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Distance x Speed x BMI
June 7, 2014 6:00 AM   Subscribe

Please settle a running-related argument (distance vs. speed)

My friend and I (lazy slobs slowly trying to get fitter through running) are signed up for a Christmas 5k run. Please understand that 5K may as well be The Moon, considering how unfit we are. But we are also in this together and three weeks into training, so far so good.

However, there is one issue we keep butting heads on. I'm taking the view during training that it's better to focus on distance, to actually walk (for now) the full 5k everyday and walk faster and faster until I'm able to at least jog it. My friend feels that speed is more important. They're doing C25K everyday and often this only gets them about 1/3 of a 5K.

We don't train together, but check in with oneanother. So I know her C25K isn't taking her very far (in the beginning?), just in a 10-15 min trot away from her home and back again.

Psychologically, for me, completing the distance of 5K is a much better training style - hey, I can make it through 5K no matter how slow, even walking! If I can walk this much, I'll only get faster and soon factor in some jogging! But my friend thinkgs building speed and more prolonged periods of actual running, no matter how short distance-wise, is the way to go.

Is it just a matter of whatever gets you through on race day? Or does slow and steady trump speed?
posted by Chorus to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Whatever gets you through. Traditional training programs tend to focus on distance first, and then speed, but in that case the distance is all running distance. I really don't think it matters in this case.
posted by JohnLewis at 6:03 AM on June 7

Walking and running are not the same.

If your goal is to walk the 5K, then training by walking is fine.

But if your goal is to run the 5K, then you need to train by running. You might be able to walk 10K but not run 5K. You're not going to get really good at walking and get running "for free."
posted by adamrice at 6:26 AM on June 7 [13 favorites]

So if I understand correctly: Your friend is following the walk/jog intervals in the C25K program, which typically is measured by time, not by distance (at least at the early weeks -- note that by the end, the measurements switch to distance, and they will be running the full 5K). You are training by walking 5K, and trying to walk faster each time, until eventually you can run.

IMO you both have places to improve. Not because your friend is focusing on speed, or because you aren't, but because neither of you are allowing your body to adapt to running.

Your friend: If they are doing C25K every single day, without fail, then they're not giving enough time between workouts for their muscles, joints, etc. to adapt. Decent beginning running programs need to allow for rest days -- running every day doesn't give a beginner enough time to restore their muscles/joints/bones/etc. and it's a recipe for injury. (In fact, the C25K plan points this out and only calls for running three days a week!)

You: If you're not running at all, then you also are not giving your muscles/joints/etc. time to adapt to running. The way you use your body when running isn't just "fast walking", it's a distinct gait that uses different muscles. If your long-term goal is to be able to run, I would suggest switching to a program where you run at least a little each time. When I'm getting back up to speed after an injury or illness I generally use the telephone poles -- slowly jog the distance between two poles, and then walk to recover. You can slowly work from one gap jog/five gaps walking up to one/one jog/walk, and then five jog/one walk, and then just jogging (which is just a word for slow running -- jogging and running are the same gait).

Generally speaking, your cardiovascular system adapts faster to running than your bones/tendons/muscles/etc., which is why a lot of people end up with stress fractures or other injuries when they get enough cardio fitness to push the musculoskeletal system that hasn't caught up yet.

Also, I highly recommend Alex Huchinson's Sweat Science (link is to the blog, but his book by the same title is excellent) for an introduction to the science of training.

Also, running is awesome no matter which way you go about it, so go you for doing this!
posted by pie ninja at 6:43 AM on June 7 [3 favorites]

Nthing that you need to work on actually running if your goal is to run the 5K. You won't learn to run just by walking the distance faster and faster. It's good exercise, but it won't train the right muscle groups.

A better way of looking at programs like C25K is not in terms of speed or distance, but time: it's spending little bits of time getting used to the motions of running and slowly increasing the time your body can handle it. By walking, you are spending zero time learning how to run.

Three weeks is still quite early, especially if your race is near Christmas, so you've got plenty of time. Keep at it and remember to take those rest days!
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:08 AM on June 7

Running is not just "fast walking". You can walk a 5k every day for a million years. You will be no closer to running a 5k than you are today.

At some point you will have to flip over from walking to running and you will see the distance you can go drop like a rock. You can do that flip now and start working on getting your running distance up or you can wait and hope that the small bit of cardio you're doing will make up for the fact that your muscles won't be able to handle 5k of running.

If you're okay with potentially walking most/all of the 5K you plan to "run" together, then I think your training plan is fine.

(I think your friend is on the right track)
posted by toomuchpete at 7:28 AM on June 7 [4 favorites]

You could try always doing the 5K, but changing the proportion that you run -- e.g. jog 1 minute, walk until rested, jog 1 minute, walk until rested, etc. (That'd be a couch-to-5K but with longer walk breaks.)
posted by katrielalex at 7:58 AM on June 7

Everyone is correct that walking is not running. BUT as you have stated, your fitness levels may not be at a point where it's smart to start running. This is why they have Walk-to-Run programs! If I can suggest the following plan which is based of of my running group's training:
- walk 2-4 days a week, focusing only on getting it done, at least 15-30 mins each day (this is your base)
- use another day to work on increasing speed: try to lightly jog for at least 15 mins. Don't worry about distance, just focus on pushing your effort as much as you can. You can look up interval workouts online to try too. (This is speed work)
- try to have one "long run" day that is double what your "base" day is. This will help you with endurance.

Note: I'm no running coach, but I went from not running to training for a marathon this year, so I know what's worked for me.
posted by stefnet at 7:58 AM on June 7

Running was a complete mystery to me a few years ago and this question has bugged me at the start.

I found that the best way to train from couch to 5K is to start by jogging really reaalllyy slow at a pace that you can sustain without getting winded, then building up speed weekly.
posted by ianK at 8:00 AM on June 7

When I started running, I could walk for hours and hours with no problems at all, and I found that I couldn't run more than maybe a few telephone poles' distance without becoming terribly winded. They are different activities.

If your level of fitness is such that walking taxes you or winds you, then (with doctor's permission) walking a fast-paced 5k is absolutely a fine goal and I salute you for it. But if on the other hand you are already at that level of fitness and you want to run a 5k, then everybody here is right that the way you get better at running is by running. Start small, and start slow. Go as slow as you like, as long as you are running and not walking. Focus on spending the time running, not on how much distance you are covering.
posted by gauche at 8:36 AM on June 7 [3 favorites]

Agree with everyone else that if you want to learn to run you need to start running, but I'd suggest that, rather than attempting to jog non-stop for 15 minutes, you alternate. So jog 30s, walk 30s, for as long as you can manage. Or do the same for a minute at a time. Whatever you can do.

(Also - if your friend is running out for 15 minutes and back for 15 minutes, she's probably doing a good chunk of a 5k, depending on her pace.)
posted by penguin pie at 8:46 AM on June 7

Walking is essentially a controlled forward fall with the weight of the body always supported by a foot in contact with the ground. The human body is designed to do this extremely efficiently, with the major muscles of the leg just slightly contracting to provide control & stability for that forward fall.

Running (yes, even slow jogging) requires one leg to propel the body upward and forward completely clear of the ground and the other leg to absorb the shock of the full body weight landing with each stride.

Grab one of your glutes, the front of a thigh, or your hamstring and take a walking step, then try the same while jumping just slightly forward from one foot to the other to feel the difference in how deeply the muscles contract. There is no comparison.
posted by gimli at 9:01 AM on June 7

Your friend has it. You can keep doing your long walks, but when new runners train for a specific distance (whether it's 5k or a half marathon) the best practice is slowly increase how long/far you run. When I'm training I add about a mile a week to my long weekend run (my weekday runs are much shorter). You wouldn't be measuring in miles yet, but in minutes or street blocks or whatever else makes sense. It's ok of course to intersperse some walking with the running, but try to do that less and less and increase the stretches of running/jogging.
posted by amaire at 9:25 AM on June 7

creds: although I was usually in one sport or another in school (wrestling, football, boxing), running was never a central exercise. Once I joined the army, I discovered that a type of running is used for covering long distance.

The military jog is set at a tempo of about 140 steps per minute. The stride is about the same as a walking stride, in our case, about 30 inches. As described here, it's a run, not a walk, primarily because both feet are off the ground now and then. Speed walking is much more aerobic, and quite a bit faster than the military jog, but it's also more tiring. With a bit of practice (well, as is turned out, a shitload of practice, actually), I learned to do this jog pretty much all day long, uphill, downhill, with about 40 pounds of gear, carrying an M-14 rifle. Once you achieve a basic level of conditioning, the rest is coordination and attitude. You will tire at a predictable rate, without a huge oxygen debt and cramped muscles to deal with.

At some point you hit your second wind, break a light sweat, and your breathing stabilizes. This is the zone. When you sense fatigue you look to the next land feature as a goal and keep going. When you get to that land feature, you don't break stride, but keep going.

One way I learned to handle the zone was to count steps. I used military chants to keep time, and to help me keep track of my distance. (muttering cadence counts, singing off-color, off-key ditties...I wanna be an Airborne Ranger, Living on blood and guts and danger...Airborne, gotta be...Airborne, gotta go...Airborne). You get the idea. Anything with good meter, short phrases will do. This also reminds you to take a deep and cleansing breath every now and then.

One tool of an infantryman is the way to gauge distance traveled by counting steps. This is an actual course of instruction, you learn your average number of steps for 100 meters, by counting on level ground and rough terrain. We spent a whole day of instruction practicing this, because it was expected to be a tool we would use. You may develop this tool by counting the number of steps required to run a city block (or any other known distance). You will develop a good awareness of where you are in the run, a thing that will contribute to pacing yourself to the finish line.

As a matter of fact, I used this tactic after I got out of the Army to help keep me in the zone, and make it more likely to ignore creeping fatigue. I enjoyed the military jog, mostly, I guess for the aerobic high. Before I hit my mid 50's it never occurred to me that I would ever get out of shape (head in the sand, eh?) I was able to jog like this indefinitely until I was nearly 60 years old, when I was overtaken by cancer and had to ... well ...get old a bit sooner than I'd planned.

Runners in marathons nowadays don't seem to use the military jog, but step out to a longer stride. My suggestion is that you find your normal stride, and when you need to regroup into your comfort zone, shorten your steps a bit, but keep a steady pace. The shorter steps will allow you to regain your breath--pay the oxygen debt--without having to quit. Becoming exhausted is the last thing you want to achieve, in part because it feels lousy.

I don't know how a schooled trainer would see this, but for my money, anything that keeps you moving will work. The military jog will allow you maintain the same tempo (steps per minute) as your normal pace, but at a reduce speed and with less effort. I would start by dropping into the jog sometime after my second wind kicked in, count steps for 5 or 6 hundred meters, then lengthen you stride to your normal gait. Repeat as needed. You probably can even use this tactic to get you through the run itself (rather than, say, staggering across the finish line and collapsing in a heap).

Have fun with this. Running is a joy.
posted by mule98J at 10:24 AM on June 7 [4 favorites]

I routinely walk more than 5K every day and have for decades. I couldn't run 1k no matter how many times i tried - injuries, doubt, over-exertion, perceived name it I had it.

Couch 2 5K got me past that 4 years ago. I have run 12-16 miles every week since (except for a stress fracture / knee inflamation problem 1 month time out 2 years ago).

Runninng is profoundly different from other forms of exercise. It sends shockwaves through your entire body. Runner's high is pretty damn rewarding and I never get it from doing other things (including cycling 40+ miles a week).
posted by srboisvert at 11:36 AM on June 7 [2 favorites]

Your friend is following a training program designed to take someone from no exercise to running a 5k. It does this by coaching the trainee through periods of jogging alternated with periods of walking. The jogs get longer, the walks get shorter, and eventually you never stop jogging. Then you jog longer and longer and boom--you just jogged a 5k.

Your plan is to walk a full 5k faster and faster until you're running. But running is not fast walking, so when you try to switch to actually running you'll have to take a lot of walking breaks. That's...exactly what your friend and their couch to 5k program has been doing! Except you'll be doing it haphazardly, without a schedule. Schedules are usually helpful with this kind of thing.

You should start running, even if it's only for 10 seconds at a time during your 5k walk, as soon as you feel you can do so safely. Better yet would be to start following a couch to 5k program. If you're wary of this approach, just walk the rest of the 5k after doing the program's scheduled workout.
posted by daveliepmann at 11:46 AM on June 7 [3 favorites]

So you are correct insofar that it's more important to focus on distance than speed when starting out. Although, essentially, if you do the C25k program it will get you from not-runner to newbie runner status just about however you do it. You could probably prancercise it or run it backwards and it will have the same general effect, which is to sharpen your cardiovascular fitness so that you can run the distance without stopping. Being a newbie runner and getting in shape for the sport is something that just sort of takes a fixed amount of time and getting too caught up in the details of how to execute the C25k is kind of overthinking it. You can walk/run it or do whatever plan and it's the same end effect. The walk/run ones are nicer because it doesn't make the beginning stages excruciating.

Essentially what is happening when you begin a running program is adapting your body to the basic demands of running. The reason you run slow when you start isn't due to a lack of basic speed, it's due to a lack of running-related fitness, without which you are not even going to approach seeing what your personal max speed is. That's why you train aerobically and build a base before you work on speed. It's like one of the rock solid tenets of running wisdom and it's hard to wrap your head around when you are new and running 11 minute miles and want to go faster. But essentially, the way it works is you run a whole lot slowly and you get faster and faster. Then after you have your base you can work on speed. But at this point in your running career consistent slow running IS your speed work. It will drop like 3+ min off your mile pace over some months if you're actually doing it with consistency. It's the principle of aerobic before anaerobic training.

If you simply follow the program and run 3 times a week, then when you get done up it to 4 or 5 times and stick a long run (+1, 2, etc. miles) at the end of the week, you'll be developing speed as a beginner. Lydiard, who was one of the legendary distance running coaches, advocated building a base of 100 miles per week of steady state running before adding in speedwork. The idea is that you max out the speed at which you can run steadily for hours without undue exertion. And after you've maxed that out you can add in speedwork to see how fast you can go on top of that WITH exertion. Anyway, you don't have to wait till you're running 100 mi a week to do speedwork obviously, but the general principle stands.

So basically, it's a little silly to focus overly on speed when you're in the middle of a C25k program, although it's fun to do fartleks and bound around as you're getting acquainted with those muscle groups.
posted by mermily at 1:40 PM on June 7

I re-read your question and just wanted to add one thing. If walking 5k is a challenge at this point, then walking the distance is probably a great place to start. There's not a direct gradual transition between walking > faster walking > slow running because they use different muscle groups and running is more demanding cardiovascularly. So if I were you I'd walk until that distance feels comfortable and then start on the actual c25k plan where you're running part of the time (or the Jeff Galloway plan or some sort of plan). Plans are good because they are written by people with experience in the sport with a good idea of what's needed for beginners (e.g. recovery time built in, gradual build up - all of which is included in these plans).

It's probably not worth butting heads on. Anyway, good luck with your running career =) It's very fun.
posted by mermily at 1:54 PM on June 7

You've got six months. The C25K program is 9 weeks. I think you both are partly right, and partly wrong.

Your friend is right that running differs from walking, and that being able to walk 5K (or 10K, or 20K) doesn't mean that you can run more than a few hundred meters. Running is more intense aerobically, but it also uses different muscles and puts different stresses on your joints than walking.

However, if even walking 5K is a challenge, I think you're right to work up to that (and more!) before starting a running program. You have plenty of time, and building up endurance might be better.

Walking is also lower impact than running. You're less likely to be injured. And in particular, if your friend is doing C25K every day, she isn't doing the program right. C25K builds up gradually not only because you need to build endurance, but also because your muscles and joints need time to adapt, and an important part of the adaptation process is rest. C25K is designed to be done 3 times a week. It's fine to walk on off days, though if you're rank beginners, taking at least one day completely off every week is also a good idea.

Take it from me, you don't want to risk a joint injury by doing too much too soon.
posted by brianogilvie at 4:51 PM on June 7

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