MILES – How many does it take?

With the latest debate on my Facebook account, stemmed from this post

You know what’s magical about a 20 miler or a 21, 22, 23 miler?? Give up? The answer is, Not a thing!!!
Too many people training for the marathon, focus too intently on this magical 20+ miler, when they should be focusing on quality and getting plenty of distance at marathon race pace.
Instead, focus on a time goal for your long run. As you get more fit, you’ll gradually cover greater distances with each run.
When planning your long runs, aim to build to 3/4 of the total duration you plan to run for the marathon.
Example: if your goal is a 4 hour marathon, aim to build to 3 hours of running, with at least half of that being at marathon goal pace.
Your body needs to get comfortable functioning at the pace you intend to run for the marathon. If your goal race pace is 8:00 miles, then running a whole bunch of 9:30 miles will not condition your body to run 8:00 pace on race day.
Play like you practice!

I felt the need to explain my views and thoughts on the matter, a bit more in detail.

First off, I want to say that: I AM NOT ANTI-MILEAGE..I REPEAT, I AM NOT ANT-MILEAGE!! Most people think that because I regularly ridicule the high mileage training of many marathoners, that I am just one of these “know it all” types, spouting off at the mouth, with no hardened evidence or data to support my bashing.

Secondly, I am an analytical guy and base much of my coaching and self application on science, statistics and all the various components that make up a marathon training plan.

Of all the marathoners I know (dare I say that, most are just runners who happen to run an occasional marathon, they are not necessarily “marathoners”) who run high mileage, “high mileage” being defined by me as 60+ miles per week, when asked WHY they run the high mileage, their typical answer is “because all the elites do”! or “no top runner runs low mileage”

So that’s it? Your choice for weekly mileage is based exclusively on the evidence that because successful elites do it, then it must be what you should do? Here¬†are my thoughts on that;

1.) Of these marathoners who I have a personal relationship with, only 1 would I consider “elite”. That individual has an elite level coach, as well as is attempting to qualify for the upcoming Olympic trials. Nobody else in this discussion is even close to elite, with most of them being just under the 3 hour marathon mark at best.

My point? Well, I guess I am one that would like to see a good return on my investment. If I am going to commit the time, make the sacrifices and go through the efforts that it takes to run 80-100 miles per week, I’d sure hope that it gives me something better than a 2:58 or 3:14. Oh and before you cut my throat for acting as if those times are unimpressive, I am not saying they aren’t!! Honestly, anyone finishing a marathon, no matter the time, has my utmost respect. However, for those who are really focused on improvement and continued PR’s, time becomes more important. I’d just like anyone to please step up and answer this question. IF I could guarantee you that, after you finish a marathon on your high mileage plan of 60, 80, 100 miles, I could then come along and cut at least 1/3rd of that mileage out and still improve upon the time you just ran in your previous marathon…WHY would that not be enticing? If the only thing you lost was risk of injury and being overly fatigued, then why would that be so bad?

Ok, so back to my points I was making ūüôā

2.) So many amateur marathoners gravitate toward the high mileage of the elite marathoners but, WHY do they only pay attention to the black and white numbers of the miles? Since you are so quick to follow their mileage plan, do you also follow their;

  • Nutrition/Weight management¬†– does your diet look anything like an elite runners? Are you weighing in around 100-130 pounds? Oh, you’re 6’2″ and 185?
  • Maintenance – do you dedicate the same time to massage, ice baths, yoga, therapy, etc.?
  • Does your mechanics and stride look anything like an elites? If you aren’t as efficient as they are, then how do you expect to put up their weekly mileage, without injury?
  • Sleep patterns – are you taking two naps a day? Are you getting 8-12 hours of sleep at night?
  • Did you give up your job to pursue running, so that all your time can be focused on it? Oh, you mean you have a job and need to work to pay for those running shoes you have to change out every 2 months?
  • Are you a lifelong runner who moved up through the ranks of high school miler, collegiate 5k runner, post collegiate professional road racer? No? What, this is only your 3rd marathon and you just started running 18 months ago?

I could continue on with these differences but, I think you get the point.

So, in spite of all the overwhelming evidence that many (most) elite marathoners prosper on high mileage, why do I regularly knock it?

First off, I actually never really have knocked that high mileage works for elites. I think, that based on their goals and the times they are running, high mileage might very well be warranted and or mandatory.

With that said, these runners (or at least most) are coming from a long background of running. They were former state champions, college All Americans, Peach Tree 10k winners, etc. They are NOT Bob The Butcher who decided to take up running at age 37.

Elite runners have conditioned their bodies over years and years, not over the course of just a few weeks of training half assed, here and there. Not to mention, they are designed to do it. Most of them are the size of most peoples Labradors and their form and mechanics are nearly flawless. They aren’t someone who has sat at a desk for 25 years, with a pot belly and bad knees.

Though one day I hope to work with elites and or guide some into becoming an elite, the truth is, I coach and work with stay at home moms, nursing students, software developers, hotel managers, etc. I work with those who want to get fit and join their peers in a marathon. My clients are those who have dreamed of qualifying for Boston but, don’t know how.

My ultimate goal for those individuals, is to have them enjoying their running, with as little risk of injury as possible. To progress at a rate they can handle, without overreaching for merely one good performance but, for many good performances.

If I had a runner who wanted to run 100 miles per week. I wouldn’t ridicule them. I would first ask them why? Then I would explain that it would take 5-6 years at least to build to that, safely.

The thing with high mileage is that, most runners and even coaches, can’t explain IT or what IT actually is. I’ve seen elite training logs that report running 130 miles per week, 200 miles per week and even some crazy reports as high as 300+ per week.

With all these numbers, very few, if any, can explain just how many miles one should be running in order to reap the most benefits. For an analytical guy like me, that’s a problem. I know that all runners are different and there are countless variables to consider but, if one runner is running 110mpw and another is running 200mpw and there are minimal differences in their race PR’s, then WHY would one runner put their self through so much more efforts, to virtually gain nothing more from it? I mean, wouldn’t you want the best results for your time and effort?

If you look at training plans of top elites, there is no considerable improvement from those who go from say 120mpw to 160mpw (as a whole). It’s also worth noting that, if you look at these elite miles, they are often doing doubles and even triples to accumulate mileage. For the recreational marathoner, they simply don’t have that time and will, to compensate, try to over extend their long runs or mid-week long run. Or, they will simply add an additional 3 miler each day of the week to get an extra 20 miles for the week. Yet, not one of them can explain¬†how that 3 miler is of any benefit.

I even saw a runner goes as far as to say, “I was supposed to run X miles this week but, at the end of the week, when I tallied my total, I was 1 mile short…I was just about to go tack on the additional mile, when I remembered I had ran 1 mile earlier that day to pick up my car…so I counted it”. REALLY??? That one extra mile was so critical in getting you to your total, that you would go as far as to count a mile that served no physiological benefit?

It’s been my observation that, most recreational runners, only focus on the X factor. They get this weekly total of X stuck in their head and they get tunnel vision. They either came up with this number based on 1 of 3 things. 1.) They have a close running peer who runs this number X. 2.) They found some obscure training log of an elite runner that said he/she ran X miles per week and they incorporate that into their own weekly total. 3.) They ran a bunch of miles one week, the end result was X, so they felt they needed to stay with that number, JUST BECAUSE!

When this type of runner is focused on the X factor, they tune out and neglect everything else, in pursuit of this X. Here’s another example: I have an¬†acquaintance who is running high mileage and is regularly injured and or gimpy. When I asked them, are you staying on top of your daily/weekly strength and balance work? Their reply was “not really…I have increased my mileage lately and haven’t had time”.

So, this runner has increased their mileage to the point that they no longer have the time or energy to devote to proper strength and balance work. See the problem here? This occurs regularly. Now, I don’t know, nor will I say that less mileage produces less injury than high mileage, however, no matter what your mileage is, if you can’t string together more than a few weeks of injury free running, then you are doing something wrong.

Over the last few years, I have polled and or collected data from all of those I coach, those I follow on social media, those I train with, those I am friends with, etc. During this time, I have compiled many stats but, there are two that are simple and quick in providing black and white feedback. Have a look.

Finishing time range of those running more than 70 but less than 100 mpw. These weekly mileages are based on the 12-16 week averages leading up to a marathon in which they set a PR. Of 32 runners, both male and female, the low and high was 2:26 and 3:34, respectively. Average finishing time of 3:00:19. *NOTE* for the 32 runners, only one finishing time per runner was taken (their PR). No runner had more than one time applied to this average.

Finishing time range of those running up to 70 but less than 60mpw for the average. These weekly mileages are based on the 12-16 week averages leading up to a marathon in which they set a PR. Though I have data from over a 100 runners in this category, I only took the top 32 runners finishing times, so that sample sizes used are the same. Of these 32, both male and female, the low and high was 2:38 and 3:29, respectively. Average finishing time of 3:02:37.  *NOTE* for the 32 runners, only one finishing time per runner was taken (their PR). No runner had more than one time applied to this average.

**NOTE** – This data is nothing but reference and is merely anecdotal in that, there are way too many variables that are unknown. This is just a comparison of known mileage of both groups. Little detail is known in regards to xtraining, diet, rest, etc.

What is easy to see is that, the high mileage group produced an overall faster time and with an average finishing time of nearly 2:20 faster. They also produced the slowest time. Of all runners, none are pro or elite.

CONCLUSION: It appears that quality marathons can be produced, using both a HIGH or LOW mileage approach and that there is no discernible effect on race performance for the recreational runner(s).

So, no matter the mileage path you choose, be smart, build gradually. Stay on top of maintenance, eat to perform, rest to perform and, have fun.

Oh and, if you’ve been running high or low¬†mileage and are regularly injured, aren’t racing the way you’d like or, have platued…then come see The Naked Miler, he’ll get you back out there and prepared for a new PR ūüôā