One of the simplest ways to improve as a runner is to run more. When executed smartly, increasing your weekly running mileage will make you a stronger, faster runner. When done incorrectly, ramping up your mileage will cause overuse injuries, lead to overtraining, and mentally burn you out before you even toe the starting line of your goal race. The key is to focus on a smart, sustainable approach to increasing mileage – and here is how to implement that in your training.
Why Increase Mileage?
While we do not often view it in such a context, running is a skill sport. An elite runs faster, further, and more efficiently than a novice not because of genetics (although genetics can be a factor in VO2max) but because of training. The more hours you devote to running in a week, the more opportunity you have to practice the skill of running. Your stride becomes smoother, your musculoskeletal system becomes more resilient, your neuromuscular pathways communicate more efficiently, and your heart can pump more oxygen to your muscles.
Higher mileage improves your running economy, increases fatigue resistance, and builds endurance. The higher your volume, the more intensity you can safely handle. For many runners, it is simply enjoyable to run more, especially as you adapt and become more efficient and comfortable. Chances are, running feels better when you consistently run 30 miles per week compared to 10 miles per week.
Higher mileage is in relation to your training. It does not matter how many miles your training partner or someone on Instagram runs, even if they run similar race times. Increasing mileage does not mean trying to run as many miles as possible per week. Not every runner will thrive running 60 or even 40 miles per week. You want to aim for sustainable growth over time. If you can increase from 15 miles to 25 or 35 miles to 40, you will improve as a runner.
Increasing your mileage will yield significant gains if you are running lower mileage (twenty miles or fewer per week). If you carefully build from 10-15 miles per week to 25-30 miles, you will be faster and have more endurance, even without any speedwork. For runners who already run a good amount of mileage, a consistent increase of even just 5-10 miles more per week can lead to breakthroughs.
When to Increase Mileage
Base building is the ideal time to increase your weekly running mileage. If you can increase your year-round base mileage, you improve your aerobic base. The bigger the base, the more mileage you can in turn handle during specific race training.
If you are not maintaining higher mileage outside of race training, the first quarter to third of your training cycle should focus primarily on increasing mileage. Your mileage will naturally increase in the peak weeks of training, but those should not be the biggest jumps in mileage.
Let’s take the example of marathon training. If you want to run 45-50 miles per week for most of your marathon training, you should increase your mileage to approximately 35-40 miles per week by week 4-6 of training (depending on the duration of your training cycle. From there, you focus more on intensity by adding marathon specific workouts and your longest long runs.
However, if you really wanted to run a big marathon PR, you would benefit the most from increasing mileage before marathon training begins. If you could consistently run 40-45 miles per week for months, you would start marathon training with a huge base of fitness. You likely would be able to handle 50-60 miles per week with quality workouts. The result would be a strong training cycle with minimal burnout – and a strong, fast race.
How to Increase Weekly Mileage
If there is one rule to increasing mileage, it is this: do not get greedy. Take your time. Focus on small increases first. Rapidly increasing from 20 to 50 miles per week results in injury or overtraining. Gradually increasing from 30 to 45 miles per week leads to sustainable growth.
The common rule of thumb is to increase your weekly running mileage by 10-15% every week (except cutback weeks). This method generally works well, although it is not infallible nor universal. Increasing by 10-15% per week may work well for runners who tolerate mileage well and are already running a higher volume per week.
Another approach is the equilibrium method, popularized by renowned coach Jack Daniels. Rather than increasing incrementally each week, this method increases mileage by 15-25% and then maintains that mileage for 3-4 weeks. You then take a cutback week before jumping up again. The purpose is to allow your body to adapt to the stress of higher volume before adding additional training stressors. This approach benefits injury-prone runners and low mileage runners.
For example, if you’re currently running 35 miles per week, increase your mileage (while keeping most of your miles at an easy pace or slightly decreasing the volume of your usual hard runs) to 40 miles. Stay in your new range for a few weeks and return to your normal intensity after the first full week of increased volume. After 3-4 weeks at this new volume, back off of your intensity and increase your mileage again, this time from 40 miles to 45 miles.
When you are rebuilding mileage to previous levels after a short reduction, you can increase at a faster rate than when achieving a new weekly mileage for the first time. For example, as an off-season or a brief layoff due to injury (up to eight weeks), you can increase back to 50% of your normal mileage and then 75% within a few weeks. (Read this post for more detail on how to safely return from an injury.) If injury, pregnancy, or burnout required you to take more than eight weeks off of running or you have only been running low mileage for more than a couple months, you want to increase more cautiously.
Too much stress increases risk of injury and hinders adaptations. Stress in running takes the form of volume and intensity. If you increase one, you must account for the other. Your ability to recover, injury risk, and even the phase of training also impact the mileage-intensity balance.
It is always, always better to do less than more. If you can, temporarily decrease intensity when significantly increasing your mileage.
The more you are increasing your mileage, the less intensity you should run. If you are focused on a large increase (such as building from 25 miles per week up to 40), you should temporarily decrease thee intensity and run almost all easy miles. If you are focused on small increases (such as building from 40 to 50 miles per week during marathon training), you can include quality workouts. The training phase matters also; if you are base building, focus on easy miles. If you are preparing to run your goal race of the year, you can include more intensity.
Leg speed workouts (primarily strides and surges) will maintain neuromuscular fitness. These workouts do not place tremendous stress on the body. The overall volume of these is so low (less than 10 minutes total per week). Once you are adapted to your new training volume, then gradually re-introduce speedwork.
Take Frequent Cutback Weeks
You should be sure to include cutback weeks when you increase your volume. Cutback weeks are deliberate reductions in mileage, by anywhere from 15-50%. Cutback weeks allow you to recover and fully adapt to your new training load. Whether you are gradually increasing each week or following the equilibrium method, cutback weeks are a necessity.
Focus on Progress, Not Perfection
Hiccups happen in training. You may need to take a few days off due to illness, a niggle, or work/life demands. You want to resist the temptation to cram miles into a few days to still achieve a weekly goal. If you need time off, take it and let your mileage decrease that week. The focus should be on a sustainable build over time, not hitting an exact number of miles per week at all costs.
Assess How You Respond
Assess your training frequently. Are you being cautious by gradually increasing your weekly mileage and taking the right steps to recover well? Are your runs feeling good or are you feeling chronically fatigued? Do you feel excited to run most days or dread it?
Any increases to mileage should improve your running. Improvements are not just theoretical race day performances (such as thinking you need to run 70 miles per week to run a good marathon, even if it leaves you feeling like crap in your training). You should enjoy most of your runs. A majority of your runs should feel good. If you feel sluggish, constantly tired, or begin to dread training, then you want to decrease your mileage. No runner has ever raced well off of overtraining.
How do you increase your running mileage?
Do you run better off of higher or lower mileage (for you)?