One of the biggest variables in a training plan is the frequency of runs. Some plans include only three days of running. Some have six to seven days of running per week. Many fall in between four to five days. How do you know what is right for you? Many factors can determine how often you should run. This article delves into those factors to help you determine your optimal training frequency.
How Often Should You Run?
A 2021 study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that weekly training volume – mostly through easy runs – is a key determinant of long-distance running performance. More frequent training sessions encourage a higher weekly training volume, which then produces better aerobic capacity and endurance. (Of course, there is a point of diminishing returns unique for each athlete.) From the standpoint of exercise science, running more often is clearly beneficial.
However, recreational and sub-elite runners do not live in a controlled environment that studies occur in (even those using the practice of world-class athletes). Training for the non-elite runner must bridge from training theory to a training plan that can be balanced with all the demands of everyday life. Factors such as work, life demands, and injury risk all influence how many days per week a recreational runner can run.
You want to find the optimal balance of running enough to support the demands of your race, without training more than your body or schedule can handle. That answer will vary for every athlete – and sometimes, even vary for individual runners in different seasons of life.
If You are Injury Prone (or Returning from Injury)…
Generally speaking, injury-prone runners fare best when they run three to four days per week. Other days can be devoted to aerobic cross-training and/or strength training. Very injury-prone runners may need two rest days per week.
The same applies in the first few weeks of returning from injury or postpartum. As your body readapts to the musculoskeletal demands, avoid running on consecutive days for a few weeks. (Here’s more on how to safely return to running after an injury.)
If You are Time-Crunched…
The normal answer is to run only three days per week if you are short on time. That approach is great for general health and fitness!
However, if you are a time-crunched athlete with race goals, you may find that doing four to five days of mostly shorter runs (and one long run) better supports your goals. The approach of more frequent, shorter workouts allows you to train at higher mileage with less time commitment each day.
For example, if you wanted to run 25 miles per week, you could do 6-7 miles twice in the workweek and 10+ on the weekend. However, if you run 4-5 miles three times in the week and 10+ miles on the weekend, you can get in the same or more mileage each week with less time commitment on any individual weekday.
If You Have Big Running Goals…
Unless you have increased injury risks, time commitments, or health reasons, most runners with big goals will thrive with five to six days a week. This is especially true if your goals involve racing a marathon, completing an ultra, or qualifying for the Boston Marathon.
Training frequency and volume do impact performance in long-distance races. A 202 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports concluded that a training volume of 20 miles (32 km) or more per week improved finish times in the half marathon. The same study reported that marathon runners perform best with 40 miles (65 km) per week or more. Running five or more times per week makes those weekly mileages more manageable and effective.
That said, I coach plenty of runners who race marathons and even qualify for Boston with four days of running per week. If you do run four days per week while chasing big goals, you may choose to add cross-training once or twice per week. Cross-training on the bike, in the pool, or on the elliptical increases aerobic volume without stressing the musculoskeletal system.
If You are Training for a Triathlon…
Triathlons are different than traditional road race training. Triathlon training involves lots of volume of the bike and in the pool. The two other disciplines mean you likely spend less time running, even if your overall training volume is very high. Most triathletes successfully can complete half ironman and Ironman distances with three to four days of running per week.
Do Not Neglect a Weekly Rest Day
Many elite runners do train seven days per week (and often include double runs across those seven days). However, that practice does not apply to recreational runners. Elites spend most of their non-training time recovering. Recreational runners spend that time working, and therefore need more recovery included in their plan on a weekly basis.
Rest days mean rest: not cross-training, doing recovery run, or strength training. Rest days allow your body to replenish glycogen stores, calm the central nervous system, synthesize muscle protein, and lower stress hormones. While a few outliers can run without regular rest days, most runners find that a weekly rest day enhances their adaptation and decreases their injury risk.