-specific goals is what gets them into running in the first place. Perhaps this will ring a bell: you decide to get into shape, after a period of relative inactivity or lax health in your life, and you target a community 5k — perhaps even your local turkey trot — as your goal race. If you didn’t begin your running career like this, then it’s likely that you know someone who did.
Who knew that that little 5k would spark a lifetime love for running?
Why the 5k?
The 5k — or 3.1 miles — is an excellent distance for runners, regardless of their running backgrounds. Below, we’ll talk in more detail about why the 5k is the best distance race for runners and how you can use this manageable distance to jumpstart your running (after time away) or revitalize it (if you’re used to running long and slow during marathon and ultramarathon training).
The 5k is accessible: you can train for it and still have a life
While running is a pretty straightforward sport, one that you can do pretty much anywhere and at any time, when you’re training for longer endurance races like half marathons, marathons, or ultramarathons, you can expect to spend a lot of your free time training. Particularly if you’re training for a marathon, your longest runs may take the better part of three hours during the thickest part of your training, and even when you’re not running, you’re likely getting ready for your next run and/or are recovering from your first one.
The 5k, on the other hand, doesn’t necessitate the same type of long runs that the longer endurance distances do. Of course, your “long run” length will be relative to your time and training goals, but you likely won’t need to run for longer than 60 or 90 minutes on your very longest of training runs.
Training for a 5k can be especially attractive if you’re looking for a challenge — whether you simply want to run one without stopping or if you’re gunning for a specific time — and if you have a lot of other commitments in your life, such as ones related to family, marriage, or school.
The 5k is tough and can bring out the best in you
Many runners erroneously think that once you’ve been running for a long time, it makes sense to “naturally” graduate up to longer distances, like marathons and ultras. What many don’t realize is that there’s still a great sense of challenge in training to race a very fast 5k. Running 50 miles for 12+ hours is still just as impressive as running a sub-6 minute per mile 5k, for example.
Part of the reason so many people run is that they enjoy the challenge that it brings, especially when the training gets tough and they don’t think they can do it. If you’ve been running for a long time, you can probably think of workouts where you might have read them ahead of time — or heard your coach tell them to you — and you simultaneously laugh out loud and cry a little (on the inside) as you convince yourself there’s no way in hell that you’ll be able to do something that audacious, that crazy, or that hard.
…and then, you go and do it.
…and there are few things in the world more gratifying than doing something that you thought you’d be unable to do, initially.
Training for a 5k is wonderful in this way for both novice and experienced runners, alike. Novice runners, of course, think that because they’ve never run before (or have never considered themselves a “runner”) that there’s no way they’ll be able to cover the distance. For some, they may have several attempts and failures before they are actually able to finish the distance. Crossing the finish line of your first 5k is incredibly rewarding, motivating, gratifying, and inspiring.
Similarly, even when you’re an experienced runner, when you train to redline the whole time during a 5k, even though you know you’re physically capable of covering the distance, there’s still something super gratifying and motivating about crossing the finish line after running fast and hard for 3.1 miles at a pace that you couldn’t possibly fathom before your training began. There really nothing is like running fast.
The 5k is a good gateway distance
Finally, another reason that the 5k is arguably one of the best distances for runners lies in its versatility. In other words, it’s an excellent gateway distance for runners and future runners.
If you’ve not run much before (or ever), training to manage and cover the distance is a laudable and very respectable goal, as we’ve talked about earlier. Even if you’ve run tons before, and have lots of mileage under your belt, training to run a 5k fast and well is still a great challenge.
In particular, the 5k is a great “gateway” distance for runners. There are some runners who are happy running solely 5ks, and that’s excellent. For others, once they’re sufficiently comfortable with the 5k distance, they may feel more compelled, or confident, to try to tackle other, longer distances, such as 10ks, 10 miles, or even half marathons or marathons.
To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with staying at the 5k distance exclusively because as we talked about, the 5k offers runners a lot in terms of challenge and opportunity for growth. For runners who may feel better suited for the longer races, though, getting their feet wet in the 5k distance can prove to be invaluable experience.
As 2018 rolls to a close, if you’re still on the fence about realizing some of your new year’s goals, or even if you just want something new and exciting to challenge you, consider jumping in some year-end 5ks. Fortunately, many year-end 5ks are meant to be participatory in nature — not competitive — which is an excellent starting point for anyone new to the sport or distance.
Go out and surprise yourself with what you can do in a 5k; your body and health will be glad you did!