It’s a common sequence of events: 5k, 10k, half marathon, full marathon, etc… Makes sense, right? You need to be able to run 3.1 miles before you can run 6.2 miles. And you need to be able to run 13.1 miles before you can run 26.2 miles. It’s only logical, right? Well… yes and no.
In short, yes, you need to be able to run a certain amount of miles before you can reasonably (not to mention safely!) proceed onto higher mileage. Experts recommend upping your overall weekly mileage by no more than 10% in order to prevent injury and avoid overtraining. But, no, you don’t need to train for each and every race distance in increasing length, and, no, you certainly don’t need to race each and every of these distances in increasing length as well!
Okay, so— yes and no? I hate non-answer answers!
To explicate further, the way you train for a 5k is drastically different from the way you train for a marathon. When training for a marathon, the long run will be the cornerstone of your run training program, and you’ll need to concentrate on a high volume of weekly miles. This is just the nature of training for a marathon: marathons require more endurance than speed, and, as such, effective marathon training will focus according to these specific priorities. Contrarily, when training for a 5k, a long run of 20 miles is in no way going to enhance your 5k performance, and a high volume of overall weekly miles is superfluous. 5k training should focus more on speed— with speed intervals, most likely.
What does this mean exactly? Well, it means that if your ultimate goal is to complete a marathon, then you should train for a marathon— by focusing on the elements that will enhance marathon running. Training for a 5k along the way to your marathon goal will, in reality, circumvent your ultimate goal; you’ll be splitting your focus by focusing primarily on speed first for your 5k, then endurance later for your marathon. Part of training for a race means training for the elements needed most in that specific race, and training-wise some decisions have to be made about what elements are more of a priority than others. So, in the end, training for increasing race distances can skew these priorities seriously out of whack!
Is it doable? Yes, and it’s the route that many runners choose to take. Some, because they mistakenly believe the myth that this is the “right” way to progress in running. Others, because they’ve simply evolved as a runner along the way, and their desire to increase race distances has unfolded naturally over time. But is it effective? No, it’s definitely not the most effective way to train for a marathon— if that is, indeed, your ultimate goal.
Not only does training for races in increasing length split your training focus, but it also lengthens the time it will take to finally reach your ultimate goal. Before a race, your body needs rest to perform at optimum ability. After a race, your body needs rest to recover from the racing rigors. With a 5k, that can range from a few days pre and post race; but with a half marathon, that time period can range up into weeks. Of course, the need for lower mileage during periods of rest can derail you from your ultimate marathon goal (and, I know, you might be tempted to skimp on the rest time— but that will just put your body at risk for injury, potentially derailing your ultimate marathon goal even longer!). The time you spend training is important, and you have to evaluate what is more important to you: finishing all racing distances with, perhaps, a sub-par performance or finishing your ultimate marathon goal by using the most effective training towards that goal.
Bucket Lister Vs. Marathon Dreamer?
That said, consider this: even if your ultimate goal is to complete a marathon, it still might be worth your time to schedule a half marathon in your training plan. You’ll need to ensure that you get proper rest and recovery both pre and post race, but it’s a worthwhile experience for many marathoners-in-the-making— since having a half marathon race under your belt gives you an opportunity to sort of “learn the ropes” of the rigors of race day. You can experiment with everything from running gear to nutrition aids to pre-race rituals; that way, when your goal marathon race finally rolls around, you’ll be a) less nervous having been through one race already and b) better prepared for what you’ll face on race day. It’s not necessary per se, but it can make that ultimate race day much more relaxed and much more enjoyable. So it’s something worth considering!
Many new runners enter the sport with the goal to “bucket list” all of the racing distances. Of course, if that’s your goal, in and of itself, to compete in all of the benchmark race distances, then you have every right to train to do so accordingly. It may take you more time, more effort, and more work to hit that ultimate marathon benchmark race distance, but if your goal is to “collect ’em all” then more power to you— nothing worth it has ever come easily. But if you’re a new runner with doe-eyed dreams focused solely on crossing the finish line at a marathon, then DO NOT feel like you “have” to do a 5k, 10k, or half marathon before hand. It is by no means a prerequisite, and training for these along the way can circumvent your progress towards your goal. So if you’ve got your eyes set on the marathon finish line, go for it!