Why the Only Running Fitness Test I Really Trust Is a 5K Race

A study just published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology caught my attention, and I’d like to tell you about it. Conducted by researchers at the University of Worcester, it compared performance, pacing strategy, perceived exertion, and affect in a 10K solo time trial and a 10K race in a group of 14 male runners.

Half of the runners performed the time trial before the race (on a separate day) and the other half performed the time trial after the race (also on a separate day) to ensure that the order of the two events did not skew the results. As you might expect, most of the runners covered the 10K distance faster in the race context than they did in the solo time trial. The average time in the latter was 40:28, compared to 39:32 in the former—that’s a 2.3 percent difference.

Pacing strategies did not differ between the two events. Most of the runners started and finished both the time trial and the race faster than they ran the middle part. Nor was perceived exertion different. By and large, the runners felt they ran equally hard in the race and the time trial. But there was a significant difference in reported positive affect. Simply put, the runners enjoyed the race more, and the authors of the study believe it was this bump in positive affect that the runners got from the competitive environment that accounted for their superior performance.

There’s nothing new in the finding that runners run faster in competition than they do against the clock. One important implication of this fact is that, if I were to ask you to run a solo time trial as a way to gauge your current fitness level so that I could assign appropriate pace targets for your training, I would get a somewhat inexact picture of your current fitness level. The result wouldn’t be completely worthless, as it would know it was about 2.3 percent slower than you could have gone in a race, but still a race would be better.

Time-based time trials (e.g. 30 minutes rather than 10K) I trust even less. They work well enough in cycling, where fitness testing is done mainly indoors, but runners aren’t accustomed to thinking in terms of duration when trying to pace all-out efforts. The typical competitive recreational runner is simply more likely to botch the pacing of a time-based trial than of a distance-based time trial or race.

Lab-based physiological tests such as lactate threshold tests and VO2max tests I trust even less. They look so scientific, what with the breathing mask and the blood draws and all, but studies have shown that small adjustments to the design of these tests yield significantly different results. For example, a traditional VO2max test features an open-loop design, meaning it continues until the subject quits voluntarily. But a closed-loop alternative created by Lex Mauger and Nick Sculthorpe at the University of Bedfordshire results in far greater VO2max scores in most subjects. (It bears noting that a race itself is a closed loop.)

For all of these reasons, when I want to know how fit a runner is, I either ask the runner for a recent race result or I request that the runner complete a race. In the latter scenario, I specifically ask the runner to do a 5K race. 

The 5K distance is preferable to other standard race distance in a number of ways. For starters, it’s by far the most popular race distance, so it’s usually no trouble to find a local event to do. Additionally, a 5K race is more doable for runners at all levels of fitness. Many beginners can’t even run 10K, let alone race that distance. Even advanced runners, meanwhile, need less recovery time after a 5K than they do after a longer race, so jumping into a 5K for testing purpose is less disruptive to the flow of training.

Finally, I find that a 5K race result generally offers a more reliable basis for prescribing appropriate target training paces than do results from longer events. That’s because both aerobic and anaerobic fitness factors contribute to 5K performance, whereas anaerobic factors make very little contribution to performance at 10K and up. A 5K performance typically gives me a good sense of where to start with an athlete pace-wise with everything from short repeats at 1500-meter race pace to sustained steady-state efforts.

So, if you want me to create a training plan for you, be prepared to give me a recent 5K time—or to jump into your next local 5K!