Are marathons stupid?

Yes.  Okay, sorry marathon runners.  They are not stupid if you really enjoy spending significant portions of your time in long runs training for a marathon.  I sure don’t.  Which is why I never will run one.  I have little doubt that I could do it if I set my mind to it, but why?  Life is too short and the ultimate zero sum is time.  And one thing training for a marathon takes is lots of time.  That’s time I’d rather read, blog, sleep, watch TV, hang out with my kids, you name it.  I actually do enjoy running– but 30-40 minutes 4-5 times a week is plenty enough for me.  More than that and the increases in my overall health are decidedly marginal (according to science on the matter) and there’s the time factor.  Oh, and I don’t really like running all that much.  Mostly, I like how I feel after I’ve been running.  And that only takes 30 minutes.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this 538 piece last month that argues if you enjoy running and you enjoy challenging yourself and competition, the way to go is not marathons, but 5K’s.  I love a good 5K and usually run at least a couple a year.  Not because I enjoy challenging myself or am competitive, but because they are for causes I believe in and it’s fun to do a race with my oldest son every now and then.  If I were more competitive or interested in challenging myself, 5K’s are definitely the way I would go.  Christie Aschwanden makes the compelling case:

It’s an idea that has become fixed in our culture: The marathon is a serious race. A 5K is a “fun run,” a jog, a walk in the park. I get it. Five kilometers, or 3.1 miles, is a distance that almost any healthy person can complete without too much training. As running races go, it’s a nice start…

“Everyone thinks the marathon is the Holy Grail, when a lot of people should really be doing the 5K,” Jason Karp, an exercise physiologist and running coach, told me in an interview several years ago. Some people aren’t suited to long distances — their natural talents tend toward power and speed rather than endurance. And if you’re exercising for health and fitness, several studies suggest that moderate mileage, which is typical in a training plan for 5Ks, might provide a better way to get there... [emphases mine]

Yet I concede that he has a point about the glorification of the marathon. The race isn’t the only means to health, fitness or even bad-assedry. (Ethiopian runner Muktar Edris just ran a 5K in 12:59.43 — that’s three 4:10 miles strung together.) Typical 5K training plans call for something on the order of 10 to 30 miles of running per week or the equivalent in timed runs — in the optimal range for health benefits.

Keeping mileage on the lower end comes with another bonus — a reduced risk of getting hurt. “Injuries are typically related to training volume,” saidMichael Joyner, a sports physician and exercise researcher at the Mayo Clinic. That’s not to say that you can’t get injured training for a 5K — but it’s less likely, especially if you take care to gradually increase your mileage and intensity.

So by focusing on the 5K, you’re optimizing health benefits and minimizing injuries, and if you’re deliberate about your training, you can maximize your fitness gains too. Training seriously for the 5K will get you close to your biological potential for aerobic fitness, Joyner said..

You could spend four or more months training for a single race, or you can join Fleshman’s 5K revolution. Choose the 5K and you can easily race every weekend (even my tiny community has a 5K somewhere nearby most weekends). And if one race goes poorly, you can try again the next weekend. It’s a more sustainable plan. Rather than focusing on a one-time event, your training can become a normal part of your life — one that complements, rather than overtakes it. You may not get the bragging rights of having run 26.2 miles, but as your times drop and your pacing improves, you’ll get plenty of satisfaction. Instead of running to finish the race, you can run to master it.

So, go ahead, run your marathons.  I won’t be impressed.  Come back to me with your sub 18 minute 5K and I will be :-).

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

4 Responses to Are marathons stupid?

  1. I scaled back on marathons a few years ago, I think my last full was in 2010 or 2012, for the very reason you identified: the time. Training time more than anything else. As soon as a 2+ hour run became a chore or something to fit into an already busy schedule, it was less enjoyable. And there are so many competing interests for that time.
    I hope to get back to the 30-minutes 3-5 times a week routine myself, if I can get my knees to cooperate!

    And just for your data gathering: marathon PR was a 3:26, 5K PR was 18:36. Feel free to be impressed by both. 🙂

  2. itchy says:

    I ran cross country and track in high school, and, while I prefer to do my running by chasing a frisbee or soccer ball, I still occasionally do the 5K/8K/10K race or sprint triathlon.

    What I noticed is that, as soon as I completed my first sprint triathlon, so many people asked me if I was going to do the Olympic triathlon next — which basically doubles the distances of each event. I said, “Um, no, if anything, I’m going to try to do the sprint triathlon faster.”

    To me, that’s like saying to a player on a winning football team, “That was great. Now, are you going to play on a 200-yard field?”

    Or to a basketball player, “Now are you going to play with 20-foot baskets?”

    I assume the marathon is the sweet spot for some people. But, to me, it’s a completely different sport than the 5K. Maybe it’s not better or worse, it’s just not my sport.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Right. And my argument would be that it’s a sport for people with more disposable time than you. I *try* not to judge, but if somebody is spending lots of their free time doing long marathon training runs and not lots of time with their kids, I’ll judge (I’d make the same judgment about golf).

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