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