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?