The Case for Moderate Mileage Marathon Training

50, 60, 70...where does it stop?The term “High Mileage” means different things to different runners. For a long time I thought I was doing oh-so-much training, until social media made me realize I really was doing far less than others I knew. I’ve talked about it before, but a majority of my success has been achieved by running and training at a level many people would consider low/moderate.

That made me wonder what high mileage actually is. Each runner is very different in how she approaches her training and goals. I threw this question out on social media and got such a wide range of answers. Some said 40-50 miles per week was high mileage for marathon training while others claimed 90 miles per week was still under the high-mileage threshold. And of course there were plenty of answers in between. While it’s tempting to compare your mileage to others, it’s important to remember one key truth: we are all different.

Eighty miles a week works great for some folks, but for others 40, 60 or some other number will be the sweet spot. The factors that affect your perfect weekly mileage are a good place to start, but how do you know what really works until you try?

When this article came out detailing training statistics for some London marathoners that ran sub-3:00, social media went nuts. Many people claimed that the average of 42 miles a week over seven runs is just not enough miles and that the data must be skewed. Others claimed that, while 42 mpw may be true for men, women simply need more miles than that to run a sub-3:00 time.

I agreed with some of the commentary of course, but  I also know that there are no hard and fast rules for a set number of miles to achieve a set goal. I know that to be a hard fact because my marathon time would not be 2:58 if that were true. While I have a decent amount of marathon experience, running and racing experience in general, and a solid amount of stubbornness when reaching for a goal, I know I’m not the only runner to ever achieve a sub-3 on “lower mileage.” From my perspective, it’s not always about the number of miles, it’s about HOW you run them.

Stress Fracture
“I want a stress fracture!” said no one ever.

Why More isn’t Always Better

Reduced injury risk: Injury-prone runners and aging runners especially should consider shying away from running more miles in training. Yes, you still need to run enough to be trained (since running a marathon undertrained can increase injury risk) but not running so much that you cannot get to the starting line healthy.

More time and energy for cross training/supplemental training: You get better at running by running. But that doesn’t mean that throwing in some cross training or strength training won’t also help you. When Cilantro started doing CrossFit in addition to her running (albeit on much fewer mpw than before), she found it kept her from getting bored with training. When you’re piling on the miles sometimes it can get monotonous; mixing things up can help keep that spark alive during marathon training.

An easier fit with most lifestyles: It’s all about what you make time for, but if you want to run a marathon (and do well) making time for moderate mileage is a lot more manageable than working 70 or 80 miles a week. It can also be less daunting when you look at the calendar and see everything you have going on. There is definitely something to be said about having a balance of the stressors in your life and making sure you have some downtime.

You can still reap some of the high mileage benefits: With high mileage you learn to run well on tired legs, or what Hanson’s Method refers to as “cumulative fatigue.” There are other ways to simulate running on tired legs than just running piles of miles! It’s all about how you structure your training weeks, and doing so in certain ways can allow you to recreate training on tired legs without all the extra miles/potential junk miles.

With a moderate mileage training plan you’ll have more time for recovery.

The fact is, sometimes less can be more. Taking the time to adequately build to more mileage is so important and can help keep you running longer and healthier. But “high mileage” can be dangerous if attempted improperly, too soon, or without enough experience. Running more miles means being more diligent about recovery and truly going slow on easy days.

For those with the experience, who already have the base, what would stop you from trying something different than just adding on miles? Jasmine challenged you to try 10 miles a day or 13 hours a week, and now I’m challenging you to try and do more with less.

If you averaged 90 miles a week in the past, why not try cutting back to 70? Even a smaller drop, say, from 70 to 60 can give you an extra few hours in the week. It doesn’t mean you won’t peak in higher numbers, but you can average less per week and still get just as much out of your training. Change things up and make a little more time for some other things in life, or even shift that extra time toward recovery and ancillary training.

You can be set in stone about your goals, but don’t forget that there is more than one way to get there. If you can achieve your time goal with less, is it necessary to always do more?

How much weekly mileage do you run? What do you think is ‘high’ mileage for marathon training?

A new mom and Upstate, NY resident who loves the marathon, a good beer, and all of the numbers/nerdy things. I write about my journey to a sub-3:00 marathon, training tweaks for improvement, and finding that "running/life balance" unicorn. On tap Next: Maneuvering through motherhood and postpartum running!

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  1. marathons are certainly doable on 50 mpw. But it’s not ideal. I think the evidence is overwhelming that more mileage leads to quicker times. No, not everyone has the time or interest in doing g that and the ROI certainly gets shrinks as the miles increase. But I don’t think you can say that it’s possible do achieve identical times with less training- do you know anyone who has actually done that? And can we rule out the effects of previous training?

    I also have to disagree with the assertion that fewer miles means lower risk of injury. You have to condition your body to the pounding to increase miles and it helps to be an efficient runner. I believe the first chapter in the Hansons book has a nice discussion on how mileage can make you more durable.

    1. It is possible, I have done it. I also don’t have a history of more miles to affect my training. I have ran a 70+ mile week….twice? When I ran sub-3, I peaked at 64 and averaged 49. I know women my skill level who ran 70-90 mpw and have not run sub-3 yet. I’m not saying I’m a special snowflake who just happens to be better, I’m saying that HOW I ran my miles not necessarily how MUCH I did is what got me to my times. Why not look at our own SR Tea who qualified for the trials on 70 mpw, it CAN be done. I’m not saying it’s a hard rule that less is always more…but I’m also going to disagree with you that more is always more. There will never be some hard and fast rule that you MUST RUN X MILES TO MEET X TIME. That would be like you saying that if I run 120 mile weeks like Desi, I’m gonna run a 2:2X just because of that. It doesn’t work like that, we are all too different for that. There is far more to how well a person succeeds than just their mileage.

      I do agree that less miles doesn’t always mean less injury risk. BUT I think there is a break point or a sweet spot. You do need to run a certain number of miles to be prepared for the distance physically, but doing too much (especially too soon) does increase the risk. Yes if you gradually build miles smarter you can run more and not have as much risk. But too many times do I see people running 70-90 mile weeks and getting hurt time and time again and they still won’t change that- even when every other thing points to training being the problem.

      In regards to a book saying mileage builds durability, absolutely. But there are also plenty of other books that will advocate finding the right mileage for you personally and that more isn’t better for everyone. There are always going to be opposing viewpoints to every topic. I appreciate your view, and see limitations of both sides. But I don’t ever see there being one training plan and set mileage that works for everyone even if they are going for the same goals.

      1. I guess I’m confused why you set a challenge to reduce miles then?

        I’m not saying that you can’t run x:xx time off 50 mpw. I mean, what could Shalane run off 50 mpw? That’s talent. But there’s extremely strong evidence that you can run faster with more mileage. So why settle if you don’t have to?

        1. Well in that case I am fine settling. If settling means I still get faster but have more time to do other things, because that is what this does for me. Running more and more isn’t for everyone- in fact I feel like sometimes the more I run the more I struggle mentally because I’m taking away from time for other things. I have continued to improve without killing myself for mileage, I have stayed healthy, I stopped using running as my only coping mechanism, and I know plenty of people who could say the same. There is something to be said about your happiness level OUTSIDE of running being just as influential inside of your training. If I can get faster, stay injury free, and have the life that I want to have- what is the purpose of more miles? While I’ll never be a pro runner, even if I was I would still work- because running being my only focus actually takes away from it for me. I run because I like to run, not because I feel I need to have the miles just for the sake of miles.

  2. This is an intriguing topic to me. I was of the mind that the more miles the better, but going into marathon after marathon tired and hurt, I wonder what I could do with less. I’m also sure the tipping point for many of us is lower with life stress than what lydiard, et al might say. I’m not sure I’d sign off on a less is more position, but I can sign off on the notion that you can do more on less than you think.

    1. I think the biggest thing is more is not ALWAYS more and less is not ALWAYS more. I don’t think more is right for everyone, but yet the notion seems to be out there that more is the only way to get faster. That is the point I really want to get across, miles might not always be the answer.

  3. I think the key point here is that everyone has a sweet spot, and you have to find the right combination that works for your lifestyle, your goals, and your temperament. I have done really low mileage plans like RLRF and loved training that way, but crashed in both marathons. I have done high(er) mileage plans and gotten to the start line feeling burned out. My marathon resume isn’t all that long but after experimenting a bit, I have settled into the knowledge that 35-50 seems to be my happy range – lower end for maintenance/shorter race prep, and around 50 for marathon buildups. That won’t get me to the Olympic Trials but consistency in that range should hopefully keep me improving.

    1. That is so great you experimented a bit Jen and found what works for you. That really is the biggest thing- YOUR sweet spot. it’s such a relative thing for each person

  4. I am 100% in the moderate mileage camp with you, Barley. And I have one instance were I did see slight improvement from one race to another even with lowered mileage. Marathon #3 was my “breakthrough” race – I dropped from a 3:25 down to 3:02 in 9 months. I didn’t increase average weekly mileage…kept it at 35-45mpw average and peaked at 55mpw for 2-3 weeks in the last 6 weeks before the race. The volume obviously wasn’t the game changer — it was the increased intensity, running more specific marathon-pace workouts, running slower on days off, and cumulative effect of training over time/multiple seasons (like Catnip said! This is huge for me! I’m uber inconsistent. Any hit of consistency tends to take my performance thru the roof.) Marathon #4 was a bust in Boston because of the weather and poor food choices, but #5 was my first sub-3 and, again, I didn’t increase weekly mileage at all. it actually went down: 30-40mpw average, and maybe 2 weeks right at 50mpw. So, I ran FEWER miles and fewer days per week than I did when I ran the 3:02, and my peak mileage was also lower, but I still ran faster. 3 minutes wasn’t much of a PR, but it was still little improvement, and I think it mostly came down to mental training and cumulative effect, not mileage (since that technically went DOWN). Now…I’m still new to “real” training, so I’m still seeing fairly big improvements on minimal training time. I’ve been told that it won’t always be that way. At some point, I may plateau and find that extra mileage *IS* the game-changer I need to make another big breakthrough. I’m trying to focus on all the other aspects of training that I’m still new at, though, (intensity, cumulative training time, resting correctly, nutrition, mental game, etc.), before I pull the trigger on higher mileage. That will be the LAST thing I try, mainly because (like you) I want to to keep a good chunk of free time for other things. I don’t want to get hurt. But I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t just a liiiiiittle bit curious about what I might be capable of if I slowly increased volume over time. I mean, those other aspects of training have helped a ton…maybe mileage could help, too, if I do it right? I just need to decide if the extra time needed is worth it, and if my body is ready, and if I’ve absolutely maxed out my potential on 30-40mpw. I think I’m probably at the minimum end of what I need to maintain that 2:59 PR, so I don’t think I can drop volume down much more and still expect to see big gains. Just need to decide if I’m content here, or curious/willing enough to take things up a notch 🙂

    1. AHH I love this comment so much. I do agree, and will admit that I do sometimes wonder what I could do off of more mileage. But for me, the biggest thing is increasing smart but also maintaining my “balance”. If I put too much of my life into training I get lost in it and I don’t like that.

      But, on that same note. While I do sometimes wonder what I could do with more- I agree that jumping to more miles first doesn’t need to be the first thing we try. There are SO many things that impact your training besides mileage, yet instead of taking 10 minutes a day to do something else, running more seems to be the go-to.

      And yes, again agreeing with you (and Catnip), that at a certain point increasing mileage might be the way to get faster. Especially when the newness wears off and we have to work even harder for the PR’s. But there are other options that can be tried before that and I feel like social media only encourages people to run ALLLLLL the miles even if they aren’t ready for them.

  5. I’ve always been an injury-prone runner, so I’ve trained for my 4 marathons maxing out at 50 miles a week. I’ve always felt kind of frustrated by my inability to push my mileage higher, but whenever I do push my mileage, I slack on core work or other preventive stuff, and then I end up doing 0 miles.

    The hardest thing for me is that I LOVE my easy run/junk run days. Those are my favorite types of runs because I get to zone out and chill, but I feel like to get faster, I need to make all of my miles “count”. That makes me swing back to wanting to increase my mileage so that I get to keep those easy runs while still adding in the quality work. A dilemma I’ll have to get over at some point, I suppose.

    1. That is such a great point Lemon, when you get into more miles sometimes the things you NEED to stay healthy and race ready tend to fall away. I know I definitely fall into that category!

      Even if you aren’t doing massive miles, you should still have some easy days (80% easy 20% hard is what I feel like I read most often, for any plan). While I totally get that you love those miles, at least with any mileage plan you can still have those super easy days to chill and zone out on a run.

  6. I am in big agreement with you about moderate mileage (and as you note, what is ‘moderate’ will vary from person to person). My first few marathons I ran around 70 mpw, with a couple core workouts thrown in, running between 3:27 and 3:30 for my first four marathons. I found myself tired a lot and not enjoying those last couple miles I’d be doing to get as high mileage as I thought I was ‘supposed’ to be doing.
    After taking two years off from the marathon I decided to give it another go this spring. I dropped my average mileage to 50-55, and added two serious strength training sessions per week. I cut out the ‘junk’ miles I had been running without sacrificing the long run or workouts. I ended up running 3:13–a 14 minute PR on almost 20mpw less than I had been doing! Having the energy to strength train helped a lot. Who knows, perhaps if I had the time to both run 70mpw and seriously cross train I could run even faster, but this training cycle I had the most fun and ran the fastest I ever have.
    If you don’t have the time to recover the way your body needs to from running super high mileage, I don’t think you reap the rewards the way full time professional runners can. Plus, we’ve seen that super super high mileage can totally throw off your hormones. More is not always better.

    1. Congrats on that huge PR Megan!! That is awesome, and love that you were able to do so on less miles but still enjoy things! I think for me that is one of the parts I struggle with when my miles go up too much, I lose some of that enjoyment and I don’t like when that happens. That is also a great point about how pro-runners can do more miles because they have more time for recovery and such, when running isn’t your full time job we don’t always have the luxuries they do in that sense.

  7. I ran several marathons capping my mileage around 75 mpw. My training was strong and varried, and race day, I typically died, felt worn down, and had disappointing results. Oddly, I had injury issues last year and took an “easy” training season after a recovery season. I capped at 50 mpw and had only one day of speed or hills each week. Result? 10 min PR in the easiest marathon of my life.

    Absolutely anecdotal evidence, but for me, I think I may have been overtraining for my lifestyle. There was a “Run to the Top” podcast speaking about overtraining a few weeks back and they pointed out rec runners have a habit of forcing a training plan even while feeling tired. Rec runners see backing off as a sign of not being committed. That fit my mindset. They also mention if you are tired in the middle of the day, that can be an issue of too much training. I think for me, for now, mid range milage with a bit less speedwork and more recovery is key.

    1. “overtraining for my lifestyle” I LOVE that Kathy, it’s so true. What works for some lifestyles may not really be feasible (especially in recovery aspect). I really enjoy the Run to the top podcasts, I will have to look for that episode, do you remember who Tina was interviewing?

  8. Great point-everyone is different. Also, everyone is different at different points in their lives. My body can handle 50 plus mile weeks now and it could not only 2 years ago. And in the future I might have to cut back again. It took time for me to build up to higher mileage. I am still building and trying to find the sweet spot…my experience has been the more miles I run, the faster I run marathons. I feel like increasing miles is like teetering on the edge of a PR or an injury. There’s a fine line! It takes some trial/error to determine what is best for your own body in your particular time in life. Recovery is also huge and so many factors affect that. Of course, quality is more important than quantity, so I extended my speed workouts/tempo runs in addition to adding some easy miles. You are right….people have different priorities in life and not everyone can/wants to/has time to run high mileage all the time. I am sure I would experience more things in life if I wasn’t running around for so many hours in the week! And I agree…it is better to get to the start line healthy than be sidelined for sure!

  9. This is a great post. It’s easy to think that I’m not hitting desired times because I’m not running more … and more … and more. I’ve been healthy for awhile, so will try to increase mileage modestly to see if gains can be made in fitness, but it’s nice to know “higher mileage” isn’t the only answer.