As the weather starts to cool ever so slightly, many Central Texans are either close to putting the finishing touches on training for a fall marathon or are just starting their build up for one of the winter marathons. Regardless of where you are, your weekly mileage is certain to be a key factor in the training you do.
Nobody can tell you precisely how many miles per week you need to run to successfully complete whichever marathon you’re attempting. Every marathoner is so different as are their goals and levels of ability that there’s no consensus on what your weekly (or monthly) mileage should be.
Still, one of the most important questions any runner—regardless of ability, speed or experience—must answer when training for the marathon is how many miles are necessary to run? The key is finding the optimal level of miles per week that will allow you to start the race as fit and healthy as possible for the 26.2-mile challenge and run your best possible race.
Again, determining the number of weekly miles is different for everyone as is the buildup to that maximum level. So, too, are the differences in training programs. Some programs emphasize higher mileage totals than others. Some programs put more of a premium on rest and taking complete rest days. In addition, the more experienced marathoner you are and the more advanced you are in your training with more ambitious time goals for the marathon, the higher your mileage will be.
There is simply no substitute for the mileage you must run. (It doesn’t matter whether you keep track of your running by actual mileage or time spent running, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll stick with miles.) Suffice it to say, you can’t effectively run a marathon on the same amount of casual training you may have been doing for 5-Ks.
Mileage is critically important for a marathoner because it produces produce essential returns in strength, perseverance and endurance. The marathon is not a speed event. It’s an endurance race of 26.2 miles. The more miles you run, the stronger and more efficient you will become—but only to a point.
As the eminent exercise physiologist Dr. David Costill of Ball State University says, “There is a point of optimal distance that will cause the body to adapt to its full aerobic capacity. Based on laboratory observations, we have concluded that the mileage needed for the maximum training benefits varies between 60 and 90 miles per week.”
Whoa! That’s a lot of running, especially for newbies, but Costill is only speaking about serious racers who want to run 3:10 or fast. For experienced runners aiming for a 3:30 or faster, weekly mileage limits should be a more moderate 45-50 miles, we also recommend to read the Benefits of running 800m repeats for those who have experience.
That’s still plenty of running. But for most first-time marathoners, weekly mileage should approximate 30-40. If you’ve gradually built up to 30 or 40 miles per week from 15-20, this will have a huge impact on your fitness.
What the higher mileage—even 30 to 40— and longer runs do is train your body to become more efficient at burning fat for fuel and spares the glycogen (key to marathon success) as long as possible. Equally important, it increases your aerobic capacity and builds mental tenacity and physical strength. There are other helpful physiological adaptations that take place with higher mileage as well as a reduction in body fat percentage and possible weight loss (although many experience no weight loss at all).
In marathon training, it all comes down to developing the ability to endure. It is such a long event that the more training miles you can put in is simply better than fewer miles. But again, more is only better to a certain point. There are diminishing returns with higher mileage and the more miles you run, the greater the risk of injury.
For first-time marathoners, who are, currently running between 10 to 20 miles a week, should plan to boost their weekly mileage totals to 30 to 40. Mid-mileage runners, currently running 20 to 30 miles a week, should plan to up their weekly mileage totals to 40 to 45 miles per week. For those advanced runners who are normally running 40 miles per week, they should up their weekly mileage too, but only slightly as they will get limited benefit to going up to 55-60 miles per week.
These weekly mileage totals will vary during the course of your training training. Some weeks will be lower, but never higher. These are maximums.
In addition, most marathon training programs advocate that the longest training run of the week should be approximately one-third of the weekly total. So as the distance of your long runs goes up (and down), your weekly mileage totals will too. But to keep the mileage from getting too high (and thus, potentially injurious), most programs factor in more rest days sandwiched around the long run as a safeguard.
Here are sample training weeks. Note the long weekend runs can be flip flopped. But just bracket each long run with rest or recovery days.
Low-mileage runners moving up to 30-40 mile weeks
Sunday: Long run of 10-12 miles.
Monday: Rest day.
Tuesday: Easy five or six-mile run.
Wednesday: Speed day total of about six miles.
Thursday: Easy five or six-mile run.
Friday: Hill workout or fartlek of six miles.
Saturday: Rest day.
Total: 34 to 36 miles
Mid-mileage runners moving up to 40-45 mile weeks
Sunday: Long run of 12-15 miles.
Tuesday: Easy run of six or seven miles.
Wednesday: Speed day of about six or seven miles.
Thursday: Easy run of 8-10 miles.
Friday: Hills or fartlek of six miles.
Total: 40 to 45 miles.
Advanced runners moving up to 55-60 miles weeks:
Sunday: Long run of 15-20 miles.
Monday: Easy run of five miles.
Tuesday: Easy run of 5-7 miles.
Wednesday: Speed day which just totals 6-7 miles (including warm up and cool down).
Thursday: Semi long run of 10-12 miles.
Friday: Hills of 6-9 miles.
Saturday: Easy run of 5 miles.
Total: 55 to 60 miles.
How to increase your weekly mileage safely:
1. Do it gradually. Build up your weekly mileage by adding a few miles (less than five) a week to your total. Since your weekly mileage depends largely on how many days a week you are currently running, the easiest way to increase the miles is by adding a day or two per week of easy running.
2. Maintain the effort, but lengthen the runs. Add a mile or two to each easy run and a similar amount to your weekly long run, but keep the same pace (or effort).
3. Don’t increase your weekly mileage week after week. The following two weeks after an increase, either maintain that same weekly level or lower your weekly total for a week.
4. Seek out soft surfaces for occasional easy runs. Since you’ll be increasing the time you spend on your feet, try to run on a dirt trail, park or grass soccer field once or twice a week to give your legs a break.
5. Don’t try to make up miles. If you miss a workout or cut one short, forget about it. Don’t try to make it up with an unscheduled run. It’s only one run, one week and in the big picture, it won’t matter if you fall short periodically on your weekly mileage goal.
6. Higher mileage isn’t the goal. The reason you are running more miles is to get stronger for the marathon. That’s the goal—the marathon—not just humongous weekly mile totals that you put in your training log. If you find yourself overtired while running the higher weekly mileage, cut back. It may be too much.