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

Sat, 23 Dec 2006 06:09:14 -0500

Weeks Without Miles


(continued from RC 654)

As my latest Marathon Team began training this winter, a local newspaper reporter asked me to explain the program for a story he was writing. This wasn't a knows-little, cares-less writer, but an ultrarunner himself.

Lewis Taylor wanted to know why we "run so little mileage." I wrote a sidebar to his article, rationalizing the training in four ways:

-- Basic Training. Runners can enter the program with a modest distance background, but not without any. The recommended prerequisite is a recent six-mile run, with as long a buildup to this distance as needed. The first month of the program, when the long runs increases to 10 miles, is a trial period. Runners test whether they want to or are able to continue.

-- Long Runs. Marathon training truly begins when long-run mileage reaches double figures. From there it increases by two miles every other week, from 11 to a peak of 21. Most runners need more recovery time than weekly long runs would allow. The long run is by far the most important ingredient in marathon training, and runners must go into it healthy and well rested.

-- Recovery Runs. Most runs between the long ones need to be low in distance and light in intensity. Runners usually rest at least the day before and after the long run. Weekday runs last no more than an hour and often closer to a half-hour. Runs on weekends between long runs are about half the previous week's distance. Three easy weeks separate the last long run (the longest) and the marathon.

-- Race Day. New marathoners ask, "If we've only train 21 miles and the race is 26, where do the other five miles come from?" They come from the magic of race day -- the crowd running, the supporters watching, the excitement of this "graduation day." Most runners not only cover the final five miles, but average the same pace in the marathon as they did on the longest training runs.

Note that this summary never mentions weekly mileage. That's because it matters so little in the success of a program. What matters most is getting through each long run, then getting over it before trying the next one.

Don't just trust me on the weeks-without-miles approach. Listen to two giants of the sport, George Sheehan and Jeff Galloway.

George's performances tailed off and his energy waned in his early 50s. He went from running six days a week to five and felt better; dropped to four, better yet; then to three, where he stayed. Off two runs of about an hour each in midweek and a long one or race on the weekend, he set his marathon PR of 3:01 at age 61.

Jeff is known both for his walk-break advice for the long training runs reaching or topping marathon length. The least-quoted part of his program is what he asks runners to do between the long ones, which is very little.

At Jeff's summer camps I've heard him say, "Run one hour, total, the week after a long run. This can be two 30-minute runs or three 20s. Just be sure to limit yourself to that hour."

This is another way of saying, do nothing that interferes with the long run. I'd say the same.

(Don't miss another point that George and Jeff both make. They refer to their easy runs in minutes, which the best use of time-running. You can't hurry time, so you relax and let an easy pace happen.)

If or when the marathon bug bites me again, I'd need to make only two changes in what I already do. One, of course, would be the gradually and greatly increase the length of one run every other week.

The other change would be to compensate for that extra effort by resting more often. I favor the formula of one day off for each hour of the long run.

That's up to four days off per week, and it's more than I'd want to take very often. One reason my own marathons are so few -- just one in the past six years -- is that I like my little daily runs too much to trade many of them for a big run.

Weekly mileage doesn't count for me. But the number of runs per week does matter, a lot.
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