Greg Strosaker is a Cleveland-area pediatrician, marathoner and coach. This was excerpted from his terrific running blog: The Predawn Runner.
One of the bigger areas of debate among runners and coaches is the tradeoff between quantity of miles (or kilometers, of course) and quality of miles. With the growth of the “run less, run better” and Crossfit approaches to training, there is a temptation to believe that you as a runner can perform your best by landing on the quality side of this argument in your training and cutting down your mileage to the “minimum necessary.” There are plenty of success stories claiming to prove that these approaches work.
It is, however, important to distinguish between what “can work” and what “works best”. Yes, you can improve your race results with a low quantity / high quality approach, particularly if you are a newer runner (and don’t run with so much intensity that you get injured), or a runner who has been away for awhile but has a good aerobic and athletic base. But these gains are going to be limited in scope and over time, as your returns on investment will begin to fade.
This article takes the other position, that for most race distances and most running goals, pursuing higher volume / higher mileage training is the way to drive longer-term success. Look no further than the training approaches of the elites. If high quality / lower quantity training were the “best” approach, you wouldn’t see competitive milers running upwards of 60 miles per week and most elite marathoners running well over 100 per week. I’ll walk through the “5 W’s” and the “How” on high mileage training, as well as let you know what to expect when you get there, and how to know you’ve gone too far.
Why High-Mileage Training?
The critical physiological ingredient for success at any race distance 800 meters and above is your aerobic capacity, or your ability to take in, transport, and utilize oxygen. There is no better way to improve this (which involves growing and increasing the number of mitochondria, increasing enzyme activity in the mitochondria, and improving the capillarization of muscle fibers) than through running a lot, and doing a lot of that volume at an easy pace also helps in the process. Furthermore, other important physiological attributes for successful running, such as your lactate threshold and running economy, also increase with your volume (though there are also specialized workouts and exercises to help supplement these gains).
Additionally, the principle of specificity of training emphasizes that you gain the most by performing the activity you are trying to improve. So while cycling, swimming, using the elliptical, rowing, and many other workouts can help increase your aerobic capacity, the other gains in specific strength (hip and glutes, calves, etc.) and form improvements come mostly through running.
Finally, high mileage training puts you in a lot of situations you will encounter in races. You may well be training in a glycogen depleted and fatigued state, similar to what you’ll experience at the end of a marathon (or, in the case of fatigue, nearly any other race at 5K and above). You will face mental hurdles on a regular basis, as well as a greater probability of experiencing environmental challenges (heat, humidity, wind, rain) or other barriers that arise (gastrointestinal issues, blackened toenails, etc.). All of this combines to give you valuable race-like experience that you normally can’t get without running a lot of races, which is not an ideal training approach.
What Is High Mileage Training?
It’s important to think in relative terms about training volume, not absolutes. For some runners, high mileage will mean pushing 100 miles per week. For others, it may be half of that amount. And this can change for an individual over time. For example, in 2010, I thought 255 miles / month (around 60/week) was high. Three years later, it took closer to 400 miles in a month to qualify (OK, it was only 393 miles).
Therefore, the best way to think of this is a sustained period (say, 4-6 weeks, with a small step back week in the middle) at a volume around 10% or more above your previous peak (and the step back itself should be near your previous peak to 10% lower). It is really the cumulative effect of hitting a higher volume and staying there for a bit that delivers the benefits. Just surging once to a golden week with your all-time mileage high doesn’t really cut it.
To read the rest of his article, visit: The Who, What, When, How and Why of High Mileage Training