Only Running ‘Short’ Distances? You’re in Good Company—and Reaping Plenty of Running Benefits

As someone who runs lately, on average, two miles a couple times per week, I feel a bit sheepish describing myself as a runner to someone who runs 5, 10, or 20 miles at a time. But the imposter syndrome is unnecessary. As a runner of “short” distances, I have plenty of company among fellow runners—and the many benefits of running for my body and mind still apply.

“Ongoing work in the field continues to demonstrate that regular exercise of all levels is beneficial in many ways,” Calum MacRae, MD, a cardiologist, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and principal investigator of the Apple Heart and Movement Study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, says. “Running, jogging or walking for even 20 minutes each day has been shown to impact health and wellness across all age ranges.”

The ongoing Apple Heart and Movement Study analyzes the physical activity and heart health of hundreds of thousands of participants who wear an Apple Watch and opt in to specific studies. Recent findings highlight average amounts and types of exercise among more than 250,000 participants, and researchers have broken out just how common it is for people to run certain distances.

Among people who log runs with their Apple Watch, 50 percent are running at least 5 kilometers (or 3.1 miles). The flipside of this: The longest runs of the other 50 percent are under 5 kilometers. That means roughly half of study participants are running “short” distances, like me.

That’s not a problem at all to Timothy Miller, MD, a sports medicine orthopedic surgeon at Ohio State University who works with the university’s athletes, including runners. From heart health to stress management to lung capacity and more, Dr. Miller says running is one of the best things a person can do for their physical and mental health, and that “any [amount of] running is going to be beneficial as long as you do it properly.” That means maintaining proper running form and building up your time and distances gradually.

“The person who runs the most miles per week is not [necessarily] the most successful.”—Jay Dicharry

“Our whole society is so obsessed with volume,” Jay Dicharry, a physical therapist, running coach, and author of the recent book Running Rewired, says. “That’s so unfortunate because the person who runs the most miles per week is not [necessarily] the most successful.”

The benefits of short runs

In fact, running short distances has benefits of its own. Here, Dicharry and Dr. Miller weigh in on why short runs are valuable in their own right.

You might actually go out and run

A shorter run is simply more accessible to more people than a longer run, so people may be more likely to go running in the first place.

“A lot of people don’t have an hour to an hour and a half to go out, spend the time out there, including the stretching and the warmup and everything that goes along with it,” Dr. Miller says. “But to run 20, maybe 25 minutes for a three to 3.5 or a 3.1, is much less daunting of a task for a novice runner to do. They can fit it into their schedule more easily, and in that situation, it means that they can probably do it more often, which means that they can continue to do those things and maintain that fitness.”

You’ll have more time for cross-training

If you’re running shorter distances a few times a week, you also probably have time to mix in other fitness modalities. That includes runs of different speeds and intensities, such as short interval runs. Dicharry says running at different efforts—from an easy pace to a challenging tempo run to a flat out sprint—helps you train your body to efficiently use energy, and become a faster runner to boot. As long as you’re focused on putting in the work by really sticking to those different pace goals.

“If you focus on the quality of your effort, I think you’ll find things really start to shift,” Dicharry says. “Just putting the focus on volume is not the solution.”

Additionally, both Dicharry and Dr. Miller recommend pairing shorter runs with strength training to prevent injuries.

“It’s about being well rounded,” Dicharry says. “Running’s a great sport for your heart and lungs. It builds really good physiological fitness, but running is not enough of a workout to build muscle strength, to build strong bones, and to build healthy tendons.”

You can avoid overuse injuries

Miller says shorter runs might even help prevent injuries in comparison to longer runs.

“The longer you run, the more cardiovascular fitness you’re going to build, but at the same time, you may start to get irritations and tendonitis and other kinds of issues that crop up from longer distance running,” says Dr. Miller. “If you’re running at a threshold of under 3.1 miles at a time, certainly we know that’s a very reasonable threshold for not developing those overuse injuries to the bones or to the tendons, which would cause other problems over the long term.”

You can give your brain some TLC

So you’ll get the mental benefits of running—including stress, anxiety, and depression mitigation—without as much toll on your body.

“You’re also still going to get that same mental health benefit without necessarily being more tired or feeling overworked than maybe some more extensive long-distance runners would feel,” says Dr. Miller.

The moral of the story? Get out there and start logging those miles—at your own pace.

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