What’s Your Total Work Volume? Running High Mileage and Reaching Your Potential

by Jason Fitzgerald

A lot of runners are looking for a silver bullet that’s going to make them faster. They think they just need that “one special ingredient” to their training plan and they’ll feel great, never get injured, and run PR’s every weekend.

This is your wake-up call.

High Mileage

There is no magic formula to follow to reach your potential. There are best practices as we understand them today that can help you get close. And there is one principle of distance running success that is more important than all others: volume.

Everyone loves to speculate why the East Africans are so dominant in distance running. I’ll let you in on the secret: it’s because they grew up running almost everywhere they went, led a very active life, and helped their family with a lot of labor-intensive chores like farming. In short, their work volume is high.

The East Africans are so damn fast because they’ve built up an enormous aerobic base since childhood. They didn’t grow up playing video games or watching Saturday morning cartoons.

Most American runners don’t have a solid foundation of WORK underneath them. The work volume of children and adults 100 years ago was much higher than it is today. They played outside more as little kids, did more manual labor, and their chores were more physically strenuous.

High Mileage Demands Supporting Strength Work

This is one of the reasons why so much core work and strength exercises are needed: we don’t get it from our everyday activities, so we must supplement with exercises during training.

Modern westerners are prone to overuse injuries, and I firmly believe it’s because we sit too much and are inactive for most of the day that we’re not running. Jay Johnson cautions against feeling too good in the spring when running is easy.

The problem is that most of us lack the strength foundation to support the aerobic work volume we need to be a successful distance runner. To compensate, we have to get strong with weights and core exercises. If you skip them, you’re going to get hurt. It’s as simple as that.

I hope I haven’t scared you from running a lot. You shouldn’t be scared – the volume of your training is going to determine how fast you run in a race. Up to a certain point of diminishing returns, you essentially want as much volume as possible.

My college coach says that one word makes a good distance runner: mileage. It’s simplistic, but it works. Find me a half-marathon or marathoner who runs low mileage (and is good) and I’ll buy you dinner. It doesn’t happen because it’s not the way to reach your potential.

I’m recommending you to run a lot; I want to be clear on that. But in order to do so safely you need to get strong. Here are the best ways to do that:

  1. Do consistent core exercises and get mobile with flexibility drills.
  2. Hit the gym once or twice a week for a quality strength session focusing on dead lifts, squats, and other compound exercises. If you have no idea what you’re doing, buy the Rebel Strength Guide for a plan and video demonstrations.
  3. Strengthen problem areas like hips and your glutes with the ITB Rehab Routine.
  4. If you like a challenge, use a medicine ball to do standing (read: specific to running) core work like hay bales.

High-mileage runners are more likely to run faster and reach their potential because they’re consistently developing their aerobic capacity. Increasing your aerobic abilities – through a high volume program – is the best way to become a better distance runner.

Side Benefits of a High Mileage Training Program

Running a lot can even help you avoid injury. It sounds counter-intuitive, but Brad Hudson in his book Run Faster says that, “Injuries tend to occur during periods of increasing running volume. If you keep your mileage relatively high, you will minimize these risky volume ramp-up periods in your training.”

In an ideal scenario, high mileage stays relatively consistent. Of course, “high” mileage is relative to your ability, training history, and race goals. What may be high mileage for one runner may be an easy week for another.

Once you adapt to a relatively high volume of running, your body will adapt to this new work volume. You won’t feel as tired and you can change other factors to increase your fitness – workouts, ancillary strength and core work, and more challenging long runs. Consistently running a higher volume program will continue to develop your aerobic system without overtaxing your ability to recover.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: new runners are most limited by their lack of aerobic capacity. They lack endurance and staying power.

Beginners need to run more and patiently develop their body’s ability to run a little more this month than they did last month. Once you understand that, your race times will improve dramatically from season to season.

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