Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 16 Dec 2006 05:43:58 -0500

Misleading Mileage


My latest Marathon Team started training this month, and none too soon. Two months had passed since the last cycle's end, the longest I'd gone without seeing these runners since the program began in early 2005.

Two weeks off would have been welcome. Two months was too long.

This break made me realize that I need these runners more than they need me. I missed their company, their excitement and their questions about what I'm asking them to do, and why.

We meet only on Sundays. The newbies will ask, "How much should I run during the week? What should my weekly mileage be?"

First answer: Do nothing that keeps you recovering fully between the long Sunday runs. That is, nothing much more than easy runs and rest.

Second answer: I don't know what your weekly mileage should be, and neither should you care much. These totals are overused and overrated.

Recently I wrote in praise of running by time instead of distance ("True Miles," RC 652), knowing full well that readers would ignore this advice. Keep counting miles if you wish. Most runners do.

Most of you also add up weekly mileage. Maybe you still will after hearing the arguments against it. But I still want to make them, if only to clarify the case in my own mind before the next runners ask about their mileage -- as they surely will.

First I'll review a pair of paragraphs from my latest column in Marathon & Beyond, titled "This I Believe." Here are two of the longest- and fondest-held beliefs about mileage:

REST IS NEEDED. Weekly mile-counting is the most misleading -- and potentially damaging -- figure in running. It can leading to a leveling of daily mileage, causing you to run too much on days that should be easy and leaving you unable to do enough on days that should be hard. Weekly mile-totaling penalizes you the most for what you might need the most -- a big zero from a rest day.

DISTANCE IS INDISPENSABLE. In marathon training the long run means the most, by far. Take it and nothing else but easy runs and rest days, an you'll do fine on marathon day. Run daily, sometimes fast but not very long, and you'll do poorly. A big mistake of marathoners is increasing all the runs -- long, fast and weekly distance -- all at once. As the long run goes up in length, the other runs must come down -- in length, frequency and number -- to compensate.

What now sets me to writing about this subject is a recent exchange of e-mails with a former Runner's World teammate of mine. George Beinhorn is a serious thinker about distance training and the author of Fitness Intuition (see

George wrote to me, "I hate to think I'm the kind of guy who says, 'The marathon isn't for beginners.' But there's no denying that some kinds of exercise are massively abusive to the body: any exercise for which the body isn't adequately prepared, and I'm inclined to think most 25- to 40-mile-per-week runners are way undertrained."

My reply: "You're right, 30 miles a week would too little for marathon training, if it were six five-mile run or five sixes or even three 10s. Even double that weekly amount might be inadequate if the runs were divided up equally. But if it were a 20 and two fives, then it would work."

George responded, "Must've been a senior moment on my part. I just wrote an article on the overwhelming importance of the long run for low-mileage marathon training.

"This is based on the experience of many runners I've known of -- including Eric Robinson, an ultrarunner who 'only began to make real progress when I began giving my body massive amounts of rest.' Eric trained just once a week, twice only if he 'felt really strong.'

"All his effort went into the long run. On that kind of training, Eric finished all the major trail 100s, including Hardrock -- arguably the hardest 100 of them all."

The three of us agree, in our own ways. George himself trains much as Robinson does, and I take a similar path with marathoners-in-training.

I measure the success of my Marathon Teams by how many runners have a safe and satisfying finish. So far all 130 of the starters have finished, and struggling finishes have been few.

In our last marathon, at Portland, 12 of the 21 runners with previous PRs set new ones. Boston qualifying isn't a stated goal for the group, yet six runners on the last Team ran fast enough to reach Boston.

(to be continued in RC 655)
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