The 20 mile long run is not the only significant factor during marathon training. Weekly mileage is one of the most important factors runners consider when choosing a marathon training plan. You want to run enough miles to prepare yourself for the demands of the marathon, but not to so many miles that you burn out, over train, or get injured.
I followed the Hansons Marathon Method for my first marathon, which left me feeling tired with 60 mile weeks with 16 miles as the longest weekly run. Granted, it’s normal for the first marathon training cycle to feel more tiring because you’re running further than ever before.
When I wrote up my training plan for the California International Marathon (which I start training for next week), I prioritized weekly mileage, but I didn’t elevate it as the ultimate priority as I felt it had been when I used Hansons (cumulative fatigue was the most important principle behind their method).
Rather, as it is when I write up one of any athlete’s training plan, weekly mileage during marathon training is an organic result of numerous factors.
What are the factors to consider when determining average weekly mileage during marathon training?
- Your running background and current fitness
- Your injury risk
- Your marathon goals
- Intensity vs. Volume
- Your schedule
(1) Running Background and Current Fitness
Your running background and current fitness are the primary factors to consider when deciding how many miles per week to run throughout marathon training.
Before you plan out your peak weekly mileage, you must consider what sort of mileage you have been able to handle safely and healthily before in training. Yes, healthily – long-term health matters more than a single race. If every time you exceed run 50 miles per week you experience a stress fracture, then your body can’t handle that mileage.
The 16-20 weeks of marathon training are ideal for increasing your mileage. However, don’t increase too drastically past what you previously handled. If the most you’ve ever run in 35 miles per week, don’t aim to run 70 miles per week. If you’ve been running 30-45 miles consistently for over a year, then you can safely strive for 50-55 miles during your training.
You must also consider time on your feet. One of the reasons elite runners can tolerate weekly mileages upwards of 100 miles per week is because they cover more miles in less time. 10 miles as an easy run isn’t as bad when you consider elites are running that in 75 minutes or less. Most elites also split their daily mileage into two runs per day.
Dr. Jason Karp argued for running by time in a recent podcast interview: “Your legs have no idea what 26.2 miles are… Your body knows two things: how hard it’s working and how long it’s working. So your body senses that it’s working 3 hours at 80% of your VO2max. That’s what your body knows and that’s what represents the stress.”
So instead of always looking at miles, think about time on your feet. If you ran 12 miles or more every day, you would likely spend more time running in any given week than even the elites. When considering how long you want to run on your easy days or quality workout days, consider how much time those miles will take at an appropriate pace – you may be better off running 7-9 miles on your easy days.
(2) Injury Risk
As this Runners Connect article affirms, higher weekly mileage increases your risk of running injury. While running more than just 10 or 15 miles per week does habituate your bones, joints, and muscles better to the stress of running,
Exercise physiologists including Dr. Tim Noakes believe that exceeding 75 miles per week flirts with injury too much and is the point of diminishing returns for most recreational runners training for the marathon distance or shorter. (If you are training for an ultra marathon, the rule of specificity encourages you to up your mileage, but you are doing fewer speed workouts so it balances out the injury risk scales).
(3) Marathon Goals
Your weekly mileage will differ if your primary goal is to finish the marathon versus qualifying for the Boston Marathon. While every runner is different, most runners will find that running more miles per week improves their finish time. Training volume boosts your aerobic fitness and fatigue resistance, both of which are key for running faster over the course of 26.2 miles.
To even complete the marathon distance, it’s advisable that you run at minimum more than 26 miles per week during your peak weeks at training. If you’re doing less than 30 miles per week, cross-training is recommended as well. For more experienced runners, 40 miles or more per week is recommended to build your marathon specific fitness (unless, of course, injury history or health issues deter you from running this volume).
(4) Intensity vs. Volume
55 miles of easy running in one week accumulates less fatigue and places less stress upon the body than a 55-mile week that includes a VO2max workout, tempo run, and long run. There are numerous physiological benefits to running faster, including improved aerobic capacity, increased fatigue resistance, and a higher lactate threshold, so you should not neglect these types of workouts just in order to run more mileage for the sake of mileage.
This is where each runner must self-assess past training and find what works uniquely for them. Each of us thrives on a particular balance of endurance, speed, strength, and mobility/flexibility training.
Each runner’s ability to balance intensity and volume varies, so you must find this balance through trial and error – and perhaps a knowledgeable running coach.
(5) Your Schedule
Overtraining occurs due to a lack of recovery. When you consider that many high-mileage elites spend their free time recovering from running, it makes even more sense how they can tolerate mileage that would injure many of us.
If you are marathon training during a busy time at work/school or you have young children at home, you must account for how work and family will factor in as well. You can’t ignore these things in order to run 70 miles per week, nor should you borrow the time out from sleep (because you need sleep to recover!). It sounds like common sense, but we have all experienced times in our lives where we try to take on too much and end up like too little nut butter spread over too many apple slices – worn thin.
The number of days you run will also determine your weekly mileage during marathon training. For example, renowned coaches including Pete Pftizinger and Brad Hudson recommend not exceeding approximately 55 miles if you 5 days per week.
Whether you run 35 or 70 miles per week in marathon training, always remember to increase your weekly mileage safely
How many miles per week have your run during marathon or half marathon training?
What’s your biggest obstacle when it comes to increasing your running mileage?
I don’t put a HUGE amount of emphasis on overall weekly mileage for my clients, but rather go by the ratio of long runs to the rest of the collection and % of hard miles and easy miles. I have several clients who only run 3 days a week, so I have to be crafty with that!
Running three times per week is tricky when it comes to marathon training – but doable. Weekly mileage definitely isn’t an end in itself – it comes out of those other factors!
Oh this is such a debate! Haha. I did my first marathon on 3 runs per week and 4 strength/conditioning days and I did fine! Though who knows, it may have been faster had I run more. This time around, I’m adding in 1 more running day… but it’s hard to fit everything in. Fortunately, my body feels OK so far!
It is hard to fit it all in! Strength gets pushed to the side during marathon training for many people, although that’s okay if it’s a focus during non-marathon training seasons. Glad you’re feeling okay so far on 4 days a week!
And this is why you’re such a great coach! For my very first half marathon I was so worried about getting in X number of miles, but I’ve learned over the years that I need to be more careful about building up since I am injury prone. I’m hoping I can get a spring half marathon in this year and work with you again, especially since you’re so great at coming up with plans to suit my needs and taste!
Awwww, thank you, Jen! I really do hope you heal up well and we can work together for your spring half, I enjoyed training you so much! I hope your foot is healing up well also!
such an informative post! love it. i slowly over time increased my daily runs which increased my weekly mileage. i don’t aim for a weekly total yet always fall around the same amount of miles! i haven’t trained for a marathon before (as you know) so i don’t even know what i would increase to if i were to finally train for one. i could probably add in a few extra miles to my week but eh, right now this feels right and healthy.
Thank you! Probably if you did a marathon you’d just increase your long run where you’re at right now. But what feels right and healthy matters the most!
I like what that Jason Karp said. Makes a lot of sense to me, and it’s something not a lot of newer runners think about. My weekly mileage has hovered around 80-100 miles per week since 2011 with the exception of being pregnant and Callum’s first year. It’s too much for me for too long, so now I’m down to 50-60 miles. MUCH BETTER.
I agree – it’s really not something many of us think about, but then elites are finishing marathons in an hour or more faster than most of us. I’m glad you’re doing well at 50-60 miles! And I heard in your podcast that you may be doing a certain marathon near us, and I’m fairly certain with your new mileage and higher intensity workouts you’re probably going to kick its butt.
This is very interesting. I’ve always based my miles mostly on injury prevention and schedule. I feel I get burnt out with too many days of running but I do want to improve my time so I think I’ll have to ramp up my running in my next training cycle.
Everyone has their own tolerance for days of running – very few people can run 6-7 days per week! More mileage is a good way to improve time for the marathon – but just a little bit can go a long way, especially in avoiding injury.
This is why you’re such an awesome coach! Taking all factors into account is key, since everything is interrelated – how hard your body is working, for how long, with how much rest and recovery in between.
Thank you, Alyssa! Everything is interrelated – running never happens in a vacuum!
I feel my biggest obstacle to increasing my weekly mileage is time. Mentally, I really feel I am at a point where I would like to run a marathon, but in order to maintain my cross-training & balanced time with my family, I really do not know when/where/how I would add much more to my current weekly mileage. Most weeks, I will average ~15-20 miles. That feels so low compared to many others, but that is just how it ends up. At this point in my life, even if my son drives me batty, the time with he & my boyfriend are too important….and I am not ready to get up at 5am on the weekend to head out the door for a 16 mile run just so I do not take up our entire day. I do think my body could handle 30-35 miles / week relatively easily, though.
Time is a challenge for everyone. Many runners I know are well familiar with 5 am runs and trying to balance family, work, and running. 5 am (even on the weekends!) is when I get up most days to get in hiking, running, work, family time, and volunteering. When you want to make something happen, you make it happen – so if you want to, you can do it!
Thanks for this great post. I am trying to figure out (well I’m always trying to figure out… haha) the best “peak” weekly mileage for me and right now, I’m in this very early stage of training. I gave myself ample time to train instead of trying to fit it in the 20-week window because I know myself- I need some “wiggle” room for burning out/injuries/sickness… like you said, life happens and with kids you never know what will happen. I am enjoying these normal runs during the week lately and trying to do one long run on a weekend for now. I think the main struggle for me is to be able to actually “enjoy” a long run. Right now, my weekly mileage is in the 20-30 miles range.
Thank you! It’s good to have some wiggle room – inevitably during a training cycle there’s bound to be illness, travel, or just crazy weeks that make running more difficult. Enjoying the long runs is definitely part of the journey of marathon training – it doesn’t come easily, but over time they get better.
I am definitely a higher mileage runner, but I make sure to alternate my hard days with *very* easy recovery runs. Marathon training is such an art!
Yes! Very, very easy miles are the key to handling mileage – I’m a huge fan of polarized paces in training. Marathon training is such an art and a science – and an ever-changing one from training cycle to training cycle at that!
My last half marathon training cycle I worked up to about 25 miles a week – I plan to do about the same for 10K training this fall, then probably work up to 30-35 for the next half. My biggest obstacle to increasing mileage is mental burnout – if it starts to feel like I’m running so much that there’s no time (and/or energy!) left for other physical activities I enjoy, I start to lose interest in training.
30-35 miles is a great goal for the half! Mental burnout is a huge obstacle for mileage – that feeling of just everything being running, running, recovering from running, and running more is exhausting and at times discouraging. Cutback weeks and step cycles (like, one week at 35, one week at 25, repeat) help prevent that burnout significantly.
Last year I trained with only 4 days of running and now I am doing great at 5 days. I’ve increased my weekly mileage since last year and I’m feeling great. I think in the past I wasn’t very successful with a higher mileage (for me) because I was cramming to much into 4 days and was training at the wrong intensity. I’ve got a more solid aerobic base and keep my easy days easy now. My goal for this year is to have one 50 mile week and my training plan includes three. I’m feeling confident 🙂
Adding a day is definitely an easier way to add in mileage rather than adding more onto a daily run – and keeping those easy days easy is key! A 50 mile week is a fantastic goal – best of luck on achieving it! 🙂
It is SUCH a balancing act. What works for one person, doesn’t work for another. And, I might add, what works for one client during one training cycle might not work for the very same person for the next cycle. Which is another reason I don’t like to give out plans more than two weeks in advance. I find it can be a mind game when it’s not necessary.
I agree – what works for one race won’t work for another race. I only write plans one month or week at a time for that reason!
So many great points, Laura! It really does vary so much based on the individual and what your body can tolerate. I tend to flirt with injury around 50-55 miles and hold back from that volume a bit, but try to add more cross training instead. But I have friends who run every day with no issues at all. I had to learn early on not to compare to what others were doing but listen to what my body was telling me.
Thank you, Laura! Cross-training is a great option for adding in extra mileage without actually running the mileage. The comparison trap doesn’t do any of us any good!