What Weekly Running Mileage is Right for Competitors
Running mileage is an essential factor for long-distance running performance. But how many miles do you have to log each week to compete at a high level? It turns out there is no simple answer to that. Instead, I have identified eight factors that help determine your optimal mileage to achieve solid race performances without breaking down during the training process.
“Weekly running mileage matters, but it’s not the holy grail of performance.”
#1 Your Training level
If you’re a competitor – but not a professional – then you’re likely running 4 – 7 times a week, logging between 20 and 70 miles. Below 20 miles, you’re a jogger, although you may do well in the 5K if you have incredible talent. Above 70 miles you’d have to run more than once daily on at least two runs per week. That would make you a semi-professional.
More mileage is more effective, assuming you structure training with similar principles and methods. There’s a limit to what you can achieve with low-mileage weeks. Once you’ve optimized your training, the only way to trigger further adaptations and become a better runner is running more miles, if you can handle it.
#2 Your race distance
If you’re like most competitive runners, you participate in a variety of events. Since a 40-mile 5K plan is not necessarily more manageable than a 60-mile marathon plan, there will be upward and downward adjustments in training volume. Though generally speaking, your mileage does not fluctuate wildly throughout the season.
While preparing for a 5K, your mileage will be lower as the overall intensity of the training is higher. You also won’t need long runs above 90 minutes. If you’re training for the marathon, you will have to increase your easy mileage significantly and increase the duration of your long runs. Once a month, you should even include a long run crossing the 2-hour mark.
#3 Your responsiveness to training
There’s an individual threshold of weekly running mileage where further improvements are difficult to measure. The law of diminishing returns applies to everyone. Though for some athletes, it comes into effect sooner. There’s no point in pushing for higher mileage if it doesn’t improve your race performances.
The adaptive potential is also what separates elite runners from mere mortals. Not everyone improves above 50 miles per week – or 100 miles in the case of the elite – let alone can withstand the training stress. Find the sweet spot near your limit without crossing the line where chronic fatigue sets in with all its consequences.
#4 Your runner type
The makeup of your muscle fiber type ratio has important implications for your training. ‘Speedsters’ and ‘endurance monsters’ – as McMillan likes to call them – have opposing strengths and weaknesses. Think of speedsters as gifted middle-distance runners and endurance monsters as born marathoners. The versatile runner is somewhere in between.
Fast-twitch runners recover well from track workouts but have difficulty to sustain tempo runs and long runs compared to their peers of a similar training level. They also can’t handle quite as much weekly mileage. The opposite applies to slow-twitch runners. Too much speedwork wears them down, but they fare well on higher mileage due to their abundance of endurance fibers.
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#5 Your injury history
Almost all running injuries are training errors, and running too much too soon is one of them. But even a gradual increase in weekly running mileage brings some runners to a breaking point. Consequently, it is crucial to maintain a training log to see where this occurs. Some of us are more injury-prone than others.
If you insist on increasing your mileage, then you will have to work on removing the cause of injury proactively. That can be the structure of your training, flaws in your running technique, a chronic lack of sleep, or suboptimal nutritional habits. In other words, uncover your weak spots and remove them before an attempt to raise your mileage.
#6 Your age group
While the training of a college athlete and a 50-year-old master runner follows the same training principles, there are differences in training frequency. Young runners can recover faster from hard workouts. They can also afford to pack in more so-called junk miles, which are necessary to achieve a higher weekly mileage.
Athletes beyond age 40 have likely built a sound aerobic foundation over the years. The extra junk miles often do little to increase their performance. Masters are better off focusing on the essential runs. A 4-day training week consisting of 3 quality workouts (including the long run) and a mid-week easy run are often their best choice. That said, don’t cut back if you seem to recover in time.
#7 Your bodyweight
The average weight of elite distance runners is 140 pounds (63kg). While the muscles, ligaments, and tendons are likely to be stronger in a 180-pound runner, it only partially offsets the extra 40 pounds. The additional landing force in the example is 28.6 percent. While 140 pounds is not everybody’s frame, try to reduce your body fat as much as possible.
If you raise your mileage, footwear becomes increasingly important. Runners above 165 pounds (75kg) should consider a stability shoe with ample cushioning. Thanks to new materials and technology, these shoes are often quite light and responsive despite their sturdier built. You can still use your ultra-lightweight racers for the track and shorter races.
#8 Your available time
As competitive runners, we love to push our limits. But the majority of us are amateurs with a full-time job and commitments outside running. Two or even three workouts a day, followed by frequent naps – as professionals do – are not an option for most of us. Nor is such a training regimen very enjoyable, as elite athletes can confess.
For that reason, efficiency is paramount in training. You want to get the most out of your available training time. Dismiss some of the junk miles that contribute little to your race performance. Replace them with cross-training or strength training instead. Ultimately that is better for your social life, overall health, and longevity as a runner.
In summary: What running volume is right for you depends on a variety of factors such as your current training level, race distance, responsiveness to training, runner type, injury history, age, body weight, motivation, and available time. Ultimately, finding your optimal mileage requires careful experimentation and monitoring changes in your performance with the help of a training log.
Sandro Sket, CSCS