Why 10k is the perfect distance, according to these running experts

Three long-time running devotees make the case for 10k being the ideal distance.

The Greek messenger Pheidippedes has a lot to answer for. Had his journey of glory been over the far more user-friendly distance of 10k rather than the 40k it was, there’d likely be so many more runners.

Back in 490BC he ran from the coastal town of Marathon back to Athens to report a Greek victory over Persia, and then promptly collapsed and died (in his defence, he had run 240km beforehand, so was understandably exhausted).   

From his memorable final 40k – the distance from Marathon to Athens – the modern-day 42.2k (26 miles, 385 yards) marathon developed, and has become the go-to event for tens of thousands of runners worldwide.

A group of runners at sunrise on a beach in NorthumberlandCredit: Paul Larkins
Running 10k is always inspirational although an amazing Northumbrian sunrise helps

What makes 10k so perfect – by Saga Exceptional’s resident running expert

I’ve been running for more than 50 years and can confirm that taking part in marathons comes at a high price.

Running that kind of distance can take a heavy toll on your body, as well as time – which is where 10k events come in. The distance offers all the glory and kudos of the marathon – as well as the camaraderie, buzz and general excitement – but none of the significant muscle damage. And many experts believe that 10k can be the perfect distance for older runners. 

Marathon races such as London, Berlin and New York grab all the headlines and yes, on the surface they do appear exciting, tempting even. You find yourself watching the London Marathon on TV and saying: ‘That’ll be me next year.’ But, as any finisher will tell you, there’s a cost. 

As a runner, I’ve completed many 10k races – all the way from the incredible Borobudor race in Indonesia, which finishes at the foot of an ancient temple, to a more apparently mundane sounding (but it isn’t) Southend 10k, which finishes by the mile-long pier.

As such, I can say with no word of exaggeration, that a 10k can match a marathon in many departments – and even outdo it in others. I once ran the Crescent City Classic in New Orleans and then the spent the rest of the day running around the city taking in all the sights. Try doing that after a marathon!  

There are some fabulous 10k races around. The Asics London 10k on July 9, for example, takes in all the classic sights from Big Ben to Piccadilly Circus. They deliver everything a big city marathon can offer. Or you can choose a local event, of which there are hundreds up and down the country every weekend. Everybody is welcome, the atmosphere is always great, and should you get the bug, well, there’s always another one next week. Plus, your body won’t mind.  

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10k as the perfect distance – a sport scientist’s view

John Brewer, Visiting Professor of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Suffolk, agrees that 10k is the perfect distance for older runners.  

“It combines the aerobic endurance that is easier to sustain with age with an element of speed endurance, which helps to maintain pace and muscle power,” he explains.  

“Unlike a marathon, which requires endless hours of training and about 20,000 steps for each leg, 10k will put less strain on the bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments.”  

All of which is good news, he adds. It’s still helping you improve your cardiovascular fitness, which will “result in a far better quality of life and health, even when not running”.   

He continues: “The training required to complete a 10k is also long enough to benefit mental health, but not so long that it becomes tedious and off-putting.” It’s why I love it so much! About an hour is all you need, which is much easier for most of us to fit into our lives.   

“So, 10ks are great for the heart, the lungs, the joints and the muscles, as well as benefitting mental health and wellbeing,” Brewer says.   

Although no amount of running over any distance will completely halt the physiological decline that we all inevitably experience with age, training for and running 10ks will almost certainly slow this process down and lead to a far better quality of life. 

‘The perfect balance of pace and endurance’ – and 80-something’s take on 10k

10k is the perfect distance for the older runner, says Roger Robinson author and a life-long runner still enjoying his sport well into his 80s. 

An 80-year-old runner, clocking a record 10k in New ZealandCredit: Roger Robinson
A runner his whole life, Roger Robinson loves the 10k distance

“Everything in moderation, nothing to excess, the ancient Greeks wisely believed. They would never have suffered the mad excess of racing a marathon. When newbie runners instantly babble of Boston or Berlin, I tell them there’s much more to running than the self-styled marathon majors. Show moderation: race 10k.   

“The best test of total running fitness, the perfect balance of pace and endurance, the race that combines tactics, challenge, and drama, without excess of time or stress, is 10km. Let’s say, to be accurate, a race of between 40 and 60 minutes. For me, that used to be 10 miles or 15km. For some reason at age 84, the race that now falls in that ideal time window is 10k.”

As I’ve discovered myself, as an older runner the distance is all the more ideal because it does less damage. A 5k beats up your legs, because the faster pace increases the height and impact of your stride. A marathon or half-marathon, two hours plus at race effort, digs into a depth of depletion that the older body is less able to recover from.  

Robinson continues: “Tactics? Challenge? My narrative in When Running Made History of my epic 10k against Ireland’s Jim McNamara for the M50 world championship in 1989 shows that I beat him because I ran the first mile ten seconds slower than he did. The art of the 10km is spreading it right, sustaining a pace that is up on what I call your “crest,” without ever pushing over that fine edge, where lies oxygen debt, wheezing lungs, and dead legs.

Drama? In my last 10k, in March this year, I was whizzing (well, that’s how it felt) to an M80 PB and New Zealand record, and all was cheers and glory, when a rogue hamstring suddenly tightened painfully with half a mile to run. I hobbled along and got the record, but you can’t punch the air and grip your hamstring at the same time. Grand climax turned into anti-climax.”

“10k is the mid-distance essence of long-distance racing. Whatever your age, you have to get it all right. Training, judgment, execution, and luck. And the physical cost is not too high for an older runner to pay. It’s like reading a great short novel, not a five-volume Tolstoy, meaningful yet manageable. It’s rewarding but it doesn’t take over your life. 10k is the perfect race in moderation.”   

Roger Robinson’s new book Running Throughout Time: The Greatest Running Stories Ever Told is available at stores and Amazon (£15.59).

 

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Paul Larkins

Written by Paul Larkins

Updated:

Paul Larkins has been a sports journalist for more than 30 years, covering two Olympic Games, one Paralympics, numerous World Championships and, most recently, the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022. He’s also been a magazine editor, heading up titles covering everything from running to cooking and buying tractors. But his real passion is running. As a former GB International athlete and sub-4-minute miler in the 1980s, Paul has a great understanding of life-long fitness and the benefits it can provide.