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Can you run well on low mileage?

Runner, coach and author Jay Johnson explains how to train properly with less volume

As a recreational runner, it can be fun to learn how the pros train and try to apply some of what they do into our own running programs. One aspect of a professional runner’s training program that is nearly impossible for the average person to copy, however, is their mileage. Many of the pros run hundreds of kilometres every week, and for the recreational runner who has work, family and other commitments, that kind of volume is unrealistic. So that leaves one question: can you be a good runner on a low-mileage training plan? We spoke with Jay Johnson, runner, coach and author of the training manual Simple Marathon Training: The Right Training for Busy Adults with Hectic Lives, to find out.

Photo: YouTube/Tony Xie

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What does low mileage actually mean?

Johnson explains that there is no consensus definition of low mileage, but he says one way to explain it might be “lower than the normal mileage needed to run well at a given distance.” For example, he says a senior boy in high school training for 5K typically runs 80K per week, so a low-mileage athlete might be someone who’s running 55K to 65K per week. By contrast, an elite marathoner is likely logging several 160K-plus weeks, whereas some marathoners might be able to get away with only 130K per week.

Looking at those numbers, it’s safe to assume that most busy adult recreational runners fall definitively into the low-mileage category. The problem, Johnson explains, is that there is a minimum amount of running that has to be done to gain fitness, as well as to handle the pounding associated with the race distance.

“You can’t run a marathon and expect to be healthy in the days and weeks after it if you only run 20 miles a week,” he says.

He adds that there are some runners, such as those who tend to be more injury-prone, who have no choice but to follow a low-mileage plan. In the short term, Johnson explains that these runners need to be highly motivated to do a lot of cross-training (like biking, swimming, or pool running) if they hope to run well. In the long term, he says they need to “strengthen their chassis” so they can handle their aerobic engine.

“Metabolic changes occur faster than structural changes,” he explains. “You can make gains in aerobic fitness faster than your “chassis” — muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, fascia — can handle the engine.”

Training a low-mileage runner

Johnson says he believes that you can both build an aerobic engine and maintain aerobic fitness on the bike or in the pool, and that an hour of swimming laps or 70 to 90 minutes on the bike can replace an easy day. This way, runners can still gain a lot of fitness, with less strain on their bodies.

“All the adults who’ve had success in my marathon program only run five days a week,” he says, “yet there is a cross-training day where they can choose the modality (bike, pool or elliptical) to give us the sixth day of aerobic work.”

Are there scenarios when a low-mileage plan won’t work?

“Yes,” says Johnson. “The marathon.”

While he doesn’t believe that busy adults need to run over 100K per week, he says they do have to do long runs building up to at least 30K, and need to be running at least four days a week so their bodies can handle the demands of the 42.2K distance on race day.

The bottom line

Johnson says the most important thing to remember is that you can’t be a good runner if you don’t have a big aerobic engine. You can build that engine by running or with a combination of running and cross-training, but however you choose to do it, that fact can’t be ignored. Additionally, if you’re training for a marathon, you can’t get around doing a long run, and you can’t expect to do the same mileage as you would if you were training for a 5K or 10K.

If you find that every time you try to increase your running volume you end up with an injury, it’s time for you to consider the strength of your “chassis”, and seek out the guidance of a physical therapist who can help you identify your weak areas. Once your bones, ligaments and tendons are stronger, you’ll likely be able to increase mileage without injury.

So yes, you can run well without doing hundreds of kilometres every week, but you still need to do enough running volume to meet the demands of the event you’re training for. A good coach will be able to design a training plan that works with your body and schedule to get you the results you’re looking for.

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