August 28, 2018

Why Mileage Is Important (But Not That Important)

There’s more to running fast than the mileage you run. If you fixate on a specific session or weekly mileage target, you may be doing yourself a disservice.

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Born and raised in New Zealand, I grew up in the afterglow of the legendary running coach, Arthur Lydiard.

From an early age, I heard story after story of his athlete’s training, the routes they used to run and the results that they achieved well before I even entered this world.

He was (and still is) a legend in New Zealand.

A believer in building an aerobic base, Lydiard was famous for having his runners doing a lot of mileage. Peter Snell, an Olympic 800m (and 1500m) champion and world record holder, would regularly run 100-mile weeks in his preparation.

That’s a lot of running to race two short laps around a track.

Or is it? It worked!

Fast forward 30-years and I am now fully grown (apparently) and I find myself in a similar position to Lydiard. A position of trying to help Coached athletes perform better.

Unlike Lydiard however, my main focus is not on winning Olympic medals, it’s on helping regular “I have a life” people to optimise their training in a more hectic and connected world.

While mileage is definitely important, it seems to me, that too many runners I speak with have an unhealthy obsession with it.

Whenever I ask someone about their training, a mileage comes back. I ran [insert mileage here] today, this week or this month.

Runners are fixating on these mileage targets, wearing them as badges of honour and basking in the kudos it brings on Strava. They’re disappointed when they’re unable to achieve their targets. Or worse, they achieve them at the expense of recovery and wind up losing motivation or getting sick and injured.

Consistency goes out the window.

Cut Race Times, Not Corners.

Racing at your potential and enjoying training is easy when you’re following the right programme.

Not All Mileage Is Equal

There’s more to running fast than the number of kilometres your run. There are also many things that act on those kilometres, making them more or less stressful.

Terrain. 60km a week run over mountain trails is harder and stresses the body more than 60km run over a flat course.

Climate. 60km run in a tropical climate like the one we battle in Singapore every day is harder than 60km in New Zealand’s more temperate weather.

Altitude. At altitude, there is less available to oxygen to fuel the working muscles. As such, the body has to work harder. 60km at altitude is harder than 60km at sea level.

Intensity. 60km a week run hard stresses the body significantly more than the same 60km run easy.

Frequency. 60km a week run over two runs loads the body in a different way to 60km run over five runs and can change the training effect.

As you can see, not all mileage is equal.

Run For Duration, Not Mileage

Rather than focusing on a specific mileage, I invite you to focus your energies on running for time.

The amount of time spent training is actually more important than the distance covered since it’s the duration of effort that your body senses, not the distance.

A fit and experienced runner will cover the same distance in a faster time than the novice runner with limited fitness.

For example, the runner who averages 4:30-minutes per kilometre for 60 kilometres per week is running the same amount of time as the runner who is running 9-minutes per kilometre for 30 kilometres a week and is, therefore, experiencing the same amount of stress.

What’s great about running for time is that it helps to self-correct for the terrain, weather and your level of fatigue. You’ll run less distance in the same time when the external stress is high – but, don’t worry, that’s fine and the converse is also true.

You’ll also know exactly how long it will take to complete a session which is nice for planning around a busy life.

Mileage Through Frequency

So what’s the right mileage for you?

That’s for you to figure out. My belief is that there’s no magic mileage number. 60km, 100km or 100 miles a week, I don’t care.

I believe that you want to run as much mileage as you can comfortably recover from, without losing motivation, getting sick or injured.

In my experience, that will fluctuate week on week with the stress of life and that’s ok.

Your best way of achieving more mileage over the long run is to let go of the mileage targets. Pay more attention to time spent running and running frequency (how often you run).

Rather than running more distance in each run, run for time (the longest run we prescribe our marathon runners is no more than 3-hours, usually less) and run more often (if you want to).

This helps to balance the stress of training and increases your chances of consistency and success. When stress is balanced with recovery, consistency increases and performance improves.

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Why Training Easier Helps You Race Faster

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Ben Pulham

Ben Pulham is the founder of Coached, a personalised training programme that helps runners & triathletes optimise, track and enjoy their training.