Forget the 10% Rule: How to Increase Mileage Safely

by Jason Fitzgerald

Is the 10% Rule bogus? Not really, but it certainly doesn’t show you how to run more mileage in every situation.

How to Increase Mileage

I read about running constantly.  Learning about the sport is something I’m passionate about.  But no matter where I am – Runner’s World, Running Times, Active.com – I keep seeing so-called “experts” recommend the 10% Rule.

The 10% Rule simply states that you should only increase mileage in increments of 10%.  So if you are running 20 miles this week and want to increase mileage, you should only run 2 more miles in order to stay “safe.”

I have so many problems with the 10% Rule.

This apparently golden rule of running is extremely general and doesn’t apply to many training situations.  Are you being too conservative with your mileage?  Maybe you’re even being too aggressive.  If you’re adding miles to your program, you also have to ensure you’re doing the right strength workouts to prevent injury.

Let’s deconstruct the 10% Rule and figure out how to increase  mileage safely.

How to Increase Mileage

1) If you’re a beginner, forget the 10% Rule entirely.  As a beginning runner, your main priority is to run consistently and allow your body to get used to running.  This probably means running 2-3 days per week for 1-4 miles.  As a newbie, don’t increase your mileage every week.  Keep it the same for 3-4 weeks at a time to allow your body to adjust.  When you’re comfortable, then you can add mileage.

Make sure you have a few pairs of running shoes that you can alternate to make increasing mileage easier on your legs. If you’re very sore, a massage can help ease the tightness in your legs or you could also use a foam roller.

Running more miles as a new runner means looking at how many days you run per week, your longest run, and your typical run per day.  If you run 3 days per week – 2 miles, 3 miles, and 3 miles – and ready for more mileage, you can start running four days per week.

Simply add another day of 2 miles to your schedule.  You might argue that’s 25% of your previous volume, but this is entirely safe provided you were comfortable with your previous volume. Stick with your new running schedule of 10 miles for another 3 weeks or so, then consider an additional jump.

You can also decrease one run by a mile and increase another to give yourself a long run.  Now your schedule might be 2, 2, 4, 2 miles.  The possibilities are endless.

2) As a more experienced runner, adapt the 10% Rule to fit your schedule. Sometimes adding 10% of your mileage works – like going from 50 to 55 miles after becoming very comfortable with that volume.  But if you are adding another day of running, your mileage may increase by 15 or 20%.

Advanced runners will find that they have a mileage sweet spot.  This particular volume will be comfortable for you but moving past it will be a challenge.  You may find yourself increasingly tired, prone to injury, or running poorly in workouts.

For me, running 60 miles per week is easy.  I can get in pretty good shape doing this type of volume.  I can also jump very significantly up to 60 miles per week after a break in training.

If I want to race at my peak however, I have to run more.  This is where I run into problems.  I’ve always found it difficult to run more than 70 miles per week.  My injury potential skyrockets so at this level I take it very easy.  I increase my miles only 5-10% and hold it at that level for several weeks.  Consistency and long-term development is more important than jumps in mileage.

3) When you’re coming back from a brief break in training, don’t even think about the 10% Rule. If you’re an intermediate runner who was comfortable running 35 miles per week for two months, you are not starting from scratch after a 1-2 week break.  You can easily begin your mileage at 20-25 and go back to 35 after a few weeks.

4) Be more conservative when you’re in unchartered territory. When you start running more than you have ever run before, you are in a potential danger zone.  Your body has never run so many miles and a long adjustment period is probably necessary.  If you’re running high mileage – anything over 50 or 60 miles per week – then you probably need at least 3-4 weeks of adjustment at each level before increasing.

If your legs are hurting more than you think they should, it’s time to listen to your body. Use that foam roller (or The Stick) to massage your trigger points, take an ice bath, and make sure to continue doing the strength routines that enable your body to run a lot. If you want to take self-massage to the next level, I recommend Trigger Point Therapy.

Personally, my danger zone is in the area of about 85 miles per week.  I can tolerate it, but that volume requires a long build-up and a steady adjustment period.  I wouldn’t increase my mileage over this level without at least 3 weeks of feeling great.

During my 12 year career, I have run 4 weeks at 90 miles.  One week during my sophomore year in college and a 3-week block of training before the NY Marathon in 2008.  After both, I got hurt.  Now I realize I have to be smarter with running volume at that level.  After all, 6 months at 75 per week is better than 2 weeks at 90 miles.

Running Mileage – the Big Picture

Ultimately, your mileage takes a backseat to the consistency of your training.  Running an extra 5 or 10 miles next week isn’t meaningful unless it is done for months.  Instead of always trying to do more, try to run more consistently over the course of months and years.

Looking back on my own training, I kick myself for being impatient.  Why did I so aggressively increase my volume in the past?  Beats me.  Maybe I thought that 80 miles per week was the secret to success.  Or 90…or 75.  There are countless times in my career when I got injured because I was impatiently chasing a number in my running log.

There is no magic number that will accomplish your running goals.  Focus on consistency, not making stupid mistakes, and only moving up your mileage when you’re ready and comfortable.  You may find yourself moving up by more or less than 10% but in the end, listen to your body.

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David Csonka

Yeah, I’m not sure either how well the ol’ 10% rule works. I was helping my brother prep to do his first ever 5k, and he only had a month to get from couch potato to doing 3 miles. I didn’t use the couch-to-5k program, I devised a custom program for him, starting out with some mild running plus strength work. I made him give me feedback everyday so I could gauge how he was doing, and how he felt each day really determined how much of a distance/intensity increase I would recommend.

I had him alternate between interval running some days, to sprints drills on others, and finally long runs as well. Also, the workouts would usually begin and end with squats, crunches, and stair runs. In the beginning he had initial signs of shin pain, but I got him to do more calf stretching after his workouts, and that loosened the tightness which was antagonizing the shin muscles.

Rest days, and managing his diet/sleep were also pretty important. Overall, I was very impressed with how he performed on race day. He did the whole 3 miles without stopping, I was so proud!

Fitz

Rest days are so important, especially for new runners. You can make bigger jumps if you’re recovering properly.

runbei

I agree that rigid rules like 10% are of doubtful value – we are just too individually talented and must make progress at our own pace. I’ll share an experience with increasing my mileage, in hopes that it will help others.

In the early 1990s, I bumped my training from 10-15 miles per week to alternating weeks of 45 and 60. I ran only every other day, so I was doing all 15-milers. I took a year and a half to increase mileage, adding 1/2-mile to each run every other week. During those 18 months I missed not a single day due to injury or overtraining. I did miss one day after a bad reaction to a flu shot. It was an enjoyable experience. I thought of it as the Inch-Up Method. It worked infallibly well. My goal was to train for slow-paced marathons – “just to finish.” If I had it to do again, I would choose a different method entirely. I would do two short recovery runs during the week, no more than 30 minutes, and put most of my effort into a single weekend long run.

For the long runs, I would probably do a monthly rhythm of long > medium > long > medium until the long runs reached – what? maybe 24 miles? Anyway, at a point where I wasn’t recovering quickly enough from the long runs, I might switch to: very long > medium > long > medium. “Very long” being 24-26 miles, and “long” being perhaps 20.

I would let RECOVERY determine everything. I would evaluate recovery by watching the inner quality of my runs. If there was a forced, contractive, disharmonious feeling during the long runs, I would back off and re-set my training until I was sure that each run felt expansive and happy. If your body ain’t enjoying it, it for sure ain’t improving. My old-guy 2 cents worth (I’m 69).

Fitz

Thanks for your comment. You’re right – increasing mileage is incredibly personal and depends on what you’re ready for. That’s an interesting method that you tried during the early 1990’s!

Lee

Great advice. I always wondered where the 10% rule came from and wondered if there was some genuine research that lead to the common usage.

aimee

Your advice makes so much sense! I wish I had discovered you back in January. I started training for a full marathon 6 months down the road. the months prior my running was sporadic (which is why I signed up for a race). I had done a few halfs and several 5ks in past, felt it was time to up the ante, as it were. As my mileage increased so did my problems. In April I ended up at sports doc to discover I had a stress fracture in right hip and torn ligament in left- ouch. I could barely walk, much less run. After a few months of physical therapy I now have OK to start running again… I am excited to try your ideas, it just seems right. And for the race I signed up for, I ended up walking a 5k instead of running the marathon.

Jason Fitzgerald

Sorry to hear about your injuries Aimee! That’s no fun… but let me know if you have any questions on the material here on SR. I’m happy to help.

Chuckie D

Prior to taking off 4 weeks to nurse a sore achilles tendon, I am starting to run again. I ran one mile yesterday and two miles, today. Prior to the break, I was running about 20 miles per week. I want to run the Chicago Marathon in a month and a half. Any suggestions for ramping up the training after a 4 week hiatus?

Jason Fitzgerald

I’d start conservatively, maybe around 10 miles a week and get back to 20 within 3-4 weeks. But training for a marathon in ~6 weeks? Dangerous…

Charles

I’m a former 800 meter runner and I battled achilles issues for about 10 years off and on. Surprisingly, the thing that seemed to cure me was when I started doing sprint drills again. I think the drills must have improved my achilles flexibility and strength. I started out doing them about 3 times a week. Best of luck and be conservative with your mileage as you work through your achilles issue. As I’m sure you know, nothing is worse than set backs due to injury.

Anne

It seems like my sweet spot is in 60 mpw range. I have been doing a lot more weeks in 70s and have managed them pretty well but when workouts are add in it seems like I can no longer run easy runs moderately but now my easy runs when I am in the 70s is so so so slow. Like a minute slower than all the pace calculators recommend. Normal? Do you find this with yourself or other runners. I actually running much slower on easy days than a year ago and I am much fitter. Even if I wanted to I can not manage what the calculators say should be my easy/recovery pace.

Jason Fitzgerald

That sounds normal. It takes your body awhile to adjust to the combination of high volume and harder workouts. If you maintain the mileage and gradually get used to workouts you should be ok. Good luck!

Nathaniel

So I have a training question. I am in reasonably good shape (in Air Force ROTC) and my timed 1.5 miler is around 10:15. I really want to improve my time and was told to up my mileage to do so. So I’ve started this system M: 5mi T: PT W: 3mi R: PT F: 5mi Sat-Sun: Rest. My eventual goal is to get to 30mpw. How much should I up my milage per week? Should I go to a 5-PT-5-PT-5, then add a 3mi on PT days? Also, what kind of time will it take for me to get to 30mpw? My shins have been a little sore the last couple of days…

Prair

I’ve recently started running. Well before christmas anyway. I’m now only able to comfortably run 5k. I took 3 weeks off here, and a week off there. I’m not comfortable yet to run in the snow so just been sticking to the treadmill until the snow has melted. I never heard of the 10% rule. I’m overweight and I see a trainer twice a week. I find i’m not losing weight but I am shrinking. (hehe) This weeks is my week to try and run a full 4 miles. I want to run in a half marathon June 16th. I wonder if i’m giving myself enough time to increase my mileage? i’ve been seeing my trainer since December 2012. Anyway I’m glad to have read this and it gives me more motivation to keep going :)

Austin Hughes

How would you recommend coming back from an injury like a stress fracture? Running varsity cross country and track I was pretty fast running a 4:55 mile and 17:08 5k. Something maybe lack of rest or lack of calcium may have put me over the edge. Any tips to come backs stronger and prevent it from happening again? Strength training maybe? Thanks!

Jason Fitzgerald

You need at least 4-6 weeks off completely. Generally speaking, avoid the 3 Too’s (too much, too soon, too fast) and do a lot of strength work. Good luck Austin!

Austin Hughes

How would you recommend starting running again after having a stress fracture?

Austin Hughes

Didn’t see you already commented on my previous one, thanks again

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