Pivoting from Marathon to 5K

Pivoting from Marathon to 5K

The horror…the horror…

Usually I don’t worry about 5K’s.  I run one, maybe two 5k’s a year.  The Thanksgiving morning race is one of my traditions.  It’s never about the race, it’s about doing something with friends and family.  This year I tried to outsmart myself and actually train for it.

5K’s are awful for me. It’s 20 minutes at max effort.  It hurts all the way.  The legs are screaming.  The lungs are busting and the heart is pounding.  The whole time.  It’s awful.  You might argue that the marathon is worse because you’re out there for so much longer.  But the marathon is a slow burn that you get to ease into.  The 5K is like hitting your thumb with a hammer – it just hurts.

How do you train for a 5K?  If the 5K was your target race and you had a full training cycle you would train for it like any other distance race.  You’d do longer runs to build up your endurance and then shorter, race-specific, workouts towards the end of your cycle.

For a 5K strength is also important.  You’d want to do some focused legs and core strength work as part of that cycle.

The difference from marathon training is a) you don’t need to go super long in your long runs, b) you need to focus more on core strength and c) you need to do shorter more intense speedwork to get comfortable running in and past your threshold.

What form does that shorter stuff take?  Classic, track-type workouts.  200-meter repeats, 400 meter repeats, 800 meter and maybe even some 1600’s.  Can’t ever go wrong with a good set of fast 1600’s!

These shorter interval workouts would be close to max effort with short recovery to mimic the intensity of the 5K effort.  That’s how you do a training cycle for a 5K.

What if you’re rolling off a successful marathon training cycle and have a couple weeks to get ready for a 5K?  Then what do you do?

Good question.  You’ve already got the base mileage and fitness.  Your conditioning is excellent.  The distance won’t be a problem.  The challenge is that you have just spent a few months training your legs to run slow.  Not super slow.  But 90 seconds a mile slower than your 5K race pace.

You need to remember how to run fast.  You need to get your footspeed and strength back.

The first step is to recover from your marathon.  You need to get at least a week, maybe two of rest.  Not laying on the couch type rest.  Shorter and easier.  Less volume and less intensity rest.  You can’t just jump into interval training after a marathon.  You have to recover and the older you are the more you need to recover.

You can start weaving in some core strength work.  Replace the hard running workouts with some core strength workouts in the gym.  You can start doing some strength work with your legs.

Once you are recovered you can lay in the speedwork and more intense strength work.  Shorter tempo runs where you warm up for a few miles and then run race pace hard effort for 2 or 3 miles are great for race simulation.

I went through this for my Thanksgiving 5K. I had rolled out of 2 marathons in October.  I was not injured.  I had a great base.  I rocked the second marathon, running a qualifier for Boston.  It was a good smart training cycle with a good smart race to cap it off.

I had 4 weeks to recover and train for the 5K.  Usually I will not even bother training for this 5K. I’ll just show up and let it happen to the best of my ability. This year I told my coach I wanted to do well.  I thought I could flip my fitness.

This meant I would have a week to recover then 2-3 weeks to train.  Coach played along and loaded me up with speed work over the course of those weeks.  But I overshot my ambition.  My grasp went beyond my reach.

Coach had me scheduled with a big push the weekend before the Thanksgiving race.  A good strong workout on Friday followed by a hard workout on Sunday with the race on Thursday.

The Friday workout was what I would refer to as the ‘Once a Runner’ workout.  If you have never read John L. Parker’s book you can’t call yourself a runner.  It most beautifully captures the compulsive passion that training can become.  For the culminating race Quentin Cassidy does this workout which is 30 hard 400s.

Unfortunately, with my new job I was unable to do this workout on Friday so I pushed it to Saturday.  I did it on my local track.  It was a monster.  I got it done and felt great about it.

Then I was supposed to do a 7-mile run with 3 miles of tempo in it on Sunday.  I did the workout but my legs were cooked from the track workout the day before.  I got it done but it was hard.  I was running with my friend Tim and we ended up doing 8 miles instead.

My expectation was that I would get a big bounce out of this big push and crush the 5K.  (Just like Quentin Cassidy did!)

That’s not how it worked out.  Even though I tapered the next few days into the 5K, my legs were heavy for the race and I had no ‘pop’.  I didn’t do awfully, but it was not the race I trained for.  It was a struggle.

Looking back on it with my coach it looked like I over-trained.  He said I ‘over raced’.  Clearly my body was not able to recover enough to get the benefit of that hard speedwork.  As fit as I was aerobically I could not flip that fitness into speed.

The theory is valid.  If you want to switch to that shorter distance you should be able to tweak your training.  The learning is that you only have so much capacity for racing and hard work regardless of what kind of work that is.

I thought that somehow this shorter speedwork, because it was different from the aerobic training and racing I had been doing wouldn’t weigh in so heavily.  I could not only recover but also benefit from it.  The truth is I would have performed better in the 5K if I had rested and taken care of myself during those 4 weeks.

Work is work.  Your body, or at least my body, even when it is healthy and fit, can only sustain that race level of effort for so long.  It’s a cycle.  You have to cycle up, race and then cycle down.  I’d like to say I learned a lesson but it is a lesson that I’m sure my hubris will have me forget in short order.

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