Must you go long to be a REAL endurance athlete?

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ME: “Yes, I do running races”
THEM: “Have you done the NYC Marathon?”
ME: “No”
THEM: “Oh, have you ever done a marathon?”

It seems that you can’t pick up a running or triathlon magazine without an article describing how to train for a marathon or full distance triathlon, respectively. The message is pretty clear – if you’re a ‘real’ endurance athlete, you MUST go long!

This thought process is akin to sports bar banter in regard to what constitutes a ‘real’ sport. Contact sports, power-based sports, eye-to-hand coordination sports, endurance sports, etc… the reality is that any given sport will emphasize one physical (or mental) attribute over another and based on that, one sport is not more ‘real’ than another, just different.

I’m all for big goals and there is absolutely nothing wrong with targeting a long distance endurance race to participate in. However, I’m not of the mindset that one mile running races, sprint distance triathlons and 10 mile bike races are for beginners and to advance, you must go longer. I recently read a comment about Gwen Jorgensen (the current Olympic triathlon champion!), stating that her gold medal was a joke due to the distance of the triathlon not being full distance. Really? I’d like to see him tell Matt Centrowitz that his 3:50 mile is a joke and that he isn’t a real athlete until he runs a marathon.

Your status as a ‘real’ endurance athlete is not based on the distance you can run, ride or swim. It’s also not based on how fast you are but I’ll save that for another post.


Let’s incorrectly assume for a moment that the goal of every runner/triathlete/cyclist/swimmer is to be the best in the world. Physiology largely determines who will be better at long versus short distance races. Can most everyone with training successfully complete a marathon or full distance triathlon? Yes. Will all finish in times that would be considered world class? No. Not everyone is made the same and therefore some people will naturally be better at one event distance versus another.


There is also a prevailing thought that the longer a race is, the harder it is and therefore the greater the achievement. The problem with this theory (aside from it being wrong), is that ‘hard’ is subjective. The difficulty and discomfort felt during a marathon is quite different from that of an 1500 meter track race. Both are hard in very different ways.


Increasing the distance that you train at and, or compete in is to some degree, a natural progression. The same can be said for time – hence, the focus of so many athletes on bettering their personal records (PR) for a particular distance.


Like it or not, there is a trickle down effect from the pros to us weekend warriors from what to wear to how to train. A primary reason for this is articles that discuss how elite professional endurance athletes train, specifically in regard to training volume and workout types. While it’s interesting to read about what our elite counterparts are doing, we should focus on admiring their athleticism, not on trying to replicate their training volume. Remember, it’s their job!


Perhaps the most valid argument for why competing in long distance events is not a necessity to being a ‘real’ endurance athlete is the fact that not everyone wants to do one. Some people have a goal to run a 5 or 10K… or even just be able to run, and that is fine. The fact of the matter is that if you run, ride, swim – or do all three – you are a ‘real’ athlete and it has absolutely nothing to do with your distance and, or intensity.

Rick Prince is the founder of United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy (UESCA), a science/evidence-based endurance sports coaching education company that certifies running and triathlon coaches.

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Rick Prince

Rick Prince

Founder/Director of United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy (UESCA).

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