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How Do You Determine Your Best Racing Distance?

There are lots of factors to consider beyond your physique and genetic predisposition.

There are lots of factors to consider beyond your physique and genetic predisposition.

Some of us are natural speed demons. Others amongst us are long-distance gazelles. But, most of us usually aren’t both. How, then, do we figure out what distance we’re best at?

“You typically look at body type and genetics,” says Rod DeHaven, head coach at South Dakota State University and a 2000 U.S. Olympian in the marathon.

For elite runners, there are lab tests that can help you determine what distances you might be genetically predisposed toward. You can test your VO2 max (the maximum rate your body consumes oxygen), although in recent years VO2 max has been considered less of an indicator for potential performance. You can also find out if you have more slow-twitch or fast-twitch muscle fibers. You can even measure the markers of recovery after a long or hard workout.

But, if don’t have all that fancy equipment, you can still make an educated guess as to what distance your genetics are pointing you toward.

“Just seeing how fast you are at any shorter distance will tell you what you can do in the longer races, if you train appropriately,” says Tim Noakes, a professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town. In his book, Lore of Running, Noakes provides a finish time predictor chart for different distances. (There are plenty of other pace predictor charts available as well.) How you stack up against the predictor charts can give you a rough idea of how good or bad you are at any distance. If you run much faster in the marathon than your 5K time would predict, then it’s possible you’re comparatively better at the marathon.

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You can also judge which workouts you are best at and how you recover from them. DeHaven says runners should ask themselves: How does my body react to a long run? Do I recover quickly? “If those are absolutely debilitating for you, then you just may not be inclined toward longer distances,” he says. If you love long, hard tempo runs, on the other hand, then the half marathon or marathon might be ideal.

Some of a person’s natural ability can be enhanced through training—certainly, as a coach, DeHaven hopes so—but some of it can’t. At South Dakota State, DeHaven often gets kids out of high school who are decent milers, but without amazing speed. Through an increase in volume and strength work, he can turn them into better milers, but not necessarily into 800-meter or 400-meter runners. As they continue to add miles and experience, those runners can continue to get better at longer and longer races.

Moving up to longer distances as runners get older is actually not uncommon—and it’s not just because we slow down as we age. The experience we gain through training can make us better at longer distances.

“Most young runners have better basic speed than endurance and it usually takes more time to achieve a high level of performance in longer distances than in shorter ones,” says renowned coach Dr. Jack Daniels from the Run S.M.A.R.T Project.

“You have to learn how to pace yourself. And, it takes a few years to learn how to do this best in longer races,” explains Noakes. “Then you have to adapt your skeleton to the strain of daily training and your muscles to carry the load in longer races.”

All that takes time—sometimes years.

DeHaven himself made the transition from the 800 meters to the marathon as the years passed. After failing to qualify for the Olympic Trials on the track, DeHaven ran the marathon trials instead. The longer training didn’t just make him a good marathoner, it made him faster at the shorter races too. And, it all paid off when he won the U.S. Olympic marathon trials in 2000.

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Plenty of professional runners make the move to longer distances over the course of their careers, although they could have another motivations too.

“It’s difficult to make money on the track,” admits DeHaven. For elites and sub-elites, the payday at the starting line of a marathon can be significantly better than for a 10K on the track—making it an appealing option.

For those of us not worried about making a living, though, there are still lots of considerations beyond physique and genetic predisposition. We have to consider preference and lifestyle too.

“The longer the distance you race at, the more you have to train. So athletes choose the racing distance for which they are prepared to train,” says Noakes. “Then the brain comes in as well. The longer the race distance, the more important the mind is in determining success, because it determines how much you will train and how much discomfort you are prepared to accept in training and racing.”

If we’re trying to figure out what distance we might be best at, it’d be counter-productive not to take into consideration what it takes to get good at anything: time.

“Do you have the time to commit to it to actually see what you can do?” DeHaven asks somewhat rhetorically.

And, don’t forget: You have to have fun too, or you won’t be good at all.

“Similar to asking the question, ‘Would you rather be a runner or a concert pianist?’ [ask yourself] Where is your heart? What sounds the most fun to you?” advises Daniels.


About The Author:

Kelly Dunleavy O’Mara is a journalist/reporter and former professional triathlete. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and writes for a number of magazines, newspapers, and websites. You can read more about her at