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When runners start paying attention to their mileage, this simple sport tends to get a bit murky. You may find yourself wondering: Am I running enough? Too much? Should I be matching what my friends are doing? How do I determine the best volume for me and my goals?
While none of those questions have clear-cut answers, there are some helpful ways to think about them. Here, two coaches with a solid grasp on this volume conundrum share their perspectives and offer advice for other runners and coaches searching for that elusive mileage sweet spot.
What Does Optimal Mileage Mean?
Many runners assume that optimal mileage refers to the highest load they can handle without getting hurt. Shawn Bearden, PhD, a professor of physiology at Idaho State University who runs an exercise science lab as well as the Science of Ultra podcast and website, sees it differently. He defines optimal mileage as “the distance that results in the greatest gains in capacity for your goals within the context of your life.” Even if more mileage yields greater physiological gains, if it also erodes other parts of your life that matter, then it’s not optimal. “To be optimal,” he says, “it must also be sustainable in the context of a fulfilled and happy life.”
Nell Rojas, a running and strength coach in Boulder, CO, and the 9th place finisher in the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials, adds that a person’s ideal volume is a fluid concept. For both Rojas and her athletes, it “will ebb and flow systematically” over the course of a year. During a base phase, for example, when building strength and running on tired legs are primary goals, optimal mileage may mean the highest weeks that they’ll log all season. As they add in workouts and intensity, what’s considered optimal will likely decrease by 10–15% to allow for quicker reps and recovery times.
What Does Optimal Mileage Look Like in Practice?
Currently, Rojas — who won the 2019 Grandma’s Marathon in 2:28:06 — feels comfortable hovering between 85–95 miles per week. In that window, she knows she can stay healthy, recover well, execute workouts, and stress her aerobic and skeletomuscular systems enough to yield training adaptations that translate to positive race performances. Rojas has gradually bumped up that range since high school and expects to continue doing so as her marathoning career progresses.
Looking at runners in general, Bearden has found that most people seem to do well with weekly volumes of 50–80 miles, or roughly 8–12 hours of running. That is, if you have gradually built to that volume with years of consistent training, and your current life supports that commitment.
What Factors Should Go into Mileage?
When trying to pinpoint the most appropriate mileage for you, Bearden suggests starting with the amount of time you have to train each day. This should not be a goal number, but a realistic one that you can reliably devote to running. From there, Bearden says, “We use as much of that time as they can handle each day such that the weekly volume is recoverable, to where they can repeat that volume indefinitely.”
Rarely does a person have excess time available for training. For them, Bearden builds their volume until the natural pace of their easy runs show signs of plateauing. “At that point,” he says, “We focus more attention on the hills and speed work for a while until it looks like easy runs are getting a little bit quicker.” They may then bump up mileage a bit and reevaluate.
Rojas lists a host of other factors that should be accounted for when determining one’s mileage: race distance (are you training for a 5K or a marathon?); history (of injury, volume, and races off of different volumes); motivation (since sustainability is critical); time (for both running but also mobility, strength work, and rest/recovery needed to support all the running); and runner type. For that last variable, Rojas explains, “Fast-twitch fiber athletes benefit from less mileage with higher quality, and slow-twitch fiber athletes benefit from more mileage with slightly less quality.”
Should I Be Running More?
“Almost everyone is running less than they can benefit from,” says Bearden. The question he would ask athletes wondering whether they should up their mileage is whether they have: the time to run more, the desire to run more, and an inkling that their current mileage is both too easy and not leading to improved fitness. If the answers to all three of those are yes, a cautious increase in mileage might be worth a shot. Cautious is the key word here, if you are to avoid the common pitfall of ramping up mileage too quickly and paying for it later.
Am I Running Too Much?
There’s a fine line between running enough to build fitness and stay consistent, and running so much that you set yourself up for injury or burnout. Some common indicators of an athlete in that second camp, according to Bearden, are: reduced motivation or interest in training; new and persistent aches, pains, and/or tweaks; excessive sluggishness after a rest day; diminished speed in fast intervals or strides; and unusually heavy legs on inclines. “Ultimately,” Bearden believes, “If you want to know if an athlete is doing too much, then you’re really asking about persistent fatigue, and the way to gauge that is simply to ask the athlete.” If you are both the coach and the athlete, pay attention and be honest with yourself.
Parting Tips from the Coaches?
Rojas’ philosophy on running volume is simple: “More is not always better.” Running less but consistently is better than the dreaded but all-too-familiar cycle of running too much, getting hurt, taking time off, and repeating. She encourages other runners to remember that every person is different, and that with a little trial and error, you’ll eventually land on your current sweet spot.
Bearden’s advice to those fretting about their mileage is to stop aiming for perfection and instead to recognize when they’ve found a formula that works within the context of their life. He says, “If you’re honest about the time you have available for running, and you’re as consistent as you can be with that time, then there isn’t much more you can reasonably ask of yourself.” A person’s optimal mileage is “a moving target,” as he calls it, and an iterative process that can be continually tweaked.