Distance runners can become fixated on weekly mileage, often to their detriment, says Matt Long
Racking up the miles is part and parcel of developing the aerobic energy system for any endurance athlete. But there are two opposite schools of thought about how best it should be done.
One camp insists that training should involve a high volume of work designed to overload the system, the other camp that ‘less is more’ –the quality of what you do is far more important than the quantity.
So just how much does mileage really matter? Are you doing more or less than is necessary? There is no straightforward answer and much depends on your genetics and individual strengths and weaknesses. But to help pick your way through the maze of training advice, we’ve consulted four leading experts for the ultimate advice. They are:
» Spencer Duval: represented GB in the steeplechase at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He is now England Athletics national coach mentor lead – endurance.
» Andy Butchart: impressed greatly with his sixth place in the Rio Olympic 5000m.
» Pippa Woolven (pictured): has been a regular GB international of late over the country.
» Charlie Spedding: famously bagged a London marathon victory and Olympic bronze in 1984. He now manages the website: loseamillionpounds.com.
Their collective wisdom leaves us with eight golden rules to follow.
Rule 1 – Avoid junk mileage
“Mileage does matter but only appropriate mileage,” says Duval. “Being efficient and capable of sustaining a certain pace is more important”.
Woolven agrees: “I try not to get too hung up on it. I don’t really believe in doing ‘junk miles’”.
Rule 2 – Periodise your training
This is something many athletes get wrong. Yet periodising your training into distinct blocks and tapering before competition will help with your long-term development.
“On average I do more miles in the winter,” Butchart says. “We still do high mileage in summer but it’s less frequent as we cut it down for the track races.”
Woolven agrees that mileage is important, especially in the winter months. “If I can build up a solid endurance base with some consistent training before Christmas then I find it usually sets me up well,” she says.
Rule 3 – Mileage to facilitate recovery
Not all miles must be run at significant pace. What’s key, says Duval, is to remember that your miles can have a different focus.
“Slower mileage is needed to aid recovery and speed up the body’s adaptation to intense workouts,” he says. In essence, steady aerobic work sets you up for higher intensity training achieved through speed and speed endurance work which is more dependent on the lactate and ATP-CP energy systems.
Rule 4 – Build a mileage component into speed and strength endurance sessions
This is where you can get clever with your miles.
“Mileage can be incorporated into specific workouts to enable athletes to keep higher mileage up if they are time poor and can only train once a day,” Duval says.
For example, a 10min warm-up, then 15-20min threshold run, then straight into an interval session either on roads or the track, followed by a 15-20min threshold and 10min cool down”.
Spedding, author of the cult endurance autobiography From Last To First, says that even when training for the marathon, he added 5x1600m with 400m in 90sec as the recovery.
Woolven adds that the kind of aerobic development facilitated by high mileage can be achieved within sessions that build other components of fitness, such as strength endurance. “I think hill reps can be really useful to build strength and, when combined with some blocks of tempo, make a good session,” she says.
Rule 5 – Don’t become a slave to mileage
So many athletes fall into this trap, says Spedding. Yet an obsession with clocking miles can result in injury.
“I used to run between 70-80 miles per week when I was running 5km and 10km on the track,” Spedding says. “This included a 20-mile run almost every week. I suffered from a lot of Achilles tendon problems during my track career and didn’t want to push the mileage too high in case it increased my injuries.”
An obsession with mileage can lead to psychological as well as physiological staleness, Woolven warns. “Cross country in the UK can be a long season though so if I obsessed over mileage too much then I think I’d start to suffer,” she says.
Mileage should be a means to an end rather than an end in itself. “When I trained for the marathon, I tried to do a six-week spell of between 100-110 miles per week, which ended three weeks before the race,” Spedding says. “I say tried because I rarely managed to achieve it.”
Rule 6 – Know when to back off
“If I felt unwell or sore or simply too tired I would back off the miles,” says Spedding. “I always felt it was better to miss a few miles than to risk a serious problem. I always regarded certain sessions as much more important than that extra five-mile run that gets me to the mileage target.
“I wonder if runners now are too fixated on high mileage. Are they willing to back off if they have a niggle or a sore throat? It’s crucial to do that.”
Rule 7 – Cross training
Substituting additional miles with another activity can be beneficial. Woolven says her aim during the winter months is to hit 70 miles per week, yet “some years it’s been higher – around 80 miles – and some years more like 50-60 miles”.
This winter she says she’s been hitting around 60 miles per week with a packed racing schedule.
“But I’ve also been substituting a couple of runs for some cycling,” Woolven says. “I’d far rather jump on the bike as a substitute for an easy run if I feel like I’d benefit more from it”.
Rule 8 – Athlete-centredness
Our physiological make-ups are vastly different and to improve we need diverse modes of training. “Every athlete is different,” says Butchart. “Some of us can cope with high mileage and some prefer the strength and conditioning side of training.
“I always think the sooner you can work out what works best for you the better. Do what works for you and stick to it.”
Individuality is highly important. “There is no set amount of mileage that produces winners as athletes are all different,” Duval agrees. “Some thrive on 150 miles per week, but others do just as well on 70 miles per week.”
What’s vital is determining your uppermost limit. “Finding your most beneficial mileage, and running up to it but not beyond it, is crucial,” says Spedding.
» Matt Long is an England Athletics coach education tutor and Midlands cell lead for the national coach development programme (youth)