Most road runners have a favourite distance, but picking your ideal running distance can be tricky as you weigh up options from 5km to the marathon.
For many people, the choice boils down to how much time they have available, but factors such as your fitness, body type and even your life goals will influence your choice.
Finding enough time in your life for a run can be challenging, which is why 5km and 10km races are so popular.
This is exemplified by the success of Parkrun, an organisation which puts on free 5km races at more than 1,400 venues in 22 different countries. An estimated quarter of a million people take part in these runs every Saturday morning.
Parkrun’s success is partly down to the fact that 5km is a realistic target for most people, and you can build up to the distance quickly even from a low fitness base. Training runs can be short, so they can fit into busy schedules.
If you have your eyes on longer races, then you have to think about the sheer amount of time you need to be training. Completing a marathon under three hours is a very respectable achievement, and your training is likely to take up a lot of time every week.
Body type and fitness level
Your body type plays a big part in the running distance you choose, especially if you are just starting out.
Road running has an impact on your body, and mostly that is positive, as your lungs, heart and energy systems can all improve with exercise. However, you also have to manage the physical demands that running places on your joints, muscles and bones.
When you run your lower legs absorb around four times your body weight, which is one reason why the best distance runners are usually short and slim. Their legs do not need to work as hard just to carry the rest of the body.
If you are heavily built or overweight, you can risk foot and shin injuries if you start running too far or too quickly. Take it slow and keep it short to start with, and increase your pace or mileage as your fitness improves.
Beware the call of the marathon
The marathon is an iconic distance and anyone who completes one deserves tremendous praise, but don’t assume it’s your ideal running distance or even your ultimate goal.
You can run for fitness, health, companionship, pleasure, and even for the thrill of competition without tackling something as long and demanding as a marathon’s 26 miles.
Such a long race demands a huge commitment of time and energy, and that just might not suit your body or your lifestyle.
The same logic applies to various time milestones, like 20 minutes for the 5km or 1 hour for the 10k. These are arbitrary goals that might not be useful to you.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set any ambitious goals for yourself as a runner. Your running distance now might be just a starting point, and your goals should be appropriate and achievable.
You may have a goal of completing a Parkrun, or you could be using running to achieve a different goal like losing weight or reducing your blood pressure.
Be realistic about your goals and identify intermediate goals that will help you achieve your ultimate aims. For example, you can work up to different milestone distances as you aim to complete a half-marathon.
Be flexible and enjoy yourself
Running is one of the most joyous and liberating ways to exercise, and when you find your ideal running distance it can be very satisfying to set personal bests or discover new routes.
But don’t be afraid to experiment at different distances to get the most out of your exercise. If you love the tempo and convenience of a 5km, try an occasional slower 10km to give your body a new challenge.
As you get older you might also want to change your running distance. This encourages some runners to slow down but go longer, while others opt for reducing the distances.
Running is a wonderful form of exercise and finding your ideal running distance is part of the experience. Think about your body type, try different distances, keep focused and, most of all, enjoy yourself.