The Great Mileage Debate

The Great Mileage Debate
Ask any science driven mind out there, and they will almost all tell you that “correlation doesn’t equal causation”, unless of course they happen to be a runner too. In which case, they’d probably tell you that high mileage running is how you get better at running. If you asked them what their reasoning was, they’d likely tell you that “well because all the elite runners do it”. Yep, that’s it, that would pretty much be their only talking point, and nothing else.
But is it really the high mileage running that makes a runner better, and to what extent? This has been an ongoing debate from the dawns of running time. From the moment that distance running has become a sport, its always been a debate.
You’re either in the “run as many miles as your body will allow” camp, or you’re not, there isn’t a lot of in between. If you’re an old school runner, meaning, if you were a distance runner from 1990 and earlier, chances are you subscribe to the “the more mileage, the better” camp. If you are younger and actually have any understanding and knowledge of how the human body works and if you have even the basic understanding of strength, biomechanics, and anatomy/physiology, then you have realized that the high mileage argument is starting to lose credibility.
While there is zero argument from me that you’ll find many top/elite runners putting in 100+ mile weeks, I’ve yet to see any evidence that it’s the mileage alone that allows them to be successful.
Also, nobody reading this is likely to be an elite runner. Chances are you are a parent, have a full time job, and are lucky to squeeze in an hour of day to train.
It is my belief that the mileage stems from the fact that many of today’s coaches were raised in the era of miles, miles and miles. They don’t know any different and because of that, they are still pushing their athletes to go the high mileage route. Very few coaches, especially at the collegiate or elite level, are going to risk their job by developing their own type of training or programming, thus, they just continue perpetuating these arbitrary weekly mileage goals that has been passed down from decade to decade. They push through large numbers of runners in their program, and those who can stay healthy enough, long enough, to come out on the other side, are going to be solid runners. But at what long term cost to the athlete are you willing to gamble if you’re a coach? Me, I’m not going to. I want my runners to be good, but to also improve for years to come, while staying injury free and enjoying it. I won’t sacrifice a runner’s long term success to be a flash in the pan who peaked young and never saw any long term success or enjoyment from their efforts.
While I coach athletes of all ages, I have the luxury of getting to also work with high schoolers. It is with these youth that I get to test many of my training methods and principles, that I then incorporate into the programming of all my adult Endurance Project athletes.
The problem with many coaches, including high school coaches, is that they push this high mileage training on their athletes, and at first, there tends to be a pretty great response, if the athlete can stay injury free and healthy. The problem though is that you will see, and I see it very often with other fellow coaches here in Rhode Island, their runners only marginally progress from their freshmen year to their senior year, with many regressing, or always nursing an injury or illness of some sort. You see it a lot up here, especially with the private schools. The trend tends to be, solid runner as a freshmen, then a big uptick in mileage over sophmore and junior year, which tends to improve times a decent amount, but then with a tendency to fall off by senior year, typically followed by a lackluster season going into their freshmen year of college, and then many improving no more over their collegiate career before getting burned out and fading away.
If the high mileage is so good at improving a runner, then shouldn’t their times continue to improve season to season as mileage continues to increase? What I have found is that many coaches start forcing the mileage way too early, rather than building a strong body that will support the higher mileage. Many coaches forego strength and cross training in lieu of more miles. So what this does, is set these kids up for peaking way too early in age, having some decent success in high school, but then fizzling out as they are indoctrinated to believe that in order to get better, you need more mileage. I see the same issues with my adult runners. I’ll often get a seasoned marathoner who has drastically plateaued, so they believe that in order to get better, they again start to try and pile on even more mileage, when their body wasn’t even able to handle the mileage they were doing before. After years and years of this up and down yo-yo effect of, pushing the mileage until you break, then spend months rehabbing an injury that was incurred with the increased mileage, only to continue repeating this cycle for years and years, with no significant success. It is after years of frustration that I will often get one of these runners to come to me for help. Right away, I cut their mileage back, sometimes as much as 50%, and we start working on rebuilding their foundation. They already have the aerobic engine needed from years of running lots and lots of miles, but what they don’t have is the frame and chassis to be able to continue improving beyond their structural tolerances.
It doesn’t matter how great of an aerobic engine you have, if you have poor running economy, poor power to ground, the strength to be able to withstand the miles and miles of pounding, you’re doomed. Put a V12 in a stock Honda Civic and see if the rest of the mechanical components can hold up to all that power. Or take same Honda Civic and drive it on beat up dirt roads and see how long it holds together.
I have tons of these examples, but one in particular is that of a runner who came to me a few years back and wanted to improve her running to qualify for the Boston Marathon. She was a decent runner in high school and college, with a PR in the 5k of 19:35. As I start pouring over some of her old training logs, I noticed a trend. She would start on a new cycle at around 40mpw and would increase mileage rather quickly until she would be peaking up near 90mpw for several weeks. During this string of peak weeks, she’d also get injured. An achilles tweak here, a hip issue there. This pattern continued for for several years.
When she finally came to me, I cut her mileage straight in half and we started at around 25mpw. Over the next two years, we gradually increased her mileage to where she peaked at around 55mpw for 5 weeks before her debut marathon with the Endurance Project. During this buildup, she PRd every distance from the mile to the marathon, bringing her lifetime 5k PR down to 18:32, but was now 10 years older. During this time, we added in a good amount of strength work and cross training. She pushed and pulled sleds, she did a lot of water running, she increased pull-ups from 0 to 8 strict. She ended up getting that Boston qualifier and ran a great marathon in Boston. From there, she moved away and ended up hiring another coach. Right away, he increased her mileage again, by a lot. Today, she has been back battling chronic injury and set back, likely to never get back to her former success, unless she makes some change again.
As for that “proof” that high mileage is necessary to be a top level athlete, elite and Olympic medalists such as Seb Coe, Bernard Lagat, and others haven’t seemed to need it to be the best runners in the world. Here is a nice little article by Running Science that touches on that as well. Mileage
As well as a quote from Coe’s coach/father
“At the peak of his career and prior to the final preparation period of his very intensive speed work in some years Seb Coe did touch 70 miles/wk for 3 or 4 weeks, but his annual total was always very much lower.”
What I have found to be a great approach is, 1.) Build a gradual and progressive base through aerobic volume (this can be running miles or other forms of aerobic conditioning). 2.) Maintain the level of aerobic volume for several months, while continuing to build strength and power. 3.) Start over at the low end of your aerobic volume, but get faster as you increase back up to peak volume.
What do I mean?
Let’s say you have a runner who what’s to get faster (don’t we all). What I would do is take this runner, who say is running 25mpw when they come to me. Over several months or even a couple years, I would gradually build this mileage up to say 50mpw. Once we have built to that higher end, we will stay there for several months to allow their body to adapt to the training stresses and loads. Once their body can handle that much stress, we start back near the 25mpw and we start working on getting more of those miles at speed/race paces. Then we continue doing that over another cycle of several months, gradually increasing the mileage, while gradually increasing the intensity. Over time, the body continues to respond to these gradual applications of stress and load.
To explain further, lets say that this runner in my example builds from 25mpw up to 50mpw, averaging around 8:00 mile pace over the duration of the week via the varied types of running they will be doing.
As they build from 25mpw to 50mpw, their overall training volume (time) gradually builds from 3 hours 20 minutes per week of running to 6 hours 40 minutes of running.
Now, as their conditioning and tolerance to this stress has built, they would start over and gradually increase that overall training pace. So now let’s say over the course of 18 months, they have got their average pace down to 7:00 miles for the same volume. Now they’d be covering 25-50mpw in only 2 hours 55 minutes to 5 hours 50 minutes. Once their average pace per week begins to plateau and they can no longer handle the stresses of the intensity and recover from it, they would then add back on that volume (time) that they shaved off over those 18 months. So now with their average pace having increased significantly, they’d tack back on that original 25-50 minutes of running to allow them to go from 25-50mpw, up to 32-57mpw. As the runner continues to follow such a pattern, they would also continue to build and or maintain their strength and power so that they can much more safely build their weekly mileage to where they have found the best balance and loads that work for them.
This also allows a runner to minimize injury, while being able to enjoy running for years and years, rather than fizzling out in their late 20s to early 30s, and drastically going down hill as they age. There is a reason why you don’t see many old school high mileage runners who are still running well into their 50s and beyond. They incurred too much damage from the years and years of abusing their bodies.
If you cannot seem to go more than 2 years of running without injury, then you are doing too much mileage, regardless of what that mileage is. If you’re constantly nursing some sort of injury, your body has some weaknesses or imbalances somewhere that is not allowing you to maintain a consistent level of training. The problem though is that most runners, rather than identify the problems that aren’t allowing them to consistently train for many months or years, they instead will just try to do what they can, or take off completely until the injury subsides enough to allow them to return to running, only to continue repeating this cycle for the rest of their running life, which is likely to be a short one.
Any idiot can beat themselves into the pavement day after day. The best long term runners and athletes are the ones who are smart enough to learn about all the components that make up their body and it’s tolerances and abilities. It doesn’t take any thought or understanding to just go out and run a ton of miles for the sake of running a ton of miles.
If you’re tired of being injured, or tired of not performing the way you’d like, come reach out to the Endurance Project, we’ll get you straightened out and running your best, for years and years to come!