Which is better for you - running fast or running long?

How to become a better runner: running long versus running fast

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Which makes you a better runner – running fast or running long? We explore what benefits sprinting and steady-state jogging has both for running and overall health.

There are three kinds of runners in this world: those who like running fast, who like running long and those who… don’t like running at all. While the latter might have to force themselves to lace up, the rest of us probably know which we prefer. The question is: which running type can make you into a better, fitter runner?

Needless to say, there are huge advantages to doing both. Emmie Kay, head run coach at Start Running Stay Running, tells Stylist that long and fast runs serve different purposes in your training but that each makes you better at the other. 

Running longer = more strength

“When you’re on a longer run, you can experiment with pace,” Kay explains. “A gradual increase in loading helps to build up strength and efficiency – which exclusively running fast will not do.” When you run fast (and of course, we’re talking here about what’s fast for you), there’s always a peak; if you’re running at 70-85% of your capacity, you’re going to fatigue quickly. “Your body simply won’t know what hit it,” if you try to push the distance too.

If you do want to get a PB in, say, a 10km, Kay says that easy runs can help you get there because you’ve primed your body to deal with bigger loads. “Yes, that’s right – running slower can actually help you to run faster!

Running faster = improved efficiency

Of course, plenty of expert runners would argue that to run fast, you’ve got to, well, run faster. That means having a go at sprints and intervals, as well as pushing yourself on those shorter routes. The latter is known as a ‘tempo run’ and it’s this that Kay especially recommends for anyone looking to shave seconds (or minutes) off their race times. 

“Controlling your pace over a longer distance will then help to improve your efficiency which will then help you to sustain a faster pace for longer.”

Benefits of doing short, fast runs

Sprinting can help us to build muscle and lose visceral fat

Studies have shown that with the right nutrition and recovery techniques, sprinting can promote muscle building – unlike marathon training which can see us losing muscle as the body looks for extra fuel. 

According to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Hepatology, sprint intervals can reduce the amount of abdominal and visceral fat – without changing how much someone weighs. That’s important because visceral fat is the stuff that gathers between your vital organs and can cause all kinds of serious health conditions like cancer and type 2 diabetes (and it’s the kind that isn’t dependent on what size you are or what you look like). The fact that weight doesn’t change suggests that sprinting allows people to build muscle while reducing that organ fat.

It can help to reduce symptoms of depression

Another 2017 paper, this time published in Behavioural Brain Research, concluded that sprint training had a higher potential for improving anxiety and depression than endurance training “through a greater increase in [a molecule called] brain-derived neurotrophic factor contents in the brain.” Low levels of that molecule have been linked with depression, Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, anxiety and impaired learning. These levels naturally decline as we get older but we can slow that decline with a healthy lifestyle. 

Running slower but longer can actually make you faster in the long run!
Running slower but longer can actually make you faster in the long run!

Benefits of longer, steady-state jogging

Meanwhile, long-distance running is credited with helping the human race survive and evolve; we’re made to run, thanks to the evolution of things like the Achilles tendons.

Joggers live longer

According to the PIT Journal, distance running can increase our life expectancy. A Danish study found that joggers of both sexes had a 44% reduced death rate compared to non-joggers and an extended lifespan of nearly six years for women. They found that running up to three hours a week provided the most benefit (over this and your lifespan starts to decrease again). 

Long-distance running is kinder to knees

Forget everything you’ve heard about running ruining knees; researchers have found that regular running can prevent late-onset knee pain. Nearly 3,000 people took part in an eight-year study that saw them undergoing knee x-rays and self-reporting symptomatic pain. The study, published by the American College of Rheumatology, found that, after almost a decade, 22.8% of runners experienced osteoarthritis compared to nearly 30% of non-runners. That led researchers to conclude that contrary to popular belief, running may actually protect people from developing the disease.

Longer runs tend to make us happier

While all forms of exercise have the power to make us feel good, you’re far more likely to experience the elusive runner’s high after 10km than you are 5km and that could be because you have longer to appreciate what’s happening. Research has found that aerobic exercise like steady-state jogging helps the body purge the blood of kynurenine – an amino acid that accumulates when we’re stressed and contributes to depression. 

So, which is better: running fast or running long?

Kay recommends taking “a more methodical approach to your running,” that allows for longer and better-paced runs which “encourage your body’s efficiency to work under pressure.” In other words, “each compliments the other to create a better runner.”

Marathoners could do with adding speed sessions into their weekly regimes and sportspeople of all persuasions could do with a little steady-state cardio in their lives. 

Why not have a go at our four-week Strength Training for Runner’s plan?

Images: Getty

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.

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