The Case for Junk Miles

Junk miles. You know, the runs where you run with no particular purpose in mind: no workout, or necessary distance even, at whatever pace you want. We’ve written about them before, and explained why it’s important to avoid them because they might be keeping you from your goal of getting faster. But, um, what if you need a break from that one-track-minded getting faster thing, of hitting a determined number as you cross a finish line? What if junk miles feel right?

What if what you actually need in your life are more junk miles?

I started running nine years ago. Having never been a runner before, I ascended quickly and qualified for Boston at my second marathon. Marathons became a race for speed as I trained to hit that first BQ and I’ve been chasing numbers ever since. I found a close-knit running community and we feed off each others’ need for speed. We’ve run thousands of miles as a group training for faster and faster times, traveling and racing together. It’s been an epic ride.

But where did I find myself after years of following plan after training plan with every run mapped out, with a pace goal attached to every mile? I lost the joy. I missed fun runs because I always had a training run to hit. I stopped taking my dog because I couldn’t stop for him to pee — I had a workout! I stopped hitting the beautiful trails because I needed x number of miles at y pace. I stopped letting my kids come along on the bike, and never asked my husband to join because he couldn’t keep up either.

I’m not the only runner who reached that level of burn out, tiptoeing along the fine line between training hard and over-training, putting running before other things in life that should probably be the priority. It’s a feeling I liken to addiction, and I sought out friends to enable me, who don’t point out that maybe I’ve gotten a little too one-track minded, that I’ve let other parts of my life go. I let my balance tip too far.

After loading up last year with back-to-back training blocks, I started off this year binging on junk miles. No workouts, no have-tos — just running because I loved to run, going wherever, whenever, and for as long as I wanted to. As the weeks of junk miles rolled by, moments of clarity came into focus. I am not defined solely by my running, in fact, most people in my life don’t actually care about how far or how fast I run, and even those that do and run with me don’t care when I’m not chasing down a goal.

more than a runner
I’m more than a runner.

I began to remember other parts of myself. I like to do other things! Imagine that! I like cooking and reading and watching movies and thinking about things other than running! There are other goals that I’ve had time to put energy toward actually completing.

Another one of my reset buttons that the junk miles pushed? The running friend peer pressure suddenly isn’t what pushes me to get better. The perceived pressure to perform from my friends and family eased. Now I push myself again.

I eased out of my “junk miles only” phase after about six months, but that period of time relit the competitive fire within me and allowed me to get a little balance back. So next time you hear the phrase “junk miles”, don’t scoff. A few junk miles might be just what you need.

Have junk miles ever helped you find your running joy again?

I'm an elementary P.E. teacher with a long-term, ongoing marathon addiction.The next big goal? Keeping up my BQ streak while aiming for a 3:10! I write about the not-so-glamorous side of running and fitting in serious training with a family while staying sane(ish).

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  1. I run 2 or 3 halves each year, but I like to plan out the full calendar year. I use a 10-week plan that I’ve customized to fit my needs. This plan uses 30 of my 52 weeks, but I want to keep running every week, so these miles are listed as “Dunning” miles for a friend in my group that likes to push more miles. They are fun miles, but I think they are as good as training miles.