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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{ 17 comments }

Lynn~The Learning Curves Blogger

I have to agree with the high mileage philosophy. I’ve been seeing (and reading) a lot about low mileage endurance training (specifically Crossfit Endurance) and, while I AM a lazy runner, I just can’t grasp the idea that one can run so few miles yet expect to run a marathon. To run faster you must, well, run faster and to run further you must run further…building a sound base will keep you healthy and your confidence will increase…which is what really helps somewhere around mile 19 or 20. Great post!

Fitz

Rule of Specificity right?! Glad we’re on the same page.

Shad

So what is your thoughts on keeping up the mileage (60-70 week for me) but throwing in 2 sessions of Crossfit in the morning before work each week. Do you think that will help or hinder? My thought it would increase overall strength without hurting race performance to bad since you keep the mileage up. I have been thinking of trying it on my body to see what happens this fall after Pikes Peak Ascent is over in August. What are your thoughts?

Shad

Fitz

A good general rule is that lifting/strength exercises should supplement your training, not detract from it. So if you’re finding yourself too tired to run well in the afternoon then it’s likely too much. CrossFit has a tendency to be extremely high-intensity so you may need to dial it down. Good luck!

Lynn~The Learning Curves Blogger

We agree again!! =) I think it really depends on your overall goals as well. I would think if one is running 60-70 miles per week then they are training for a marathon or perhaps more. Cross training is important and I love cross-fit and kettle bells especially…but if bulking up is the emphasis (muscle gain) it could interfere with race weight. Several cross-fitters I know have gone from leaning down workouts to mainly dead lifts and maxing out reps. I am still in the need to lean down mode…

Rick

I was kind of thinking in my childhood I was lucky.
as kids we use to go out playing most nights, football,war games-running climbing trees and cycling.
I use to walk or cycle to school and did a paper round.
To me it was just FUN!
but it gave me a very good foundation for future life.
Most things come around in circles and I can see a new wave of interest to get back to nature and got out and be active.
Hopefully parents will encourage their kids to get more active too!
there is nothing wrong with computer games etc but you need to exercise the body as well as the mind to be complete and above all to be healthy and well balanced!

David H.

The post rings so true for me as I’ve increased my miles and other workouts. Great post.

William T.

I’m fairly new to the blog but really like the content. The best thing is that you set a great example with your workouts. It’s nice when someone clearly practices what they preach.

Just curious…how do you define a “good” marathoner? Is there some time threshold that you typically think of? And what constitutes “high” mileage? Is there a target number of miles?

Fitz

William – thanks for the compliment, I really appreciate that. I think a “good” marathoner is a relative term. Some may think I’m very good since I’ve run 2:44, but that may be considered pedestrian to much faster runners. I think running a Boston Qualifying time is a solid indicator of being “good,” but it varies.

High mileage is also relative – surely 50-70 for HS runners, 90-100 for college runners, and 100+ for post-collegiate/elite runners is the max that I think is considered “high.” But on a more practical level, you need to run high mileage FOR YOU. Whatever you’ve run in the past few months, try to increase that by a little bit every month. Stay tuned for the next post coming later this week ;)

Luke

Jason, good post and I agree for the most part but what do you think about Brian Mckenzie’s low mileage / high intensity approach. Hard to understand how he can run ultras without the high mileage that you preach. But he’s shown some success in the ultra community. Thoughts?

Fitz

I think the main reason he’s able to do this is before his low volume approach, he was a very high volume person so he does have an aerobic foundation to draw from. Check out my review of the 4 Hour Body by Tim Ferriss where I talk about this: http://strengthrunning.com/2011/01/the-four-hour-body-can-it-improve-your-running/. Ultimately, it’s not a good training strategy for LONG TERM development and reaching your potential. But it may give you enough to be able to complete a marathon or 50k.

Eric Mauricette

Great article Fitz!

Last year during my marathon training i reached approx: 50 miles. After incurring injuries through the better half of this year I’ve started marathon training again and now am building up again. The plan is to 60 this time.

Do you believe in training cycles? Meaning. When training for one marathon you build up to a certain mileage, reach that than hold/back off through the marathon ( taper included of course). After that initial build-up you back off for say 1-2 months (or longer/shorter) than build up again ( if you training for a long distance (1/2-Marathon) to say 70+. This doesn’t stress your body as much and gives you a much needed break after 3 months of physcial and mental focus.

For me i’m just trying it but it seems to make sense. What are your thoughts?

Fitz

Hi Eric, good luck with the mileage increase! Over ~6 weeks you should be able to build 10 miles. And I do believe in cycles, both in terms of mileage and workout intensity. I think relatively high mileage should be run almost year round, which scheduled breaks from running, ramp-ups, and tapers included. Ideally in a marathon training program you’d reach your goal mileage quickly, then hold that for a good portion of the training time, manipulating the long run and workouts to gain extra fitness. What happens in an “ideal” world and reality is another story though :)

Another side benefit of increasing mileage over months/seasons is that you’ll start to become much more comfortable with new mileage totals. So once you reach 60 miles, 50 will seem like a piece of cake. Next spring, 60 might seem like a piece of cake, etc. etc.

Greg Strosaker

I like your recent (well, recent to me, I’m just catching up here) focus on volume, maybe because it coincides with what I’ve been focused on this summer. Anyhow, I’m convinced that the reason I’m a decent runner now (though not nearly as good as you) despite taking numerous years off is exactly what you state about our childhoods – I was constantly outside, playing basketball into the wee hours of the night, riding my bike to Lord-knows-where, and even taking up a bit of running in middle school to stay in shape for my soccer. In addition, I played a sport in every season, whether I was good (soccer) or not (baseball – basketball feel somewhere in the middle). Now that I have three boys of my own, I encourage the same thing – we play baseball nightly, at least until soccer season starts this week.

Kris

The hard part is building up that volume. Not everyone wants to run 6-7 days a week,even if we could. And its hard to get in enough volume if you don’t. So its a catch-22. And as a beginner running 3-4 days a week is taxing enough on your body. So, while this is awesome advice, the hard part is getting there. Now that I’m running 4 days a week, and slowly building up my own volume, I’m finally starting to feel the benefits. But I did the same training in the fall and burnt out badly right before my first 1/2 marathon, so my body wasn’t quite ready. Or my training wasn’t quite right. The trial and error part on the path to volume is definitely easier said than done, but thanks for the great perspective on “the secret” to faster running!

Lydia

It sounds like you and I have the opposite problem. I just want to run….every day. I don’t really want to do cross training. I don’t want to anything but run. I used to be a 3 day a week runner (if that’s what you want to call what I was doing) The idea of running 4 days a week was daunting to say the least. I think that being patient is the biggest key to any of this. I am by no means anywhere near the type of runner that Fitz or Greg Strosaker are, but I can honestly say that I love it. It’s been a slow developing love…I didn’t even realize that we had fallen in love, but alas here were are and all I want to do is run. Be patient. Don’t burn out. The benefits will start flowing in and you’ll be so happy to do another 1/2 and another and another!

Lydia

One more thing Kris…this skinny little guy knows his shit! Injury prevention will make your love burn that much stronger! I promise!! Good luck.

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