Whether we run 100 mile weeks or 35 mile weeks, we run a lot and when we run we believe that every mile, in fact every step, is in furtherance of our goal to become faster. Is it possible that some of the miles we run are doing us no good or worse, *gasp* making us slower? Could you, yes YOU, be logging junk miles?
If you’ve read enough about running or talked to enough serious runners, eventually you will come across the term junk miles. When the average person throws out the term, junk miles, it’s usually as a way of passing judgment on another runner’s training. “She’s not getting faster because she’s running all those junk miles.” Most of the time it’s not a useful phrase, because it assumes there is a universal definition of junk miles that applies to every runner. Guess what. There isn’t one. Junk for one person might not be junk for someone else. It depends on the runner, her training plan and her goals.
But if we shift the concept from a judgmental insult to a principle of training that we can apply to ourselves and our goals, it’s actually a very useful concept that can help us take our running to the next level.
Let’s take a look.
Finally, a simple definition.
Junk miles are miles that do not further your running goals or worse, inhibit your achievement of your running goals. Junk miles are counterproductive. That’s it! You’re not a bad person if you run your easy runs faster than someone else thinks you should. You’re not doomed to failure if you don’t run your tempos faster than the paces spit out by the McMillan calculator. Now let’s figure our how to know if some of the miles you are putting in are junk miles for you.
Step 1: Identify your long-term running goals.
To achieve anything we need to establish our goals. A long term goal might be to qualify for Boston within 4 years. This long term goal should be the primary answer to the question, “why do I spend all this time running?” It certainly does not need to be a time goal. Your long term goal might be to make running second nature or simply to see where the journey takes you. Whatever it is, you need to know what it is to achieve it and to ensure what you do today will be a productive step to get you there.
Step 2: Make a plan to achieve that goal.
Most of the time we create a training plan to achieve that big goal or to achieve intermediate goals on our way to that big goal. That’s the plan I’m talking about. So pick a plan, hire a coach or draft your own. But you need a plan if you want to ensure your runs are productive to achieving your goals.
Step 3: Understand the components of your plan.
Now that you have a training plan, to properly execute it, you need to know the purpose of each component of that plan. What is the purpose of the long runs? The interval workouts? The tempos? The rest days? These moderate runs? Why are they in your plan and how are they going to help you achieve your goal? This might necessitate you doing a little research or asking questions of your coach to understand the components of your plan. Here’s a quick and dirty guide to get you started:
rest days: To recover mentally and physically from training. To give your body and mind a break to prevent injury, burnout or overtraining.
recovery runs: To maintain running volume while allowing for recovery from hard workouts.
easy runs: to build aerobic capacity and to teach the body to burn fat as fuel. To maintain running volume without unnecessarily breaking the body down.
tempo runs: to build mental and physical strength and endurance. To learn mental toughness and the ability to focus at a higher intensity for a longer period of time. Some say to improve lactate threshold, but recent studies call this into question.
interval workouts: to build strength, speed, running economy and leg turn-over. To get the brain accustomed to running fast.
long runs: to build aerobic capacity, endurance and strength. To teach the body to burn fat as fuel. To build mental toughness and focus.
Step 4: Only do runs that will help you achieve your long term running goals.
For most of us, that means to make sure our effort on any given run is in furtherance of the purpose of that run. That means do not run on prescribed rest days. That means to run our hard runs at the proper intensity for us given the conditions and to run our easy runs at a truly easy-to-us pace. McMillan can give us an easy range of paces in his calculator, but maybe easy for you is faster or slower. It doesn’t matter as long as the miles you are running further the purpose of your training.
And think about it: if your goal is to train hard but enjoy a lifelong love of running and you love to run at a moderate pace or you can’t stand running your tempos faster than marathon pace, then running “too fast” or “too slow” might be the right answer for you. It really does depend on what your goals are and what your strengths and weaknesses are as a runner. The only person capable of judging whether your miles are junk miles is you or someone equally invested in the achievement of your goals and equally familiar with your abilities.
What do you think about junk miles? What’s your definition?