• 5K, 10K, Half-Marathon, and Full: Which Running Distance is Best for You?

    Image: Shaun Daley

  • 5K

    Distance: 3.1 miles

    The Scoop: You might assume that this is the easiest distance to tackle because it’s the shortest amount of ground you need to cover, but you’re only partially right. Yes, the 5K is great for beginners looking to give running a whirl—that’s why more light-hearted runs like The Color Run and Electric Run are the same mileage—but for those looking to race a 5K, it requires a little more oomph. “You need both endurance and speed for a 5K,” says Debora Warner, founder and program director of Mile High Run Club in New York City. “It’s a manageable distance to train for when you’re a newbie, and it gives experienced runners an opportunity to max out speed on a shorter course.”

    How to Train: Determining training time for any distance takes a lot of factors into account, says Warner. It’s important to evaluate your current fitness level, experience with running, and your goals for the race (do you just want to cross the finish line, set a new personal record, or something in between?). On average, though, beginners should allocate six to eight weeks of training to build endurance and increase aerobic capacity (how long you can continue running for) by steadily upping your weekly mileage by no more than 10 percent each week, says Warner. More advanced runners can add in high-intensity speed training twice a week—think: fartleks, tempo runs, and intervals—so you can get used to running at an uncomfortably fast pace for the required length of mileage.

    5K Gearing Up1Gearing Up: This is very personal to the runner—what works best for you may not be the smartest choice for your running buddy. But in general, Warner recommends a very light racing shoe, like the New Balance Fresh Foam Zante or Brooks Ghost 8, and sunglasses if the weather calls for it (don’t forget your sunscreen!).5K Gearing Up2

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  • 10K

    Distance: 6.2 miles

    The Scoop: Once you’ve got a few 5Ks under your belt, don’t be surprised if you feel the itch for a longer distance. While this race is often considered the black sheep of running because it’s difficult to nail your pacing, don’t rule it out—it’s long enough that you can’t go all out from the beginning (so you’ll need to keep some gas in the tank), but short enough that you can still run hard the whole way, says Becky Wade, a CLIF Bar athlete and long distance runner who’s currently training for a spot on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team. “This race really rewards patience and good pacing, so the more you know your body and what effort you can carry over the long haul, the better.”

    How to Train: “If you’re moving up from the 5K to the 10K distance, you’ll need to add an additional six weeks of training to build up properly,” says Jess Underhill, running coach and founder of Race Pace Wellness. “Otherwise, you usually need a minimum of 10 weeks. Learning to pace properly is critical—if you go all out in the beginning, you’ll crash and burn about halfway through the race.” To practice, incorporate mile repeats into your training calendar—run for one mile at your goal pace, drop to a recovery pace for half a mile, then back to your 10K pace. This requires both your fast and slow-twitch muscles to work (hello, faster speed and more stamina) and increases your capillary and mitochondrial density, which helps oxygen get to your muscles faster.

    10K Gearing Up1

    Gearing Up: Grab what you use for a 5K and you’re good to go! You’ll likely need to take in water or a sports drink for this distance, but there are generally at least one or two aid stations along the course to cover you.  Investing in a GPS sportswatch, like the Garmin Forerunner 10 or TomTom Runner, can help you maintain a steady pace throughout the race.

    10K Gearing Up2

     

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  • Half-Marathon

    Distance: 13.1 miles

    The Scoop: This race distance continues to be the most popular—the number of participants increases about 4 percent every year, and there were over 2 million finishers (61 percent of them being female) in 2014. “It’s a realistic challenge that takes training up a notch without demanding so much of your time that you have to make big sacrifices in other areas of your life,” says Underhill. “The races are usually fun, and it’s a distance that most people think is worth traveling for, making it the perfect setup for a little vacation or celebration.”

    How to Train: If you’re already regularly running three to five miles multiple times a week, you’ll need about 10 to 12 weeks to train, says Underhill. Many runners prefer to fit in their easy-paced runs and speed sessions during the week, then add in a long run at slower-than-race-pace on the weekend (this helps you get used to spending a lot of time on your feet).

    How to Train Half

    Tackling this distance also brings new complications, like blisters and chafing. “Everything, including your socks, should be made of a sweat-wicking material to help avoid blisters,” and a lubricant like BodyGlide should be applied on areas where skin rubs together or against clothing (think: under sports bra straps and on inner thighs), says Underhill.

    Gearing Up: Now’s the time to bring fuel into your training. It’s a matter of figuring out what works best for your stomach when in motion, and you should be taking in 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates for every 60 minutes of activity after the first hour to keep energy levels high. “It’s something you should practice in advance,” says Wade. Remember the golden rule: Nothing new on race day.

    Gearing Up Half1

    As for shoes, make sure you pay attention to their condition so you don’t over-wear them, says Wade. “Getting 300-500 miles on a pair is the general rule of thumb, but it can vary based on variables like running surface and body size.” A good tip to follow: Check out the tread. If it’s worn down so much so that there’s little to no traction, get yourself a new pair ASAP.

    Gearing Up Half2

     

    You also might need to go up a half-size from what you normally wear to avoid blisters, warns Underhill. “Your feet may swell and the shoes that felt good during your 10K may no longer be comfortable.” Don’t be afraid to rotate a few pairs throughout your training cycle, suggests Wade. “If you’re running a good amount—50 miles per week or more—it’s smart to use multiple pairs of shoes, even if they’re the same exact sneaker,” she says. We like Mizuno’s Wave Enigma 5 and Asics GEL-Nimbus 17. “You’ll extend the lives of each because they will bounce back more completely in between wears. If you wear two different models, you’ll prevent your feet from getting too ‘lazy’ in either because you’ll be working different muscles.”

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  • Marathon

    Distance: 26.2 miles

    The Scoop: Welcome to the bucket-list level of running, both for casual runners and many professionals. Why does it seem to be the common ground connecting the two? “A marathon is a big challenge, and it takes a different type of dedication than training for shorter running events,” says Underhill. “People [sometimes] run them to celebrate milestones in their life—like a big birthday or conquering a disease—and it’s something that requires a great deal of preparation. You have to be dedicated to the process in a way that’s different from running a 5K.”

    But when you want the greater reward that comes from conquering 26.2 miles, you have to be willing to take on the hefty workload. Not only does it require a much larger time commitment for training—about four to six months, depending on your current level of fitness; some may need a full year if they’re starting from scratch, says Underhill— but you’ll also have to place some social events on the back burner (ahem, Friday night happy hour). “There just isn’t enough time for everything when you’re running for three hours on the weekend,” says Underhill. That said, though, you don’t have to give up everything. “Find a training plan that works well with your social, work, and family life,” she says. “You can still go out with your friends, but you may just need to go home earlier than you normally would. Giving up everything during marathon training isn’t the smart way to go—you’ll want to have a life outside of running so you don’t get bored or burnt out.”

    How to Train Marathon

    How to Train: Figuring out a proper fueling plan is key, as you’ll be out on the course for twice as long and what worked for you in the half-marathon may not be your best bet in the full, says Wade. So while you may have been fine relying only on sports drinks through the half, you might need something more substantial now, like energy gels and chews, or even solid foods like orange slices and pretzels. And don’t forget about hydration. “Practice drinking at water stations during practice races, and consider carrying a handheld water bottle, like Nathan’s QuickView Running bottle, on long runs,” says Underhill.

    While you know how important it is to train your body for this many miles, don’t forget about your brain. Running a marathon requires you to spend a lot of time exerting energy, and that can become just as mentally exhausting. “Practice positive mental imagery at the start of the race, and toe the line with an arsenal of positive thoughts or mantras to help you get through when the going gets tough,” says Underhill.

    Gearing Up Marathon

    Gearing Up: Remember, marathon training alone puts a lot of miles on your sneakers—and that doesn’t even take into account the pavement you’ll be pounding for the actual race. Warner suggests nabbing multiple pairs at the beginning of your training cycle and putting one set aside until about six weeks before go-time, so you have a well-broken in (but not worn out) pair of kicks ready for race day. What type of shoe you wear comes down to personal preference—what works for your bestie won’t necessarily work for you—but Warner suggests wearing a sturdier, well-cushioned shoe, like the Hoka One One Valor, which provides more support and cloud-like cushioning for a higher number of miles.

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5K, 10K, Half-Marathon, and Full: Which Running Distance is Best for You?

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If there’s one thing we know for sure, it’s that you love running. If you didn’t, why would you have clicked? The research backs us up: The number of participants in running races of all distances—5Ks, 10Ks, half-marathons and marathons—has increased by 65 percent in the last 15 years, according to Running USA. Not to mention the average runner enters seven races per year, and you certainly aren’t afraid to tackle a new-to-you distance (there were over 7,500 first-time marathoners at the Marine Corps Marathon alone in 2014).

With so many of us pounding the pavement these days, there are plenty of races to choose from. But how do you know which one is right for you? Read on to find out the differences that come with each distance (other than—you know—the mileage), how much time it takes to train, and what gear you really need to get to the finish line.