The Case for Moderate Mileage in Marathon Training

The Case for Moderate Mileage in Marathon Training

I recently listened to a Runners Connect Run to the Top podcast interview with the founder of Training Peaks, Dirk Friel. At the end of the podcast, Tina (the host) asked him to offer a piece of advice for runners of any level.

What Friel said resounded with me: “Do the least amount of most specific training at the right time.”

Jack Daniels, one of the most renowned and influential running coaches of our time, offers that same piece of advice: “Do the least amount of work you can do to get the maximum benefit.”

The least amount of work for our goals. Not the most we can possibly manage before our bodies break.  The least amount.

From my perspective, we recreational runners (I myself have been guilty of this) fall into the trap of believing that more is always better. Those of us who are running marathons usually have some characteristics in our personality of overachievers. While our traits may help us achieve running goals, we also have that nagging feeling that we should keep doing more – not do the least amount in relation to our goals.

Of course, the least amount in the context of what Friel and Daniels are discussing does not mean barely training. The least amount for a marathon would not mean running 15 miles a week or doing 14 miles as your longest run before the race. Doing the least amount for the maximum benefit still means building up your mileage, doing long runs, and completing hard workouts.

The least amount, in a sense, offers an argument for moderate mileage in marathon training. Not low mileage – where you aren’t doing enough to prepare for the race – and not extremely high mileage where you may be doing too much and actually sabotaging your training.

Beyond the argument of having more time to enjoy parts of life beyond running (which is a very valid point), today I want to present my current case for moderate mileage in marathon training.

The Case for Moderate Mileage in Marathon Training

What exactly is moderate mileage in marathon training?

When discussing mileage in training for a particular race, it must always be understood in relation to the distance for which you are training.

The guiding principle of training is specificity, meaning that your training plan should prepare you for the specific physiological demands of your goal race.

What is high mileage for the 5K may only be moderate mileage for the marathon.

Now let me emphasize that my moderate, I mean truly moderate in relation to the distance of the marathon. This doesn’t mean barely covering the marathon distance itself in one week, nor does it mean 70-100 mile weeks for months on end. By moderate, I mean exactly that: 40-60 miles per week while training for a marathon. 

I do believe that how many miles you run per week has direct impact on race performance, especially for distances such as the marathon and half marathon. That’s just the science of it. But I also believe that there can be too much of a good thing, especially when it comes to mileage.

Tim Noakes argued that for recreational runners (those of us finishing in the 3-5+ hours range), 60-70 miles per week is the upper limit. “The exact mileage at which this plateau occurs depends on the individual, but beyond about 60 to 70 miles per week, there’s not much change taking place.

At that point, you could benefit more from doing core work, strength training, mobility work, or – dare I say it – resting.

When you think about it, elites and sub-elites running 80-120 miles per week are not spending that much more time on their feet than recreational runners logging 40-60 miles per week.

Even if you’re training for a 3:30 marathon, 70 miles equates to a significant amount of time on your feet in a week. Beyond that, extra mileage may have some benefits but you have also entered the realm of diminishing returns.

The Case for Moderate Mileage in Marathon Training

1. Less Risk of Injury and Overtraining

The more you run, the more at risk you are for injury – it’s as simple as that. Likewise, the more you run in a single training cycle compared to what you normally run, the more likely you are to injure yourself or overtrain.

Rest and recovery play a key role in training, so you need to budget those into your schedule as well – even at the expense of 5 or 10 or more extra miles per week. Overtraining is one of the most common mistakes that runners make when training for the marathon. Moderate mileage in marathon training can offer you some protection against that mistake. You will always run a faster race when you make it to the starting line than if you had to miss the race!

2. More Time and Energy for Cross Training

Pilates, hiking, and strength training – I love to run, but I also love to do activities other than running!

The Case for Moderate Mileage in Marathon Training

I firmly believe that moving your body in a variety of ways is good for improving your general fitness and preventing injury. For example, a strong core is vital for runners, whether your focus is speed or endurance. You simply can’t neglect core work in marathon training!

Of course, when training for a race like the marathon, some cross training does need to be sacrificed so you have time and energy for running. You don’t want to miss your 20 mile long run because you were too sore from that boot camp class! For each runner, the balance is different. What matters is finding the right balance that works for you – not for your friend, an elite, or a runner you know on social media. 

3. A Balance of Quality and Quantity

If you have a time goal in mind or want to PR in the marathon, you need to do more than simply run. You need to run hard workouts, especially hard workouts with the specific demands of your race in mind.

For the marathon, this includes long runs, marathon pace runs, tempo runs, and even speed workouts in the earlier weeks of training.

Quality and quantity require a balancing act. You don’t want to swing so severely in the direction of quality that you every workout is a hard run and you’re not focusing on building your endurance through mileage and easy runs. However, you also don’t want to ignore those valuable workouts in order to log just more easy miles upon easy miles.

The Case for Moderate Mileage in Marathon Training

4. Training Appropriately for Your Goals

Quite bluntly put, there’s no need to be running 60 miles per week for a 4 hour marathon. One reason for moderate mileage in marathon training is that for many of us, even our goal times are still moderately fast in comparison to what elites and sub-elites are running.

When you see elites and sub-elites sharing their training logs, remember just how incredibly fast they are running. Someone who runs 100 miles a week but has competed in the Olympic Marathon Trials is training on a completely different level than even someone who wants to qualify for Boston.

For some food for thought, this article from Runner’s World outlines what some coaches and experts consider appropriate average mileage for certain marathon goals. 

5. Leaving Room for Future Progress

I aspire to run a 3:30 marathon someday, but I also dream of running a marathon and half marathon at even faster paces. I don’t want to reach the upper limits of my training capacity early on in my marathoning.

I learned this lesson when following the Hansons Marathon Method and running 60 mile weeks. I was likely training at too high of a capacity for my fitness then, but I also thought: well, if I was running 60 mile weeks for a 3:30 (which I didn’t run in my race), what would I do for a 3:20? 3:10? Would I run 70, 80, 90 mile per week? What if I plateaued on that higher mileage?

So this time around, I’m seeing what I can accomplish on moderate mileage in marathon training. I’m running 45 miles per week right now and will run in the range of 50-55 miles per week over the final 8 weeks before the taper. That’s nothing flashy or out of the ordinary. Because then, if I do run that current dream race time that I just may be capable of, I still have room to grow and progress my training.

Linking up with Coaches’ Corner and Wild Workout Wednesday!

Do you agree? Disagree? Has moderate mileage in marathon training worked for you?
What’s your run today?

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25 Responses

  1. Right now I am training at 40 miles per week plus 4 strength/conditioning sessions. I’ve found this to be a good spot for me and if I’m feeling tired or unusually sore I will take extra rest or back off. This is however more mileage than my first marathon training cycle (which looking back I think was too little running) so I could see building mileage if/when I train for a 3rd marathon.

    I couldn’t agree more: it gives me time to strength training which in turn I think is decreasing my risk for injury. It also keeps things interesting. I don’t want to run more than 4 days a week! Haha. I also like the idea of allowing room for future progress – running is definitely something that has forced me to think long term and have more patience!

    1. That’s awesome that you’ve found a good spot! I definitely think having a long-term perspective is good – both in preventing injury and overall health and in allowing for gradual (and more sustainable) improvement.

  2. I got really hung up on weekly mileage when I was marathon training. I was really insecure about it and I constantly felt like I wasn’t doing enough. In the absence of a coach or training plan created for me, all I had was the message that’s been drilled into us that if you want to be faster, you have to run more. My peak mileage for marathon 3 was only 5 miles higher than for marathon 2, but I felt like I NEEDED to get to 60 or I couldn’t possibly run faster. It’s irrational, but, runner brains are often irrational, I’m noticing.

    I think 50-55 is a good sweet spot for me for the marathon peak weeks. For my first marathon I peaked at 42, and I remember feeling like I wasn’t challenged enough and had more to give, plus I faded in the last 10K. During marathon 2 I increased my peak to 55 and I felt much more fit without being overtrained.

    1. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed in marathon training because with blogging and social media we see people running 50 mile weeks for a 5K and 90 mile weeks for a marathon – so it makes us question our training. But then there are some incredible runners who do the moderate mileage and run fast marathons (Laura at Catching my Breath ran a sub-3 with a peak of 60-ish miles? Her blog is so inspiring!). I think it’s an experiment to find that sweet spot of being well-trained but not overtrained – each marathon is an experiment in itself!

  3. So much yes to this! I always stick with the moderate range for my marathon training. I like to cross train and I find this method makes me way less burned out or injury prone. So happy to see a coach advocating for this.

    1. Thank you! High mileage may work for some high-level athletes, but in addition to having the genetics to run fast, they have the genetics that lend to high recovery and injury resilience. For us non-elite runners, we need to prevent that burnout and injury!

  4. YES YES and more YES. I am a living example of this. Granted, my race time slowed a bit with my drop in mileage, but I didn’t just drop mileage–I dropped all my speed, strength and tempo runs too. I’d like to try keeping my mileage at 60 while incorporating some speed/tempo to see what happens!

    1. Yes you are – and it’s incredible! I can’t wait to see what you do when you keep the low mileage but add back in speed and tempo runs. 60 is a good place to be for the 3-3:30 range!

  5. I think it really depends on so many factors. I do think there should be moderation with mileage, but that number will still depend on the level of the runner and other aspects of life at that time. I think my sweet spot is peaking around 50 miles, but I got up to 60+ when I followed Hansons. I was able to handle it at the time, but now my job is just more time consuming and I don’t have the time to put into training that I used to. Maybe part of it is just getting older and not being able to handle the amount of exercises I could a few years ago!

    1. I agree – so many factors do come into play, even when deciding between 40 and 60 miles per week. Job definitely requires balancing running a bit more! I can imagine a busier job means more stress, and stress can affect running. But 50 miles per week for a marathon is still awesome!

  6. I’m a pretty moderate mileage person, and this makes me thing a bit about something that Bri (or Lauren) once said with regards to weight loss: Eat the most amount of calories to still lose weight. Or when it comes to speed workouts: run only as fast as you must to achieve the desired change. If you can achieve the same result with fewer miles, then why risk the injury??

    1. Yes! Exactly! There’s no need to risk injury. If something is too little the first time, better to then improve the second time than to have done too much the first time and not be able to go again.

  7. totally agree with this. I feel like you and I were sort of just talking about this right? I definitely think finding the lowest amount you can train on to get the highest results is best! I am trying that now where I hover around 40 miles a week. I don’t even total my miles in my head, it just seems when I do, I fall around 40. some weeks I do go above but I want to stay at or below. I think I feel my best this way and truthfully, my fastest half before my pr with you was run on less mileage and more cross training!

    1. I thought you would! 🙂 I read somewhere once that it’s not the mileage that should be the end goal, but that each workout should have a specific goal towards the goal race (whether it’s an easy run, long run, etc) and then the mileage should result from that.

  8. I honestly could not agree with this more. I am actually a moderate mileage runner myself and it has worked out really well for me, allowing me to incorporate my strength training and still reach my race goals

  9. Everything in moderation — even moderation! 🙂 It’s definitely tough to gauge when overtraining can begin, especially if you’re coaching someone virtually. Everyone’s moderation is different.

    1. Yes – I’m a big fan of the happy medium approach to even moderation! Virtual training does make it difficult to gauge overtraining, which is why I try to check in frequently with my athletes and talk through how they are feeling.

    1. Thank you! I think it is very smart to balance running and other activities. Not only does it help prevent injury, but moving the body in a variety of ways is important for becoming a better athlete – which then lends to becoming a better runner.

  10. I’ve never done crazy high mileage simply because I found it broke me down too much. I think it definitely depends on the runner, some thrive on the high intensity Hanson and some like me need more LHR and a few more miles.

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