Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Thu, 27 Feb 2014 07:01:04 -0500

In Defense of Distance

(This piece is for my book-in-progress titled See How We Run: Best Writings from 25 Years of Running Commentary. I am posting an excerpt here each Friday, this one from April 1989.)

Al Hromjak’s and George Sheehan’s statements in the previous chapter ride the wave of conservatism now sweeping the sport. It tugs runners down in length and frequency of training runs and races, down toward safe minimums.

Referring to the foremost authority on stress, Hromjak wrote, “Hans Selye tells us that one has only so much reserve, and when one goes to the well too often the reserve is gone – permanently. Why do guys like Sy Mah try to prove that Selye is wrong and that they are physiological supermen?”

Referring to the foremost authority on running physiology, Sheehan wrote, “David Costill has research to prove that beyond 50 miles a week you lose your anaerobic strength. In effect you decrease your maximum speed.”

They tell us to run less distance, run less often and don’t run many – if any – marathons. They may be right in what they say, but they’re wrong in what they imply: that runners should never push their limits, never take chances, never risk making mistakes, never trying anything that is unnatural or unhealthy.

At certain times in running life these excesses make running worth doing. I’m long past that stage. The conservatives would approve of me now, when I’m not much of a distance runner, or a racer.

Thirty miles is a big week, and each week includes a voluntary day off. I’ve run only one marathon in the 1980s, and that was the first year.

Running is safer now than it once was. But it’s also less exciting.

I look back fondly to a time of training twice as much, of racing weekly, of going years without taking any day off by choice. I don’t regret the troubles these excesses sometimes caused.

While I haven’t lived that way for a long time, I also haven’t forgotten where I came from. That’s why I’m slow to criticize other runners during their periods of excess.

I know their reasons for running mega-mileage and multi-marathons. For one, mileage well above the minimum is a great fat-burner.

The very first issue of Running Commentary (and the opening chapter of this book) told of Peter Snell, the Olympic champion and mile record-holder in the 1960s, running then-unheard-of mileage for a miler. “One reason this worked so well for him might have been that he was heavy,” that article noted. “He gained weight easily if he wasn’t training a lot. His 100-mile weeks gave him his raw-boned look.”

Runner’s World masters columnist Mike Tymn called one of his regular workouts a “calorie-burner.” It’s extra-long and super-slow – “so slow that there is negligible training effect. For those of us who like our ice cream and chocolate-chip cookies, and find it increasingly difficult to shed excess weight, the CB serves as a rest day – but then again, it isn’t.”

In other words, a long run doesn’t need to be exhausting to be a fat-burner. Or, for that matter, a worry-burner.

Marathon races are more fulfilling than 5K’s and 10K’s. Things happen in the long race that don’t in the shorter ones.

Marathons offer greater opportunities to succeed. Very few runners can ever go really fast, and everyone eventually reaches his or her speed limit.

Anyone can finish a 10K, so success is judged by time. When times stop improving, enthusiasm for racing these distances wanes.

Success for most marathoners is judged by finishing the distance. Anyone can go longer, for as long as he or she wants to make the effort.

That effort makes the marathon a most honest race. Runners long on talent but short on training may be able to fake a 10K, but they can’t get through a marathon unprepared.

High-mileage training and marathon racing may not promote health. But they probably do little or no long-term damage, either.

That’s because running is self-limiting. Overdo it, and you either break down and can’t keep doing what hurt you, or you lose interest and won’t do any more of it.

However, if you want to go beyond the minimums and can get by with it, the miles and marathons can’t be doing much harm.


A month after this piece was published, I ran another marathon. It ended an 8½-year hiatus from this event, during which nearly all runs had been the same short distance.

Resuming marathon training showed that I had missed the long training more than the marathons themselves. My longest runs are shorter now, but I still go at least twice as far as normal once a week. I last finished a marathon in 2008 but am not yet ready to say that one was truly the last.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from; (2) as e-books from and; (3) as PDFs for e-reader devices and apps, from Just released was Joe’s Team. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]
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