Of all the questions you likely have about running, there is one that reigns supreme: how much should I run? Whether you’re brand new to the sport or you’re training for your next marathon, this is a question that runners of all levels often find themselves asking. As with most things, there is no black-and-white or one-size-fits-all answer to this question, so to try and clear things up we spoke with Mile2Marathon coaches Lauren Andrews and Matt Travaglini, who gave us their best advice for finding your mileage sweet spot.
Canadian Running: What does the term “optimal mileage” really mean?
Matt Travaglini: Like many of the terms used in running, it has a personal meaning. If we look at the big picture, optimal mileage means the number of kilometres that a runner would run so that they can run injury-free and achieve their goals.
Lauren Andrews: Traditionally, it would mean the Goldilocks amount of distance a runner covers (usually measured per week) that allows them to gain or maintain strength and fitness while staying physically and mentally healthy. For many runners, optimal mileage is the amount of running that allows them to enjoy the sport, stay healthy, de-stress and still have time to live their lives.
CR: What factors affect how much mileage an individual can or should run?
MT: When first determining how much volume an athlete should run, I look at that runner’s history. Are they an ex-varsity runner? Are they new to running but have been heavily involved in sport for most of their life? Are they putting on running shoes for the first time? Next, I would look at the history of injury for the runner. Although this is tied to the running history, it introduces a narrower look at areas that they may be able to improve, outside of simply running more. Third, I look at their life schedule. You’ve heard of the phrase “work-life balance.” I like to use the term “run-life balance” to help settle in on a mileage number. Finally, we need to look at what the goals are of the training that the individual is doing. If the goal is to run more, then you just need to run more. If your goal is to run a PB or stay injury-free for the future, then we would look at ways of gaining fitness that might actually involve less volume.
Is running more always better?
LA: No. As a coach, I sometimes purposely reduce mileage, especially when we are introducing a first or second workout of the week, or when I sense an athlete is not absorbing workouts. Sometimes lower mileage is necessary with demanding work or family commitments, or for newer runners or runners returning from injury or long breaks.
It is important to consider not all miles are the same. A mile on a technical trail is going to be more demanding and take longer to complete than a flat path or road. Distance at speed is much more demanding on our bodies than an easy pace. If you use Strava, it may be tempting to assume weekly mileage is the most important factor and easily comparable – it is not.
How does a runner know when they’re running too much?
LA: In my own experience as an athlete and as a coach, these are some common signs:
- Lingering fatigue
- Overuse injuries
- Mental apathy
- Consistently not hitting goal paces in workouts (if they do them) when these paces are not too much of a stretch.
- Unmanageability in the rest of life is often a sign the running should be dialled back.
MT: The truest way of knowing when you are doing too much is to listen to your body. Assuming that you are eating well, getting the right amount of sleep, and drinking all the water needed, you can be sure that your body will let you know when things are starting to exceed its ability. The important note here is that it will most likely be something small at first. You might notice that one morning your left hip is a bit tighter than normal, or maybe your right shin has a bit of pain. Those little things can be the only sign you might get before you fly too close to the sun. So pay attention, and you can use them as opportunities to focus your training on the many other areas of running outside of the mileage bubble.
How can a runner determine their optimal mileage?
LA: There are several formulas for calculating how to most safely increase mileage, but how do we know when to level out? A key is to focus on gaining fitness through workouts and not just increasing mileage. Being patient and honest with how we feel is more important than following a formula. As a coach, including a recovery (absorption) week has been really helpful while we are either increasing mileage and/or gaining fitness through increasingly challenging workouts.
MT: My best advice is to start small. If you’re a runner with a history of injury, consider subtracting a few kilometres or minutes and seeing if you can add in other positive routines to your plan (like core strength or stretching). If you are super new to running, consider walk/runs. I like to give myself small goals that are two to three weeks in the future for targets to hit (for example, in three weeks I will be able to run for 10 minutes without stopping). If you still aren’t quite sure how to use your history, life schedule, running goals or signs from your body to help you narrow in on that sweet spot, check out personal coaching options like Mile2Marathon.