The Question of Mileage in Running
A little historical retrospective could give us a clearer picture of the role that training volume (in layman terms, mileage) plays in running. For many years it was overestimated and sometimes the number of miles some runners did per week, and per month, would reach the edge of what’s humanly possible and consequently there was no room left to “grow” and put more hours of running in the existing time frame of life. People got crazy for a while, reaching some kind of tipping point in the “swing” of our mental pendulum trying to find the answer to our question. The majority of running population is still at this tipping point trying to achieve their success in running through reaching some magic number of miles which is supposed to bring them to faster and better running.
Well, this philosophy is heavily ingrained in the minds of millions, and it would seem to be supported by science and experience. It is a modern paradigm of training in long distance running. We can call it a quantitative approach: the more – the better. It is easy to think this way and easy to train this way. Just do it! It works!
Yes, it works to a certain extent, as usual, of course. It is a normal thing in human history. But life is built in a more sophisticated way, which philosophers call dialectic, and it goes through three major stages: thesis-antithesis-synthesis.
So, volume/mileage is good, but to what extent? What will be on the other end, affected by this volume? – Intensity/speed or how fast you are running, because at the end of the day, this is what we are looking for.
But how do we combine it with the volume of training? How are they supposed to be together without contradicting each other? This question is as old as running itself. Do we know the answer to it? As far as I know, we are only trying to find it through our discussions, science research, thinking and reasoning. We still don’t have a common ground for our understanding and vision of this problem, but we are on our way to finding the truth.
Read more about how to determine your body’s training needs in The Running Revolution, Part 4.
We need to ask what’s first – mileage or speed? How much do we need to run in order to run fast? Because of the nature of long distance running, it seems that we have to run a lot, but if we run a lot, we restrict our abilities to run fast. So the problem is: how much can we run without limiting our speed of running?
On the one hand, long running develops our physiological abilities: VO2 consumption to produce ATP for the vital functions of the body, including muscle work. On the other hand, it causes fatigue, because spending ATP for long running creates disproportion between spending and recovering ATP.
In order to run fast, you need a little extra otherwise your fast running will be postponed. Our body doesn’t have more than is necessary, if we spend energy for something, then we won’t have it for another thing. This other thing could be our speed of running.
Each organism has its own limit of energy
One more thing to remember. Each organism has its own limit of energy, which is mostly predetermined by its genetics. We can describe it in this way: some people have a “Rolls-Royce” engine (elite runners, for instance), others – much less (most recreational runners). (There was a very interesting research on this matter done in late 60 and 70-ies in the Soviet Union, which I described in The Running Revolution.) Therefore we can spend only as much as we have, and not more than this. In addition, we have to spend it by distributing it between different training necessities, such as long running, short running, strength, flexibility, coordination development, etc.
When we restrict our attention to only some of these necessities, after a while we get in trouble. In the same way as we do when we have an unbalanced diet. Try to stay in your diet on something alone and you’ll understand how bad it is for your body.
The same thing happens, when you use a restricted number of training tools – you lose muscle strength, coordination, aerobic abilities or speed. So the problem is how to maintain all of these at the same time and on the necessary level.
The is only one satisfactory answer here: you must distribute your attention, your time, your efforts and your energy between all the required factors in the right proportion and as necessary for your specific distance. It could be a 5k or a marathon, the essence of training will be the same. You need to know the volume acceptable for your “engine”, and how much of your energy you need to spend for each of your training needs. (‘The Running Revolution, Part 4‘)