This should actually be titled “5 (Completely Subjective) Reasons to NOT Run a 5K (As Your First Race)”, but that’s too long. So let’s just assume that everyone will read past the catchy title before getting all bent out of shape at me.
The popularity of the 5K race is nothing short of a revolution. I’m not here to argue that this isn’t a good thing. The Couch to 5K program is a fantastic approach to introduce non-athletes to running and to encourage healthy lifestyle changes. I highly recommend it. However, I think that getting too wrapped up in the 5K distance during my formative running years (aka: high school, college and immediate post-grad) was a really negative thing. I wish I had been much younger than 22 when a marathoner finally told me: “I used to hate running too. It turns out that anything under 5 miles just really sucks”. Of course, I didn’t believe her. If I was struggling to run 3 miles, how could I run 5 or 10 or (gasp) 26.2? Impossible math. If I had been 16 when I first heard that advice, I would have been 19 by the time I realized it was true. So if you are really struggling as you try to train for a 5K, just remember: It’s not you, it’s probably the wrong distance.
Here are my top 5 reasons to NOT run a 5K:
1. 5K’s are super popular. Maybe too popular. I literally can’t open the internet without hearing about a new “cool” 5K in my area. Headlines like “dogs and strollers welcome!”, “We will throw colored corn starch at you!” or “fire pit full of snakes!” are just a few of the “fun” things you can experience. I do not think this is a good way to do a first race. It’s great that 5Ks are easy to find without traveling, but it’s much better to do a race where people are taking it seriously and there aren’t obstacles intended to make it harder than it already is to stay on your feet and moving forward. You will rarely see an advertisement like this for a longer distance, but 10Ks are nearly as easy to find as 5Ks.
2. Shorter means faster. One of the cardinal rules of injury avoidance is that you can either increase distance or speed, never both. When you are training for your first race, building the distance safely is pretty much the only thing that matters. This means people are going to BLOW by you on race day at a 5K, which can be a little demoralizing. Those of us who didn’t have nick-names like “crazy legs” in high school will probably want to focus on distance for quite a while (years, even) before we start thinking about speed. If you chose a 10K instead of a 5K, you will train for longer (thus increasing your confidence) and there are likely to be many more people in your (slower) pace range. When I ran my first 10K, I was terrified of the distance. By the time I finished, I realized that my 10K splits were faster than my P.R. 5K splits. In fact, I essentially ran back to back 5K personal records in the form of one race. I’m finding the same thing with marathon training. My pace for all distances is pretty steady; it’s just a matter of building up the mileage.
3. Runner’s High. The actual science on Runner’s High is pretty sketchy, but the general idea is that your pituitary gland will release endorphins (which essentially make you “happy”) once you cross an effort-related threshold. Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endorphin) summarizes that threshold as being related to “long, continuous workouts, when the level of intensity is between moderate and high, and breathing is difficult. This also corresponds with the time that muscles use up their stored glycogen”. Workouts of over 90 minutes are a rough rule for when you fully deplete your glycogen stores, so it follows that it would be unlikely that one would experience “runner’s high” in a running workout of less than that. It’s been suggested (like in Born to Run) that there is an evolutionary connection between persistence hunting (when a human tracks an animal to exhaustion) and runner’s high. I’m no scientist, but I have never, ever experienced runner’s high before mile 4 and rarely before mile 6. I regularly experience it around miles 8, 9 or 10, which is extremely consistent with the 90 minute mark in my workouts. I feel pretty confident saying that it’s not likely a new runner will experience a “high” while training for a 5K. And let me tell you, that “high” is totally worth the effort.
4. The “Other” Runner’s High: Accomplishment. I suspect that you are not training for a long distance race because it’s something that anyone can do. If you want to feel like you’re doing something special (which can be highly motivational, by the way), a longer distance is the way to do it. I know lots of accomplished runners who constantly give me accolades for running such “long” distances. I know I’m not doing anything that many of them couldn’t do better if they tried, but that’s just it – they’re not doing it. I am. Sure, it’s hard, and I’m definitely still slow, but I go out there every day and put the miles down and it makes me feel really good about myself. Way better than the comparative “instant gratification” of running a 5K.
5. The Lifestyle. 5K training did not make me feel like a runner. It’s not long enough or involved enough to elicit the kind of changes that I wanted running to make in my life. I spent a lot of years feeling frustrated that my over-all fitness wasn’t really improving, I wasn’t losing weight, I couldn’t really eat what I wanted, and never really looked forward to running. I truly believe it’s because the commitment needed for 5K training wasn’t enough to push me over the threshold to really enjoying running as part of my life. The longer distances are habit forming – I get so excited for my weekend long runs, I kind of can’t imagine my life without them! I never would have experienced that if I hadn’t pushed to longer distances. The best part is, you can still run a 5K, but when you make it part of the journey, instead of a stand-alone goal, it becomes a lot more fun. You can still run with friends, who are doing shorter distances, you’ll just do another loop when they are finished. And then you can go home and eat a giant bowl of pasta and look forward to your next race.
In summary, 5K’s never worked for me. I’ll never forget screaming at the Grige while he tried to pace me through the last 1000 yards of a 5k turkey trot after training my butt off and still being unable to break 30 minutes. I really wish I had wasted less of my life being angry about 3.1 stupid miles. My tipping point was a little north of that mark, and I’m really glad that I pushed my way there.
So if your 5K is making you angry, do me a favor and sign up for a 10K or a half marathon, stop feeling guilty about taking a walking break and get ready to be surprised.