Short-to-long or long-to-short

The standard approach to marathon training has always been to build up the distance to the “20-mile run” three weeks before race day and then taper. Runners of the 1980s talked about doing the 20-mile run six times before a marathon to get the legs used to the distance but it was always about building up to the distance.

But a few years ago, I came across the idea that the Kenyans start out with running short distances at the pace they want to run their marathon and then extend the distance. I discovered this around the same time I was reading the Hansons Marathon Method which sets out ever-longer “Tempo runs” at marathon pace. These two approaches of the traditional Western build-up vs the Kenyan build-long have names in the sprint world – Long-to-short and Short-to-long respectively.

When I began running, I started out with a sort of Short-to-long approach. I went out the door at high speed and tried to hold onto it for as long as possible. Of course fatigue quickly kicked in and I gradually slowed down. This is the Short-to-long approach at its simplest – start at a particular speed and build up the distance for which you can hold it.  I’m currently using this approach with my 800m training – I began with strides of 10-20secs to get my legs used to running at speed. Then it was 200m efforts at a particular pace, subsequently progressing onto 400m then 600m efforts at the same pace.

The alternative approach of Long-to-short is one where you get used to running longer intervals at a slow speed and then gradually quicken them up. As I documented in my post about Roger Bannister, in the six months preceding his iconic moment he began running 440yd intervals at 1min06 then reduced the time by a second per month until he could run them at 56 seconds e.g. 1:06, 1:05, 1:04.

In his “The Science of Running” book, Steve Magness refers to “Top down” and “Bottom up” approaches which are the distance running equivalents of Long-to-short and Short-to-long. Below are his suggested set of workouts for the 5K parkrun distance. On the left you can see the distance is long intervals of a mile or 1km which begin at threshold pace and quicken to 10K and 5K pace as the weeks go by. On the right, everything is run at 5K pace from the beginning but starts with short intervals of 400m and lengthens out.

Top Down (Long-to-short)Bottom Up (Short-to-long)
6 x 1-mile at threshold with 1-2 min rest3 sets of (4x400m) at 5K pace
with 30sec rest, 5-mins between sets
5 x 1-mile at 10K pace with 2-3 min rest3 sets of (3x600m) at 5K pace
with 40sec rest, 5-mins between sets
3 x 1-mile at 10K pace
2 x 1000m at 5K with 3 min rest
2 sets of (3x800m) at 5K pace
with 45sec rest, 5-mins between sets
1 x 1-mile at 10K pace
1 x 1-mile at 5K
2 x 1000m at 5K with 3 min rest
2 sets of (1000, 800, 700m) at 5K pace
with 45sec rest, 5-min between sets
3 x 1-mile at 5K pace with 3 min rest5x1000m at 5K pace with 60-75sec rest

Of course these are general outlines of the approach. The truth is you still do a bit of each as you progress through your running career. Eliud Kipchoge didn’t start out sprinting as a small boy at his marathon pace of 4:40/mile and keeping lengthening it out until he could run a sub-2 marathon. He did some faster running in shorter races (his mile time is 3:50) and he did lots of general runs at slower paces to build support for what he eventually achieved.

The second truth is that neither approach is “The Way” to train. Some runners will adapt better using a Short-to-Long approach, others using a Long-to-Short. I’ve met a number of guys who were natural marathoners and benefitted hugely from the traditional Western approach to marathon training. They went out each week, covered big distances and pushed a little harder. I, myself, on the other hand have always struggled to run big distances but find the shorter stuff easier and so tag on distance when I have a longer race coming up.

Whichever way you currently approach your training, think about your preferred style and then have a think about the alternative and whether applying it might get you better results.

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