Running is a skill sport. The more you run, the better of a runner you become. Up until a certain point, running more miles per week will make you a better runner. But how do you know what that point is? How many miles should you run per week?
First, it is vital to recognize individual variations. Factors including genetics, injury background and risk, training background, work and life stress and schedules, gender, medical conditions, sleep, and nutrition must be considered.
Second, think of mileage beyond races. Oftentimes, runners view mileage in relation to a single race. They will aim to run 30-mile weeks for a half marathon or 50 mile weeks for a marathon, but then drop down their mileage to a mere fraction of that between races. However, framing of your mileage beyond the context of races leads to long-term growth. Aerobic development breakthroughs come from consistent weekly mileage. If you can run 30 miles per week for a majority of the year, your half marathon time will be faster than if you only ran 30 miles in the weeks leading up to a race.
You will experience breakthroughs when you safely increase your mileage. If you build from 15 miles per week to 25, from 30 miles per week to 40, and even from 40 miles per week to 50, you will find yourself becoming a faster, stronger runner. But that does not mean every runner will thrive under 50 miles per week.
Let’s examine some of the factors to consider in determining exactly how many miles you should run per week.
Balance Your Intensity
If you pace most of your runs at a moderate effort, you will likely struggle to maintain a higher mileage. Slow down and run easy. You can define easy either subjectively (comfortable enough to carry on a conversation) or objectively (65-75% of max heart rate or ~70-80% of your 10K race pace). Easy effort facilitates both aerobic development and recovery. If you struggle to run a certain mileage, you may be running too many of your miles at too high of an effort.
During a base-building phase, make almost all of your miles easy. This will aid in adaptation; after a base-building phase, you will likely notice how much more comfortable you feel at higher mileage.
Even beyond doing most of your runs easy, intensity matters in determining mileage. Training load is a balance of intensity and volume. To keep the training scales in balance, you do not want to push your training load beyond what you can recover from.
The more intensity you run, the fewer miles per week you will run as well. This approach is practiced even at the elite level; elite 5K runners run fewer miles per week than elite marathoners. On a recreational level, a runner training for 5Ks and 10Ks will generally run a lower weekly mileage (with more demanding of workouts) than a runner training for a marathon or a 50K. (That is not to say that speed-focused runners should only run low mileage; they will still benefit from aerobic development.)
What Can You Maintain Consistently?
In the book The Happy Runner, coach David Roche summarizes the most effective approach to training in a single sentence: “Consistent beats epic because epic is not consistent.” Maybe you can hit an epic mileage (whatever that is for you). In peak training, that epic may be appropriate, because peak training is not what you are trying to maintain consistently. However, when looking at weekly mileage for a majority of the year, what is sustainable for you?
For example, 60 miles per week is epic for many recreational runners. Maybe they can sustain it for a peak week or two, but in the long term such training load is time-consuming and exhausting. Without proper recovery, the high mileage could lead to a cycle of injuries or burnout (see more about recovery as a factor below). The combination of injury and inconsistency would negate any benefits of that particular mileage.
Instead, think about what you can maintain consistently. Consistently means throughout the majority of the year; you will have lower mileage for recovery and higher mileage in the eight weeks to twelve weeks of specific training for a race. If you can maintain 40 miles per week consistently, that goes much farther for improvement than big weeks of 60 miles followed by months of burnout or injury.
If it helps, think of your mileage in terms of months and years, not weeks. A long-term perspective begets long-term growth.
Think Time on your Feet
Recreational runners vary immensely in their paces. As a coach, I work with runners who run anywhere from 5:45 min/mile to 15:00 min/mile pace for the 5K, which translates to anywhere from a 7:45/mile to a 18:00/mile for an easy run pace. The same weekly mileage would look radically different for those different runners.
Generally speaking, faster runners can handle higher mileage because it takes them less time. A fifty-mile week would be sustainable and realistic for a runner whose easy pace is 8:00/mile (covering 7 miles in under an hour); for a runner with an easy pace of 12:30/mile (covering 7 miles in closer to 1.5 hours), it would be too time-consuming and less beneficial.
Think of your mileage in the context of training hours per week. After all, the body does not know mileage; it knows time on feet and intensity. Physiological adaptations come from training for a certain amount of time, such as half an hour, one hour, and two hours. Two runners can both benefit from training for seven hours per week, even if one achieves a weekly mileage of 35 and the other of 50 miles per week.
When considering your weekly mileage, think in terms of time on your feet. The same weekly mileage will look very different for runners of different paces. Do not fall into a comparison trap. Do not think you have to run x miles per week to improve; focus on the number of hours per week spent running.
Do You Enjoy the Process?
Many runners thrive both physically and mentally with higher amounts of mileage. That does not mean every runner enjoys high mileage. From coaching experience, I see numerous runners who physically and mentally thrive on moderate mileage with about four runs per week. If you hate high mileage, you will come to hate running – and no runner runs well when they start to resent the sport.
How Well Do You Recover?
Sixty miles per week may work great for your friend with older kids, no commute, and the ability to sleep 8 hours every night. However, you want to look at your current circumstances. How many hours of sleep do you consistently get? Are you are chasing a toddler all day or on your feet at work? Do you have a long commute or a stressful job?
Mileage should never come at the sacrifice of sleep. Runners need seven to nine hours of sleep to recover from training. Without recovery, you lose the ability to fully adapt to training.
Do not sacrifice rest days or cutback weeks either in favor of mileage. Take at least one rest day per week – a true, real rest day from high-intensity or high-impact exercise. If you think you are getting injured from mileage, look at what you are doing on your rest days. Cutback weeks also support adaptation and recovery, thus helping you maintain consistent mileage.
Make Time for Supplemental Training
Your mileage should permit supplemental training. If you run all the miles yet neglect strength training, mobility work, and foam rolling, then you play with fire. High mileage without supplemental training can reinforce poor form and increase injury risk.
If time is a factor (which it is for many runners), be sure to allow time for strength training and mobility work in your weekly schedule. You will benefit more from 35 miles per week with two strength sessions and daily foam rolling than you will from 45 miles per week with no supplemental training. (Here is how to fit it all in!)
As you can see, numerous factors go into determining how many miles you should run per week. Your stage of life will even affect mileage; you may find one year you can handle higher weekly mileage, then you need to scale back, before building again. Listen to your body, but also do not be afraid to challenge yourself.
Whether you want to run more mileage to complete your first marathon or half marathon, competitively race, run faster, or simply unlock your full potential as a runner, I can help you! Email me at [email protected] or contact me via my coaching services page.
How do you decide how many miles to run per week?
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