How Far and Fast Should You or I Be Able to Run?

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Building up on running goals and getting ready to run in Kenya, I’ve been adding kilometers daily. I started with a 3km run a few weeks ago, and now average about 10km a day.

But there are a few of nagging questions:

  • How far should I aim to run?
  • How far should I run every day? (And what other training should I be doing?)
  • How fast should I be able run?

Basically, I have no idea how good I am (or am not). I know for many people running at all is an achievement, but there are a few among us who like tying numbers to things, just to give us signposts on a long journey.

In all sports, there are certain “standards”. For example, in weightlifting, you’re considered somewhat “advanced” if you can lift a certain multiple of your own weight. In aerobic fitness, your rest and peak heart rate, your VO2Max and your body fat percentage all put you somewhere generically on a bell curve, depending on your age and gender.

I’m 39 this year. These are my stats for my fastest recorded times, below, although I haven’t tried hard enough yet:

  • 1km: 3:34 (May 2019), 5km: 24:02 (May 2019), 10km: 44:00 (from memory, I did it in 2008 or so)
  • Rest heart rate: 50 bpm (I haven’t read it in a few months, but it should be that give or take 2)
  • Weight: 82kg, Height: 182cm
  • Body fat: 13% (I got a scan done by a radiographer in December 2018)
  • Other stats: no idea, because I don’t have a fancy watch and haven’t connected myself to electrodes in a lab.

So how far should I run? And how fast?

The Sprint: 100-400m

Husain Bolt smiling as he wins a world record. How fast should we be able to run the 100m sprint?

Husain Bolt is a household name as the fastest man alive. He’s also known as being a nice guy. Look at him, smiling as he wins an incredible race! Is that his secret?

When I was growing up, in the dark ages before there were even any Avengers movies, it was Carl Lewis who everyone knew as the fastest man in the world. In the 90s, it was Mike Johnson. These are household names. I mean I knew them, and I was just a kid in Carl Lewis’ day.

Historically, breaking the 10 second barrier for the 100 meter sprint has been the mark of a great male sprinter. For women, it has been breaking the 11 second barrier (though I’m sure the 10-second barrier will be broken eventually). Even though it’s just an arbitrary barrier that doesn’t mean anything (who decided “seconds” should be as long as they are? Or that we should use base-10 numbers?), I can’t wait for a woman to make it, probably during my lifetime. That’ll be a great day!

Sprinting fast is objectively a useful thing to be able to do. Humans aren’t the fastest animals, but it’s rare that we have to run from another animal. Usually, we just have to run out of danger. If someone pulls a knife on me in an alley (and I’m on my own), the best way out is to turn around and run.

Assuming I can run fast.

So how fast should I be able to run? Unlike distance running events, shorter athletic distances like this don’t have many public races or data to go scrape. There’s no “New York City 100m Sprint” (great idea, though).

Poking around the internet though, this is what I can find, the consensus of forums and various blog posts and Quora answers: The average male adult over 20 can run around 15mph (24kmh) for short periods. This equates to 15 seconds. But a lot of people can’t make this, because they’re out of shape (read: too heavy).

  • Over 20s: slow
  • 15s: Average
  • 13-15s: Fast
  • 12s: Very fast
  • Under 12s: You’re not reading this because you’re at track meets or training for your sports club.
  • Olympic speeds: 10s and under

While training for distance isn’t at all like training for speed, people who run distance competitively are “decently fast” at sprinting, and are typically in the fast-very fast range.

So for the 100m sprint, I’d be aiming for the 13-14s. I’ll record it as soon as I find a track.

The attractive thing about the sprint is that it favours muscular, strong builds. I weight 82 kg and am strong for my weight and age, and enjoy weight training. That said, it also makes sprint training seem like the easy way out — doing something I could probably get good at.

The Mile

Roger Bannister, the first person to ever break the 4 minute mile. How fast should you be able to run a mile?
Roger Bannister breaking the 4 minute mile and making history.

There’s a mystical romance about the four-minute mile.

Once upon a time, scientists and general commentators thought it was impossible to break that barrier. This was at a time when many were approaching it, with mile times in the low four minutes. But below four minutes? Impossible. Your legs would explode, your brain would fly out of your skull and time would stop!

Of course, like 100m in under 10 seconds, it’s just another arbitrary barrier. But that didn’t stop it being incredible when the first person ever broke it — Roger Bannister, on a historic day in 1954.

There’s a great book about it, called The Perfect Mile. It shares the story of a few “milers”, Roger Bannister from the UK, John Landy from Australia and Wes Santee from the USA, and their attempts to do what had never previously been done.

Since then, Bannister’s record has been broken, but very few people (around 1,400) have broken the four-minute mile barrier in race conditions. Pretty incredible.

Women haven’t broken the 4-minute mile yet, though they’re trending there. In the last hundred years, the women’s world record has progressed from over six minutes, to around 4:37 fifty years ago, to the current 4:12.56, set by Svetlana Masterkova of Russia, in Zurich in 1996. So the 4-minute marker is there for the taking.

So what speed am I? A few weeks ago in Tel Aviv on the beach boardwalk I decided to test my 2km time, and hit 7:41. This equates to a mile time of 6:10. But my 1km pace would have equated to a mile time of 5:45, so I am pretty sure I can bring it under 5:30, and maybe close to 5:00 with a lot of training. My challenge will be learning to set a maximum pace that I can hold for the distance, and then to increase that pace through moving and breathing technique. I wonder how close to 5:00 I can get?

Kilometer split time of 3:41 (not shown here). Follow me on Strava!

Again, poking around the internet, looking at blogs, forum posts and Quora, I find (again, for males, but it’s similar for females unless you’re looking at high-end competitive athletes)

  • Newb: 12mins+
  • Normal average: 9-10 mins for men, 10-11 for women
  • Regular runner: 7-9 mins for men, 7:30-10 for women
  • Quick: 5:30-7 mins for men, 6-7:30 for women (I know, this is a big range, but I’m trying to keep it simple)
  • Fast: 4:30 – 5:30 for men, 5-6 for women
  • Very fast: 4:00 – 4:30 for men, 4:30 – 5:00 for women
  • Olympic speeds: 4 mins and under for men, 4:30 and under for women

Similar to sprinting, you don’t have to be a vegan food-eating barefoot shoe-wearing advocate to be good at the mile; it’s really an extended sprint. While a lighter body weight would make me more efficient, I’m not massively handicapped by my 82kg build.

The 10K (and 5K)

The 10K is a nice distance to set a goal in because it’s a really common road race distance. In many marathon and half-marathon events, there’s usually an accompanying 10k.

In fact, the 10K was my first ever road race, during the Melbourne Marathon, in 2008. I finished with a time of around 45 minutes, in the top quartile for that event (but a long way from first place)

The thing that’s most attractive about the 5k and 10k is that a) they’re distances I can train for every day, easily, and b) there’s a lot of data on how your Average Zhou can do it.

So how fast am I? I found a website called RunRepeat, which puts your results against others in your age and gender group, compiling race statistics. I ran a 5km in 24 minutes flat according to Strava (it just spit that out, as part of a broader set of stats). This placed me in the top 7% for my age group. I thought this sounded loony, but it correlates to my 44 minute time in the 10km.

Chart of my 5 km time vs most other runners. How fast can you run 5 km?
Hell yeah! I’m already decently quick.

According to this chart on RunRepeat, in my age group and for males:

  • Half of all runners are under 34 mins
  • A quarter are under 29 mins
  • 10% are under 25:30
  • 5% are less than 23:16
  • 1% are less than 19:15.

Based on this, I’ll head for a target of 20 minutes and see how close I can get. I know I can sustain a 4-minute kilometer on a treadmill for two kilometers (and it’s hard!) so the challenge would be to up my aerobic fitness until I can do it for five, and keep my pace on the road.

Marathons (and Half-Marathons)

The Marathon is the distance runner’s race. The Half Marathon is quite a different race, but it shares a name (and usually an event).

Almost everyone knows that Marathons are hard. A standard Marathon is 42.2km or 26.2 miles. The definition, in case you haven’t heard the ancient story, is the distance from Marathon to Athens. It’s based on the legend of a Greek messenger, Philippides, who famously ran the distance back in 490 BCE.

Philippides (or Pheidippides, or just Phil to his close friends) was sent from Marathon to Athens to announce to Athens that the Greeks had in fact defeated the Persians. Apparently, he was so excited at finally defeating the mighty and handsome Persians (this Persian says they got lucky!) that he ran the whole way, burst into the government assembly, shouted “We have won!” and then died.

Fast forward to 1896, the year of the first Olympic Games. The organisers needed a big-ticket event, one that would help with marketing, and thought something Greek would be good. They heard this story of poor Phil running to his death, as it had been made the subject of a popular poem (this used to be a thing) in 1879.

So they decided to recreate this run as the modern Olympic Marathon. The first person to win the Olympic Marathon was fittingly a Greek guy, Spyridon Louis, who won with a time just shy of three hours: 2h 58m 50s.

These days, marathons are regularly won under two hours and twenty minutes, with the world record just over 2 hours (2h 1m 39s). I’m sure a bunch of people are champing at the bit to finally break 2 hours in an official race.

But how fast can your Average Jo run?

Distribution bell curve chart of finishing times for the NYC marathon. How fast do you aim to finish?
Stats from the 2008 NYC Marathon, compiled from a random CSV of data by yours truly.

Luckily, there’s lots of data for Marathons lying around the internet, thanks to enterprising web developers who scrape the results pages of public races. (Some are not public, like the Boston marathon. You have to already be really good to qualify.)

I found a dataset for the 2008 New York City Marathon. I like the NYC one as a data source because anyone can enter, but high-end competitors often do as well. This is reflected in the times, which are from the low 2 hour mark all the way up to 6 hours and beyond.

Here’s the rough breakdown. Because of the awesome data, I broke it down for people in my approximate age group (35-44), men only. (If you want to do your own analysis, use the Google Sheet here).

  • Slow, but well done for finishing it: Over 5 hours for men, 6h for women.
  • Average: Around 4h30 for men, 5h for women. You’re around the median and mean, with roughly half faster than you, and roughly half slower
  • Reasonably fit: 4h for men, 4:30 for women. You’re in the top third!
  • Quick: Around 3:40. Now you’re in the top 20%
  • Fast: 3:20. You’re in the top 10%.
  • Very fast: 3h. You’re in the top 5%, and you’re making the times that the first Olympic runners made. By 1896’s standards, you’re a world champion!
  • Less than 3h: You’re a champion, but still a long, long way to go from winning
  • 2:20 or under: Congratulations! You have won and are statistically likely to be from Kenya or Ethiopia.

The only thing that puts me off most Marathon runs: I don’t like crowds. The one time I ran a 10km public race, I hated having to dodge around other people constantly. I don’t want to pay to be in a crowd. I’d do a marathon of a hundred people, and will keep my eye open for small events.

Ultra Marathons

David Goggins, a famous ultra marathoner, who wrote "can't hurt me".
David Goggins, author of the latest big book on being the best version of yourself, which for him he achieved via ultra-running

Since about the mid-2000s, the cool thing has been “ultra-marathoning”. Technically an “ultra” is anything a race that’s any more than Marathon distance of 42.2km (26.2 miles).

The culture of “ultras” goes far beyond running. If you talk to anyone who run ultras, or just go read a book about it, you’ll start hearing about things like trail running in the mountains, eating vegan and running “barefoot-style” or even just barefoot. They’re kooky, hard-core and overall just cool.

But get into a conversation with anyone about ultra-running and pretty soon they’ll ask you “Have you read Born to Run?

It’s a great book, by Christopher McDougall, describing the eccentric characters and all the extreme events that lead up to a race by a few internationals against the Tarahumara people of Mexico’s Copper Canyons. It goes from scientific theory to brutal reality and presents the whole journey as a captivating tale.

For me, the book that got my attention was Can’t hurt me by David Goggins. If you want an overview, here are twelve life lessons I pulled from the book, reading/listening to it a few times. Goggins grew up with an abusive father, then under a financially struggling single mother, and was directionless and massively overweight by his early twenties. He tells stories about changing his mentality multiple times in his search to become the “hardest man alive”, first by joining elite teams in the military, and later by running (and finishing at or near the top) in the most gruelling ultra-marathons and triathlons in the world. It’s a series of stories so inspiring that they make for great running listening. I ran harder, just listening to it and thinking, “others before me have run harder than this.”

Ultra-runners are more than athletes: they’re a community. You hear stories of people loving to run, and running in groups for the sheer joy of running. You see lots of examples of people helping each other through races and watching out for each other. Because the sport of ultra-running can be deadly, whether you’re a newbie or a pro. Getting stuck out in the desert on a hot day with an injury and only a tiny bottle of water is no joke!

That’s the first thing that attracts me to ultras: the sense of community. In fact, in a world of extremes, it may be the only thing. I can find achievement elsewhere. But a community of achievers? Sign me up!

The nice thing about the ultra marathon is that the goals shift a little away from time and podiums. Sure, if I were a world-class competitor, I’d be aiming to place myself on the podium or come close to dying trying, as many do.

But for the casual ultra-marathoner, there are so many other achievements to make:

  • Just finishing within the time cap. Hard enough, especially when distances creep above 50km and into the 75 or 100 range. Never mind some of the hardest ultras in the world, that top 100 miles through difficult landscapes… we’re not there yet.
  • Getting through uninjured. It’s easy to slip, sprain something or just pull a muscle when it’s under that much strain.
  • Getting better. People cherish being able to feel better running, moving more gracefully, and having more fun.

I love this idea. I like that they’re small, the culture is tight and that even not finishing is fine; it happens to great athletes. I’ll work my way up to one.

You can’t start with ultras though. But I think I’ll start with that mentality. If I work my way up to an ultra marathon over the course of the next few months (to a year), I’ll first do a 50km, and later a 100.

Overall: What will my running goals be?

For 2019, I’ll keep working on

  • Mile time: under 5:30, heading for 5:00
  • 5km: Under 23 mins, heading for 20
  • Marathon: By end of 2019, do one. Either official or unofficial. Aim for pace of under 4 hours in my first. But really, just see what I can do.
  • Ultra marathon: Do one by end of 2019, aim to complete.
  • 100m: Test this as the opportunity arises

What are your goals?

I’ll work on the first two (the mile and 5km) in Tanzania and Kenya, continuing the training I’ve been putting in. They’re the easiest to test regularly. Stay tuned for improvements in results.

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