Quality over Quantity: Lower Mileage is Okay!

Low mileage is okay!

The great debate of high mileage vs. low mileage is as hotly contested as the twist and pull vs. single bite debate when it comes to Oreos. Some debates have clear winners (twist and pull, you savages). The running mileage debate, however, is a bit more complicated.

Two years ago, you’d have found me smugly but quietly saying the low mileage argument was a load of garbage. I believed high mileage—as high as you could tolerate—was the only way to train. But fast forward 27 months, add a sacral stress fracture and torn labrum, and I’m singing a slightly different tune.

I spent 5 years overtraining and for 4.5 of those years, there were no repercussions. No sidelining injuries or devastating race results to make me question the 70-85 miles I was running week after week. But what I didn’t know was that my body was quietly breaking down on me and by the time I realized it, the damage was done!

Looking back on years of pushing my body beyond its means, I’ve realized my mistake was in thinking it was all about the miles. These days (at least until after I pop this kid out!) I spend more time on the coach’s side of training cycles than I do tallying up my own miles toward goal races. Not to say I’ll never be back there, but when I am ready to train seriously again, I will have learned from my own past and my experience with other athletes to set a more modest-looking goal for mileage.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a still sucker for a good long run. Nothing makes me feel more accomplished than working myself hard for a couple hours on a Saturday and washing it all down with a good brunch/nap combo. But what I’ve learned throughout my injury journey is that there is a big difference between quality and quantity.

I always tell my athletes: “Make sure every run has a purpose.” If it’s speed work, the focus is pace. If it’s a long run or tempo run, the focus is building endurance. If it’s a recovery day, the focus is letting your body repair the work you’ve done on your quality days. “Junk” or extra miles that you run just to get in miles don’t fit into any of those categories. They put undue stress on an already tired body and they serve no functional purpose, so leave them behind.

The tricky part about choosing lower mileage/higher quality is that you do need some level of distance challenge to build endurance. But finding that tipping point where a healthy push meets a crash course is the toughest part, especially since that level is different for every runner. There are many strong and healthy athletes that can maintain 80-100+ mile weeks on a regular basis, while some that hit that fatigue and injury-prone stage at 30-40. It’s not a matter of physical fitness, it’s a matter of what each individual body can handle. When I build out mileage for an athlete the first thing I ask them is, “when did you feel your strongest and most confident training?”

It’s easy to get caught up in the mileage game, especially when social media is covered in watch selfies and recaps of long runs. However, long grueling runs and endless miles mean nothing if on the in between days, you’re struggling to get yourself out of bed or hit your quality run paces. More often than not, athletes admit that they felt their strongest somewhere in the middle, pushing their endurance but not to the absolute max point they could. It’s very individualized and sometimes takes some mid-cycle tweaking but finding that tipping point with each athlete is key to striking a balance for physical and mental success.

The Avocado of 2 years ago would have fallen on the floor after reading this article, but the likelihood I’d have been able to get my tired, broken-down body back up is pretty slim. This debate is one that will likely last indefinitely as different runners determine what they think ultimately delivers their goals. As for me, being in a position of knowing what doesn’t work for me as well as seeing how lower mileage can lead to success with the athletes I coach, I know which side I’m on!

What’s your weekly mileage? Do you think you might benefit from reducing quantity in favor of quality?

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4 comments

  1. Thanks for writing Avocado. This resonates with me as well. I am slowly coming back from overuse injury from last year’s training of junk miles, fatigue and constant sickness. I told myself there has got to be a better way of doing it smarter without running myself into the ground. I’ve always considered higher mileage superior and if I could just get my body to that level, all would work itself out.
    Now I am experimenting training mostly aerobically with MAF with some speed once a week and 2 rest days. (more if needed!)

  2. I just had a realization last week about how I feel much worn out when I increase my run from seven miles to eight miles. Does that sound weird? I don’t know if it’s partially mental, but for some reason the one mile seems to make a difference to me. I am not training for anything right now, so I am committing to sticking to seven or less, with one long run (probably around ten) if I feel like it. After coming back from some injuries last year, I think I got caught up into wanting to run all the miles, when it really isn’t beneficial to at this point.

  3. Love this post. I’m almost 44, have gotten away with all different combos of training approaches for years, but last year I hit the red line in my training cycle for a spring marathon where I topped out about 55 mpw and lingered around 50 for maybe 6 weeks prior to that… entered the race feeling beat up and almost injured, and then a month later, went down hard on a trail and was out for 6 weeks with an ankle sprain. At that point, I decided enough is enough and started focusing on more moderate mileage and a serious approach to balancing out my body and strengthening the weak points. I did very little speed/tempo/hill work in my marathon cycle leading up to my March 17 race… focused instead on consistent mileage between 35-45, topping out at 50… did some MP miles in my long runs. The result? I wanted to secure a BQ-5 and I came in BQ-5:30. So I can say it worked, this time around at least! I’m looking forward to adding in some more up-tempo running and I think it will help me going forward. But I don’t think I can ever go back to higher mileage than this – physically OR psychologically.

  4. This post and your insights really resonate with me. After four years of high-mileage training, I converted—kicking and screaming—to low-mileage training. Now I can say it was definitely the right choice for my body.

    For me, high-mileage marathon training was 16 weeks of 30-45 miles per week. Each week was 1 long run, 2 speed/tempo/pace days, and 3 recovery run days. The results were great when it came to pace. I ran a lot of shorter distance PRs and I was in peak condition for my longest long run (22), which was three weeks before the race. But without fail, a week before the marathon, I’d have some sort of almost-injury and I’d have to take the entire week off just to get to the start line. And I always ended up walking part of the race.

    I finally decided the cookie-cutter training just wasn’t working for me. I hired a coach and asked for a lower-mileage plan. After six months of training with her, I ran a marathon PR by executing the classic strategy of running 20 miles easy, then racing the last 10K. Also, I didn’t have to take any time off for injuries/almost injuries. Similar to my high-mileage plans, my low-mileage plan’s highest peak weeks are about 45 miles, but my longest run is now 18 miles instead of 22 miles. During the training cycle, my weekly mileage is sometimes only 25 and my recovery runs are a lot shorter—the quality/quantity concept you write about in this post.

    After making the switch, I did get slower in the shorter distances, but we’re working on that now and I’m seeing improvement. Overall, low-mileage training is right for my big-picture goals, which are to 1) run strong marathons, 2) stay healthy, and 3) keep running for many, many years to come.

    Thanks for this post!