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What distance suits the runner in you? 5K, 10K or marathon

What distance suits the runner in you? 5K, 10K or marathon

Running has become tech-driven today, with apps and monitoring devices defining performance and schedules. However, it is mindful running that provides more holistic gains
While aspiring to run the marathon, or increasing distances from 5k to 10k and higher, is natural, running being mindful of the body's signals, listening to it rather than monitoring VO2 max zone etc via gadgets, can provide a more holistic gains
Running for fitness should be a mindful exertion, guided by one’s breathing and physical signals. Photo by Anantha Subramanyam K

The discourse around running has transformed in the past decade or so. The debates or banter prevalent now reflect the way in which running has changed as a fitness activity, a hobby or a serious competitive pursuit. Like most things in life today, popular tech has a large sway on this physiologically intricate, yet inherently simple form of human movement.

Running offered the first taste of freedom for most — blazing through parks and fields, playing a sport or simply running for joy as kids. But running for the sheer joy of it has become rare of late. And a run, be it a 2km jog in the park or 10km in your city’s most popular race, invariably gets defined statistically, through measured parameters. The steps are monitored on wearable gadgets linked to apps which track your route, the distance, pace, heartrate, oxygen intake and the like. All this to break your run into numericised analytics – the only means, or so it has been established, by which you can track your progress.


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So, the popular discourse and queries grow around hep jargon: What is your VO2 max? Which zone was your heartrate in the last 5K you ran? Which zone did it remain the last 1km of your weekend run? How were your timing splits? Did you run today — it was not there on the app, you see? If it is not there on the app, or the cloud, then your run did not happen, it seems.

However, the jargon falls short when it comes to solving one perpetual riddle: if you are running for fitness, what is the ideal distance to maintain day in day out?

A pertinent question since figuring out the ideal distance could also keep one from quitting. Attrition among runners remains high, despite all the tech, better equipment, support, coaching and infrastructure available now. 

Numbers come with a catch

Time and distance are the two basic measures used to fathom running performance. The target for any runner is to improve through systematic training.

There is a popular formula in running circles. It gives out a rough idea about the safe heartrate or heartrate zone for high-intensity activities, including running. It starts with the number 220. Subtract the age. The number you get is your maximum heartrate. Seventy to 80 per cent of that number should be your safe heartrate. The value more or less corresponds to your VO2 max zone.

Peak oxygen uptake or VO2 max zone is a measure of the oxygen (maximum amount) your body can utilise during physical exertion. VO2 max score is considered a standard measure of cardiovascular fitness with athletes or fit individuals showing a higher range. And, maintaining your heart in the VO2 max zone – achieved only during high-intensity activity – is a sure shot way to push yourself, thereby improving fitness, or in the case of runners, their timing for a particular distance.

There is a catch in this formula-based approach, though. It has got to do with the fact that no two human bodies are the same. Factors ranging from level of fitness to the state of the mind and body on the day of exertion, the topography or altitude, relative humidity, can all have a say. Dr Rajat Chauhan, a marathoner and a musculoskeletal and sports medicine specialist based in New Delhi, illustrates the shortcoming of this approach by narrating the “twin paradox” of running.

“Let us assume you have a twin,” says Dr Chauhan. “So, you are of the same age, and possess the same genes. Using the formula, we can get your ideal heart rate zone based on the age, which is the same for both. But you lead a sedentary life, tied to your office desk. While your brother has been a regular runner and is leaner and fitter than you. As per the formula, both your heart rate zones are the same. But on the running trail, it works differently. Being sedentary, maintaining your formula-prescribed heart rate might do you more harm than good. This despite genetics. Because it is not just about the genes, but also about how we express the genes.”

Running has other variables too – from the way one runs, the gait, the strides and the landing, to the distances and the approach to monitor and push the limits.

VO2 max and distance

Pratheesh Prakash, who works for a fintech firm, recently completed the Delhi Half Marathon, albeit missing out on improving his personal best. He attributed his sedate performance to a lack of structured training building up to the race. He uses a wearable monitor to keep track of his VO2 max during training and tries to touch the zone and maintain it as much as possible to maximise intensity and increments in performance. Prakash believes the ideal distance for running for fitness is around 5km.

“When I am practising, I look at maximising the VO2 max zone,” says Prakash. “Staying there would improve the athletic performance. I do this by sprinting for short distance, taking a break for 30-40 seconds, and then sprinting again. I used to target touching the 10km mark every time I went out for a training run. Now I realise that it is not needed. Five kilometres would be more than enough as long as you focus on staying in the VO2 max zone.”

Many runners Happiest Health spoke to also mentioned the same distance: 5km. The magic in the figure lies in its feasibility, both in terms of physical demands and the time factor. The time taken for an average runner to complete a 5K course (including warm-up and cooldown) will be around 45 minutes to an hour. That time seems feasible for most to include in a daily schedule without disruption.

Manish Mago, who has a mixed schedule of cycling and running to maintain fitness, also loves the 5km distance. But he believes in varying distances on alternate days to prevent the body from getting used to a particular intensity.

“One day I will be running 5km, and I follow it up with a 48-hour period I won’t be running. Instead, I will have a cycling session,” says Mago. “Then I will hit a 7km run, followed by cycling the next day. After that I will increase it to 10km on the sixth day, and the seventh day of the week I rest.”

Mago’s approach is strikingly different from Prakash’s since it involves change in distance, while the heartrate or VO2 zones are not monitored. He depends on the distance to push the envelope of performance. Both approaches yield results. A mix of both would be ideal though, says Dr Chauhan. However, he also prescribes a more close-to-nature mindful approach to running, with tech interventions kept to a minimal, or even nil. 

MVPA, breathing and running

Running is the result of a highly synchronised movement of various muscle groups in the body, concerted by the neural network. The role of a perceptive mind in running is understated since the focus is on the physical exertion and the parameters that can be measured. Running mindfully, listening to one’s body and using signals from the body to push or not to push can yield a more holistic improvement in fitness.

The key is not to set a definite target distance or a target heartrate zone as guiding parameters. “Let the body talk to you, let it guide you,” says Dr Chauhan, before elaborating on using the way we breathe as a yardstick to determine the load.

“The term is MVPA or moderately vigorous physical activity,” says Dr Chauhan. “There are three levels of physical activity and the way we breathe during them can be used to differentiate. In the highly intense level, you get totally breathless in one to two minutes. In level 2 (intense), you get out of breath after ten minutes or so. In level 3, which falls under MVPA, you can continue the physical exertion, be it brisk walking or running, for 35-45 minutes and only then you feel out of breath. This is the level which is ideal for maintaining a daily fitness routine around running.”

So, the ideal distance in this approach is not measured in kilometres, but in minutes. And the distance covered in the timespan of 35 to 45 minutes, while exerting enough to pant but also maintain conversation is the magical level one should look for. And breathing is the key parameter.

“Breathing has always been the key parameter,” says Dr Chauhan. “It is connected to all our bodily function and has a direct corelation to heartrate too. In essence, you are also keeping a tab on your heartrate zone but not through gadgets. Also, resistance and strength training are key for runners. So, keeping a couple of days in the week for physical conditioning via strength training, and maintaining a good recovery and stretching routine is important as well.”

But can improvement in fitness be achieved by sticking to comfort breathing in a physical activity? The push invariably happens since with each passing day, your breathing gets better, muscles stronger, and you start moving faster. The change in pace corresponds to the positive change in aerobic fitness and muscular strength.

“Every two weeks you can make a conscious effort to increase pace to match your improved fitness,” suggests Dr Chauhan. “Over time, you will end up running a lot faster than where you began, for a set duration of activity. And over the course you would have understood the body better and learnt to listen to it too. Some days you may be slower. But it would not mean that your body worked less. It could be a natural reaction to fatigue, stiff muscles or even harsh weather. If you are letting your breathing guide you, you will stay within the safe and happy zone of your body.”

Understanding the ideal distance is just one of many layers of physical and psychological thresholds that will unravel over time once you base your running on what the body is telling you.

Hearing, or rather, feeling it, while moving is simply breath-taking (pun intended). Of course, distance matters, and we all have those miles to go. But then, running is not just about the miles, is it?

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3 Responses

  1. Nice article.
    If you help understanding difference of O2 vs VO2 in simple table or something will be helpful. Apologies I don’t understand lot of medical terms

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