What Is Your Best Distance


by Sean Williams

When trying to figure out what event or distance is best for runners I coach to target, I look at a number of variables. Those variables include pb performances, the runner’s body and how it responds to training and racing loads, top end speed, running technique and personality.

Percentage off the world record:

The variable I would like to discuss first of all is the percentage that a runner is off the world record over various distances they have raced. For some events like trail ultras and mountain races, where there is no “world record” as such, I look at the percentage they are away from the course record for that event.

I know some other coaches and runners may use other data, such as using tables like the McMillan Chart, to compare performances over distances. However the world record/course record method is the one that is tried and trusted for me.

1500m 3:26/3.50
3000m 7:20/8.06
5000m 12:37/14.11
10000m 26:17/29.31
21.1k 58:23/65.50
42.2k 2:03:59/2.15.25
100k 6:13:33/6.33.11

Let’s say a male runner comes to me and is unclear about what to target as their next major target race. In recent years they may have run a 10km in 33.00 and The Western States 100 miler in 21.30. Both races were run in good conditions. Both races had decent preparation periods with excellent training programs being undertaken over ample periods of time. The runner executed both races very well, with smart pace judgement and 100% effort being given right through the finish line.

The world record for 10km is 26min 17sec. The course record for Western States is 15 hours 07min. Rounded off to the nearest %, 33.00 for 10km is 25.6% slower than the world record, but 21.30 for the Western States 100 miles is 42.2% slower than the course record. That is a huge difference and I immediately assume that the runner is far better performed over 10km than over a hilly 100 mile ultra. This assumption is further validated by the fact that the 10km world record has to be a far tougher record to achieve than the Western States 100 miler course record, given that millions of runners worldwide attempt the 10km distance each year compared to the 400 odd runners who line up at Western States each year. There is thus a huge distance in depth between the two events.

Bottom line is a 33.00 for 10km is far better than a 21.30 for Western States. In fact if the runner was as good in the Western States as he was over 10km, he would have recorded 19.00 at Western States. This is because 19.00 for Western States is 25.6% slower than the course record, just as 33.00 is 25.6% slower than the world record for 10km.

I would thus encourage the runner to aim more for 10km events, and events in that range such as 5km and half marathons, over ultra marathons. Having said that, if the runner said they would like to have a chance at being a podium finisher in their age group in an event of international standing, I would think seriously about training him for Western States, or possibly a more low key ultra where he may even place outright with that level of running, due to the lower depth in such events. (ie wide percentage gaps between top end competitors). That runner may also say they enjoy the camaraderie of ultra running, plus being on the trails for long periods of time, seeing beautiful parts of the world that can only be seen on foot, exploring one’s mental and physical limits, not have a problem transporting crew & pacers halfway around the world and supporting them for weeks leading up to the ultra race and a variety of other arguments for racing an ultra instead of a 10km. If that is the case then I can be persuaded into coaching a runner into training for the ultra instead of an event they are clearly better at.

Top end speed:

What can you run for 100m? 200m? In order to run 2.00 for 800m you need to be able to run at least 56.5 for 400m. You need to be able to run at least 60sec for 400m to run a 30min 10km. You need to be able to run at least a 41min 10km to run a 3.00 marathon, etc 

Your body and how it responds to training and racing loads


Ben St Lawrence- aged 29: 2006- steeple- ankle; 2007- 10km win over Westcott in 30.15- 5km/10km. Body held up well. Rarely got injured. 2010- levelled off- 10km stayed at low 28min (28.05), 5km stayed at 13.25. Commonwealth Games solid but not great- 7th in 5000 and 10000. Aim for London Olympic marathon. Upped mileage from 130km a week average to 170km a week average with big weeks higher. Early signs shown at Zatopek when he flogged the Aussies and was only beaten by world no.1 Menjo- still 28.05 but in warm, humid conditions and only 27 sec behind Menjo. Kept up marathon training with eye on 2011 Chicago marathon. In March- 13.10 for 5000. May- 27.24 for 10000!

This marathon type mileage was not without hiccups. First signs of overuse injury and illnesses- e.g. in late March just before world xc the back problem, doubled up with flu. After the big 10km in May he kept training hard and did one race too many, with a 10km on the road in NYC. Came back with injured Achilles. Had to modify training a bit and realise not to mix road racing with 10000m track running. Can’t nullify his great finishing speed- balancing act.

Re Ben’s future marathons- very much on hold. Still big question mark whether his body can handle years of high mileage. He is very heavy for a top marathoner as well. They rarely tip the scales at his weight or higher- e.g. in 1996 Olympic marathon in Atlanta Carey Nelson from Canada was the heaviest runner in the field at 60kg (6’1” tall). He is a forefoot striker and has more fast twitch fibres.


Lara Tamsett aged 22- classic progression for junior runner moving into senior ranks. Has kept relatively injury free. Was good junior 800m and 1500m runner. From around 17 she started focussing more on 3000m and 6km cross country races- e.g. world juniors and world xc. From 19 she started racing 5000m and some road races up to 10km. By 21 she won the City to Surf (last year). Her 5km and 10km times started to plateau. Looking at her build (40kg) and running form (light on feet and heel-midfoot striker- very smooth, plus more slow-titch fibres) I thought marathon was the go.

Gradually increased Lara’s mileage. Long runs gradually moved from 1.30 (around 22km) to 2.00 (around 28km), with long Wed run as well and doubling. Tried Gold Coast half this year- PF two weeks before; thought it healed. Flared up early in race and hampered virtually her entire race. Overcompensated and ended up with injured glute and back/nerve problem. Her worst injury which has sidelined her for 4 weeks- missed C2S where she was favourite. Will now back off long runs and thus marginally back off mileage- she will still double but focus will remain on 5km/10km for a while longer.


Martin Matthews- late 30s. online- England: started as 5km/10km runner in Sydney with the Striders. Was in my squad for 4 years. Got his 10km down to just under 33.40. Moved back to England. Moved up to the marathon. Ran 2.29 twice in 2009. Moved up to ultras. Ran 6.12 at Comrades (87km) and 7.03 at world 100km to come 12th, including taking a wrong turn

He was always going to be good at ultras as he has always been a very gritty pommy bugger- would through a brick wall if I asked him to. He was not improving any more over 10km ad his high  33- low 35min performances were getting him nowhere in big races. He seemed to handle his 2 hour long runs comparatively far better than he handled speed work. Marathon was logical choice.

He ran four marathons in the 2.30s; gradually improving, before his two sub 2.30s. Whilst training for and racing marathons his 5km, 10km and half marathon pbs improved as well He pulled up remarkably well from the races- back to full speed and power within a week. Good signs for ultras! Still on marathon program with some “ultra long runs” thrown in- thus still does track work with reps as short as 200m. Raced the Limerick marathon in May as lead up to British 50km, as lead up to World 100km. was on target for close to 2.30 on the slow course but was directed wrong way by a marshal whilst leading and ended up running over 2km long and ran close to 2.40. Still proved he was in excellent marathon form and shorter races indicated he was close to 5km/10km pb shape. Won the 50km in heatwave conditions- with race starting at 11.00am in middle of summer on a 30+ degree day! World 100km coming up soon.

Want to be competitive?

Looking at Martin’s progression and how he is close to pointy end in international ultras (better than any other Aussie at present- just to compare him to us as he lived here and we can relate to him), it is obvious that he chose ultras because he is good at them. If he line up in Aussie trail ultras like GNW or Glasshouse he would probably win. Eg Ewan Horsburgh had GNW 100km record and just smashed 12 foot track record (ie 9.50) and only has run 2.47 marathon.

Is he any better at ultras at this stage than his 10km pb- currently sitting at 32.40? Only marginally. Could he compete internationally over 10km? Not even close. The bottom line is some events are far more competitive than others. You literally have tens of millions of runners lining up in 5km and 10km races around the world every year. That is a lot of people to beat! Only thousands line up in ultras.

Do you want to get on the podium for your age group or maybe even outright? Maybe it is at SMC? Maybe in fun runs? Possibly marathons or ultras. Maybe age group events in the above or maybe age groups in juniors or masters events? Ok a lot of you run just for the joy of it or for health. Many run purely to try and beat their pbs. But so many runners out there want to try and win or place in their event and come home with some silverware. Why? It looks great in the pool room! We all like to be recognised. We can show out mum,dad, brother, sister, children grandkids.

How can you get “competitive? Firstly look at what your best distance is. Then look at the likely competition- eg past results, forums online leading up to races, get to know your age group competitors and talk leading up to race to find out who is “in the field”- Paul Arthur, Jamie Harrison, myself and others used to call people up, ask coaches re fun runs with money or nice prizes. Find out how many prizes are in each age group- what are the prizes? How many races can you handle in a week/month/quarter/year?

Different topic but my personal mission:

When talking to non runners, from your mum right through to mainstream media (who knows one of you may be interviewed by Oprah one day), make the point that you are competing in one of only two global sports (the other one is soccer). We have to get that message across to get more mainstream media attention and thus sponsorship into the sport.

Sean can be contacted at www.sweatsydney.com.au

One thought on “What Is Your Best Distance”

  1. Sam says:

    Great article Sean!

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