Want to Crush Long Distances on the Trail? Sign Up for a 5K.

From fixing your form to amping up recovery, there are more benefits of running short races than you’d think.

In September, three weeks after his landmark third place finish at Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, ultrarunner Tim Tollefson lined up for a swift 6K cross-country race on the outskirts of Sacramento, California. Around the same time, Dakota Jones jumped in a 5K cross-country race with the Durango High School team in Colorado. Yet he consistently competes in events longer than 50K.

Why would these and other distance runners bother with such tiny distances compared to the miles they log in a typical competition? Because they know short races, run at high intensity, prepare the body and mind for the rigors of racing longer. Here are the benefits of running shorter distances, and how to incorporate them into your training plan.

The Benefits of Short Races

Building your mental muscle? Trying to fix a weird posture? Short races give you an opportunity to focus onpr specific obstacles in your training. When included in your ultra training, a quick 5K holds a host of benefits.

Say Goodbye to Lactic Acid

Incorporating fast 5Ks into your training plan will teach your body to clear lactic acid more efficiently, according to Karl Riecken, exercise physiologist with the National Training Center in Clermont, Florida. Lactic acid forms when you use more oxygen than your body can replenish. When it accumulates, you slow down. The more efficient you become at clearing and using lactic acid, the faster you’ll run for long periods of time.

Become Impervious to Pain

Short races also help increase your pain threshold. “During a 5 or 6K, which takes between 20 or 30 minutes depending on the athlete, you’re dealing with some good discomfort,” says Riecken.

Tollefson, no stranger to pain, agrees. “You learn to suffer,” he says. “You realize you can push through your boundaries, which really helps in the longer distances. Anytime you can callus your mind to that nonstop discomfort and learn to be comfortable in an uncomfortable situation, you’re going to benefit.”


Fix Form Flaws

Short races expose your weaknesses quickly. If you hunch over when you’re tired or struggle on the hills, a short race will bring that to light without taking much toll on your body. An experienced coach can recognize these weaknesses and help you fix them.

Riecken, who also coaches runners and triathletes, uses 5Ks and short interval workouts to evaluate his athletes’ mechanics. “After a short race I can give immediate feedback,” he says. “We can also do a follow-up run to practice the mechanics we’ve been working on. After a longer race, I can’t do that because the athlete is too fatigued.”

Whether it’s improving technical skills, such as faster downhill running, or making a form adjustment, subtle tweaks can help you run longer with less effort.

“Distance running is all about conserving energy,” says Tollefson. “We only have so much energy to give to an event. You want to budget that by becoming more mechanically sound. If you can work on your form and efficiency, it helps you save energy, which is a huge benefit when you go longer.”

When to Run Short—and How to Make the Most of It

When you’re working on form, toughening your mind, and becoming more efficient at clearing and using lactic acid, all of which take time to improve, it makes sense to schedule short races early in your training cycle. Consider scheduling a 5K to assess fitness after you’ve established a base. Your base phase might range from three weeks to three months of easy running, depending on your fitness.

“The general rule is the shorter the race, the further you put it away from an ultra,” says Riecken. “If a 5K is considered speed work, schedule the final race about six weeks before your goal race and then move into more race-specific training.”

That said, there are benefits to keeping some speed in your steps. Tollefson did a fartlek workout four days before UTMB. “I wanted to make sure I didn’t feel flat,” he says.

Mind you, Tollefson is a professional who ran track and cross country in high school and college. If you’re new to the short stuff, consult with a coach to determine a plan that’s right for you.


Prevent Speed-Related Injuries

If it’s been a while since you’ve run short or you have a history of injury with speed work, prepare for the physical demands with strength training. “Faster paces require a greater load on fast-twitch muscle fibers,” says Riecken. “Those muscles must be conditioned before venturing into high-intensity training.” Riecken adds that strength training also helps stave off neuromuscular fatigue in longer races, an added bonus!

During your base phase and/or an easy or non-running day, do at least two lower body strength sessions a week. Riecken recommends a simple regime of lunges, squats, and deadlifts.

Aim for two sets of 12 to 15 reps, then increase the weight and decrease the reps as your strength and mechanics improve. Start with four sets of eight reps and progress to five sets of five reps. Use a moderately heavy weight—the last two or three reps should be a challenge.

As with running, form is important. If you’re not sure how to perform these exercises correctly, consult with a trainer who can advise you on proper technique.

A Short Race Calls for a Long Warmup

On race day, a proper warmup will help prevent muscle strains when taking off like a rocket. Arrive early enough to run about two easy miles (more or less depending on your fitness, the weather, and how you feel), incorporating a few short race-pace surges in the final mile.

Before you walk to the starting line, Riecken suggests rolling out any kinks with a foam roller or The Stick. If you do any type of mobility work (leg swings, butt kicks, high knees), incorporate this into your warmup. Finish with a few 100-meter strides at race pace as close to the start time as possible.

A 5K may only be one tenth of your next trail event, but it’s a fun way to enjoy the camaraderie, competition, and post-race treats these events offer. Embrace the suffering, and you may run faster for the long haul.

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