High Mileage Doesn't Work for Every Runner

I could write this a million times on my blog and social media; I could say it out loud at every race expo, print it on a billboard in Manhattan, fly a plane over the Boston Marathon course on Patriot’s Day and write it in the sky.

But it doesn’t matter how much I say it, because the prevailing idea in running is that more is better. If you look at 90% of the training programs posted online, offered by clubs, and in books about running, you’ll almost always see high mileage. The easiest program in the Hansons Marathon Method, for example, tops out at 47 miles per week. That’s for new runners.

Another club program I saw includes three different runs over twenty miles (20, 22, and 24) in preparation for a marathon. When I was getting my run certification, one of my classmates was convinced no one could PR at the marathon distance with less than 70 miles per week. Even the teacher told him that was overkill.

But seriously, anything over forty miles is a lot of mileage, y’all.

In contrast, the plans I make for my runners rarely top 40 miles, even for those who are fast and experienced. That’s because I don’t see a lot of reason for anyone to do more than a twenty-mile-run in preparation for a marathon. It’s the same idea behind topping out at 10 miles on a half marathon. Your physical training and the emotional support from the crowd will carry you the rest of the way.

I also believe in holistic training. Yet what I’ve come up against from the runners I work with, over and over again, is the question of “Is this mileage enough?” And based on my results, it is.

Here’s why: all of us are better off undertrained.

If you run less mileage, you’re less likely to get injured. If you run less frequently, you’re less likely to show up to your race fatigued. And if you do both, you have time to do the strength and flexibility work that results in more efficient (and less injury-prone) running in general.

That sounds like a win-win, right? It does to me, but this approach doesn’t work for everyone. My client Jessica, for example, was coming back from having a baby when she first signed up to work with me. To ease her in, I advocated for lower mileage than she was used to. Jessica had a great training cycle and race result, so I felt comfortable increasing her mileage. For her, higher mileage works.

Part of that, I think, is related to speed. At 8:15 per mile, Jessica is a relatively fast runner. And so are the (mostly) dudes who create the plans most runners use. Even though the majority of runners are “slow,” all of us are training like we’re fast.

High mileage plans make sense for people who run faster because it takes them less time to cover the distance. Consider a twenty-mile training run. For a 8-minute-miler, that run would take roughly two and a half hours. Tough, but doable. However, for the average female marathoner who runs an 11-minute-mile, that same 20-mile run would take three and a half hours. For a 13-minute miler, it would take over four hours.

And when it comes to running, time on your feet matters more than distance. That’s why prominent coaches like Jack Daniel and Greg McMillan, among others, advocate for time-based training rather than counting miles. (Ragnar does the same for its relays.) High mileage makes sense for faster runners because they need more time on their feet. But slower runners don’t need that time, because they take longer to complete their mileage.

I remember taking a “Bible as Literature” class in college where the professor made a point that, when reading the Bible, we needed to consider all the editors who influenced its text. Most of those editors were men, so it was in their interest to minimize women’s roles. It was to their benefit, my prof argued, to have the text reflect the world they wanted.

When we apply that to training programs, it’s easy to understand why the idea that “more mileage is better” proliferates. The people who are writing the programs are tailoring the workouts to their own needs. They are creating programs for the world they live (or run) in. I ran into this issue personally a few years ago when I wanted to use a club training program. The only options were a pace-specific program (for 9-minute-milers and faster) or a “recreational” program that was super basic.

There aren’t a lot of options for “slow” runners because leadership in our community isn’t made up of “slow” runners. Even though more women than men run--and more “slow” runners participate than faster folk--the predominant thinking is still tailored to fast men. The thinking that high mileage is the “best way” or the “only way” is at best outdated because it reflects the running community during the first boom in the 1970s. At worst, the notion that everyone should run high mileage is completely false because it violates two basic principles of exercise science.

Overload is the idea that our body and fitness adapts with greater stress. Going faster or further in a training cycle is a great example of this principle.

Progression is how we increase that overload. The most obvious version of progression in running is the 10% rule: the idea that we should only increase long runs and weekly mileage by 10% from week to week.

If you overload your body too much in any given workout, or progress too quickly from week to week, you risk injury, overtraining, and burnout. Essentially, your body can’t handle the extra stress.

That’s what high mileage can do to “slow” runners. By encouraging--or requiring--us to pound the pavement for hours and hours, high mileage programs create too much stress on the body. And that in turn, causes us to be overtrained, which creates crappy results.

So I’ll say it again:

High Mileage Isn’t Necessary to PR.

If you like high mileage, fine. But if you are frequently injured, feel tired all the time, or have any symptoms of overtraining, try less mileage. You may be able to run less, run faster, and run better than before.

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Meghan StevensonComment