I remember that summer night like it was yesterday. It was about 2 a.m., in the midst of lifeguard training week, and I was having an unbearably difficult time dozing off. I’m not sure what possessed me at that moment, but I rose from my bed, strapped on my tennis shoes, stepped out of the house and began my eight-mile run through the dark streets of Southfield, Michigan.
Not only was this irregular; it was unprecedented. In those days, my pre-lifting warm-up session consisted of a one-mile run on a treadmill. Occasionally, I’d break up the calisthenic portion of my training regimen with single-lap runs along the short interior track of Bally Total Fitness. The point is, I was in decent cardiovascular shape, but I wasn’t exactly in the habit of running significant distances at once.
Yet, I finished the run in almost exactly 57 minutes, which placed my per-mile pace at about 7:10, a very respectable time for a non-runner. It’s not that I was never uncomfortable during the run, but something told me that if I stopped altogether, or even decided to walk during stretches of it, I would never have been able to muster the moxie required to continue. In my mind, if I stopped moving, the run would have effectively ended at that moment.
Is that true though? All things considered, is it a bad idea to stop a lot during your runs, which feels like an unavoidable reality of city runs where there are stoplights and a host of other urban obstacles that are sure to slow you to a halt?
Why would there be anything wrong with it?
In theory, I don’t really know, but maybe that’s because I come from a swimming background, where technique analysis is constant, and the majority of true races are well under five minutes in length. Although there’s certainly something to be said for the development of general endurance, there’s nothing inherently rational behind the notion that the best way to train someone to sprint for one minute or less is to make sure they can remain in constant motion for an hour straight.
From that standpoint, if you aren’t preparing for a competitive race — and for most people who run for fitness, a 5-kilometer (3.1 mile) run is usually the entrypoint into that world — there really isn’t any general training principle that would prompt you to run for up to 3.1 miles at a time. In fact, no form of physical readiness testing requires personnel from any branch of the U.S. military to run for more than two miles at a time.
So, if your objective is simply to move a certain amount each day by running, and the goal is to burn calories, Person A who runs four miles daily — in one-mile increments that are interspersed with one-minute rests between each mile — is going to burn more calories than Person B, who runs 3.1 miles in one shot and then hits the showers. Aside from the bragging rights Person B may lay claim to by stating that they run a full 5K racing distance every day, from a conditioning standpoint, there are likely no serious differences between the two, and again, Person A is burning more calories overall.
Okay. But what if I want to run competitively?
Want to win a state championship medal? Depending on the state you live in, you might be able to participate in a U.S. Track and Field Masters State Championship event and steal a gold medal in the 100-meter dash. Seriously, hardly anyone competes at those things.
In all seriousness, taking up competitive running when you’re outside of high school (or college if you’re really good at it) means that you’re training for a 5K, 10K, a half-marathon, a marathon or one of those trendy obstacle-course races where half the people come prepared to take it seriously, and the rest come dressed like they’re attending a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
I very much intend to take it seriously.
Okay, then. From a fitness standpoint, there really isn’t any research demonstrating that continuous runs are somehow better suited for building your overall fitness level than runs that are broken up. Specifically, the research seems to indicate that the surest sign that you’re in great shape is how rapidly your heart rate drops and returns to normal during your breaks. If your heartbeat continues to pound away at your jugular even while you’re at rest, it’s a sign that you still need to work on improving your fitness level.
Physical fitness issues aside, experts say a lot about what stopping means in terms of your mental conditioning. You can’t truly know that you can complete a distance in one shot unless you actually do it, and pain tolerance is a massive component to endurance running. Knowing that you can accept the discomfort and keep moving forward — aside from being a fragment from a memorable speech in a Rocky film — is essential if you’re going to train for a competitive run at a significant distance. On top of that, if you stop repeatedly, it will become impossible to adequately learn to pace yourself for the duration of the actual race length, and also impossible to know how your body will react to the aggregate pounding on your lower appendages as you put each successive mile behind you.
Remember, the only American runner in the first modern Olympic marathon was steadily holding on to second place in the event until he opted to quit at the 14-mile mark. When asked why he gave up, he said that he had never run more than 15 miles before in his life and had no clue how to pace for a 26.2-mile race. There’s no reason why you can’t stop and start at your leisure if you simply want to burn calories, but if you want to traverse vast running distances in the shortest times possible, you’re going to have to train yourself to keep pressing onward in spite of the pain. Like the greatest fictional boxing champion of all time famously asserted, “That’s how winning is done!”