For a majority of runners, running higher mileage is beneficial. Noticeable performance gains occur when you run enough to develop a robust aerobic base. However, it is not just higher mileage that improves performance. Performance gains come from consistently sustaining higher mileage. One month of high mileage followed by months of injury will not yield any benefits to your running.
High mileage is relative. For an elite, 100 miles per week is high mileage; but we are not elites. For most recreational runners, higher mileage is 40-60 miles per week. This itself is a large range since individual runners tolerate mileage differently based on genetics, injury history, schedule, and other factors.
For the sake of this article, high mileage refers to running more mileage than you previously did – without reaching the point of running too much your body’s ability to recover. If you used to run 20-25 miles per week, then 35 miles per week may be high mileage; if you previously ran 35 miles per week, then 45-50 miles per week is high mileage for you.
If you are consistently getting injured, feeling burnt out, or simply not enjoying it, you are running too many miles. A big part of running higher mileage is enjoying it. No one runs well when they are miserable. It’s better to run a 35-mile week and thrive in it than struggle through a 50-mile week.
Vary Your Runs
You could run a 50-mile week off of six days of 8.3 miles every day. But that approach is monotonous, doesn’t optimize training, and increases injury risk. To sustainably run higher mileage, you need variety of both intensity and duration.
Avoid the trap of junking out your miles due to running every run at the same pace. For higher mileage runners, roughly 80-90% of your mileage will be done at an easy pace. Most of these runs will be 45-75 minutes in duration. The other 10-20% will come from quality workouts, such fartlek runs, tempo runs, and hill workouts. Very short top-end speed intervals such as strides and hill sprints are key components also.
If you are running high mileage, the long run is essential every week. Physiologically speaking, the long run is any run exceeding 90 minutes in duration. A long run compromises roughly 25-35% of your weekly mileage when you are running higher mileage. (Low mileage runners may have a long run up to 50% of their weekly mileage.)
Varying your route is almost as important as varying intensity. Run flatter routes some days and hillier routes other days.
What does that all look like in an actual training week?
Monday: Rest day
Tuesday: 70-80 minute quality workout
Wednesday: 60 minutes easy
Thursday: 60-75 minutes easy plus strides or surges
Friday: 40-55 minutes easy
Saturday: 2 hour long run
Sunday: 60 minutes plus strides or hill sprints
Take a Weekly Rest Day
Without appropriate rest, you will not adapt to your training. Hopefully, the reason you are running higher mileage is for performance, and therefore adaptation matters. The more stress you apply (ie the more mileage you run), the more recovery you need.
Rest days are a vital part of that recovery. One day of complete rest from running, lifting, and structured aerobic cross-training allows your musculoskeletal system to recover from the impact of running. It encourages adaptation and long-term growth. It even balances out hormones such as cortisol (which can be too high without rest and recovery). A rest day also just provides a mental refresh from the grind of daily mileage.
Yes, elite runners do not take weekly rest days. However, it is important to (1) not interpolate from outliers and (2) recognize that when not training, they spend most time recovering. Elite runners are genetic outliers, with remarkable resiliency to training. They also spend massive amounts of time each week foam rolling, in the sauna, getting massages, sleeping, etc.
Eat and Hydrate Enough!
If you want to maintain higher mileage, you need to eat enough to support it. Simple as that. If you feel tired, sluggish on runs, or irritable, consider eating more and seeing how that affects your energy levels.
Calories in a day are not all that matter; within-day energy availability is important. Essentially, you want to make sure you are eating enough throughout the entire day, not consuming all of your calories in the evening after eating peckishly early in the day. More and more research (such as this March 2020 review in Nutrients) finds that within-day energy deficiency affects overall health and athletic performance.
If you are running for weight loss, you still do not want to restrict calories when you are increasing and adapting to high mileage. Pay close attention to the quality of your food but do not deprive yourself. (For what it is worth, if you are running for weight loss, high mileage may not be the best approach.)
Take Cutback Weeks
Cutback weeks are the secret sauce to maintaining high mileage without injury or burnout. From a physiological perspective, cutback weeks encourage adaptation and recovery. From a mental perspective, you are more likely to be consistent with higher mileage if you run a lower mileage week every few weeks. Here’s how to effectively incorporate cutback weeks into your training.
Strength Train for Performance
A strong runner is more resilient to the impact of running – and therefore less prone to injury. The theory is simple: the stronger your muscles are, the less excessive break down they incur under the impact forces of running. A combination of both weight lifting (to improve durability) and mobility work (to decrease biomechanical irregularities leading to injury) lends to consistent high mileage running.
Do Not Treat Mileage as an End in Itself
Your weekly running mileage should not be an end in itself. Each run within that week should still have a purpose. Mileage alone does not prepare you for most running goals; you need to focus on running economy, speed development, lactate threshold, and strength training as well. You need to allow enough time for sleep.
More mileage is not always better. You may have more success running 45 miles per week than 55 miles per week if it allows you to sleep, have a rest day, strength train, and spend time with family. You will manage high mileage for longer – which is the goal! – if you find what you can consistently sustain rather than obsessing over an exact number each week.
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How do you maintain your weekly mileage?