thoughts & tips on building mileage safely

I am AMAZED by the human body.  How it adapts and grows stronger.  How something that used to be SO hard can become something we do on a daily or weekly basis.  It takes patience, dedication, persistence.  FAITH.  Hard work and self awareness.  If we honor our body, and if we listen to it,  if we do things gradually and consistently, we can reach new heights and become stronger than we ever dreamed.

An example of this as a runner is when we are building our mileage.  A 10 mile run in the beginning of marathon training for most runners feels like a huge challenge and accomplishment (and, in fact, it is!).  You look at it on your training schedule and think am I really going to be able to do that!? … but then you trust in your training and you follow the progression and before you know it you are months into it you are knocking out 10 miles on a Tuesday and welcoming it with open arms.  You have adapted.  Physically, your body knows it can handle that distance without a problem.  Mentally, you have confidence because you know what a 20 miler feels like now and a 10 miler is much easier for you to wrap your brain around.  It’s all relative and never ceases to amaze me.

When I came back to running after having my third baby 18 months ago, every single run was a huge challenge.  I am not exaggerating.  At first, one mile was terrifying and left me feeling as though I had been run over by a truck.  Then three miles felt like a marathon and I doubted whether or not I would ever feel like I was in my own body again.  Over time though I chipped away at it, slowly and carefully, and by the summer I was ready to actually begin marathon training.  I hit 30 miles in a week and it was a major milestone for me.  There were times (many times) that I felt my body fighting back – lots of aches and pains and so much soreness.  I needed to learn my body’s language and figure out the difference between aches and pains that were okay to push through and the kind of pain that screamed at me and told me I better pull back or else I would find myself injured and back at square one.  In the beginning, it was really hard to tell the difference.  Now I am much better at it, though I still have moments when I am unsure and when that happens I pull back and visit my trusted chiropractor to take a closer look.

Last summer and fall when I was training for MCM, my mileage peaked at 45 miles and I could not believe it.  I was asking so much of my body and was grateful that I was able to not only handle that high mileage physically, but was able to manage the logistics of getting the runs in as a busy mom of three with a nursing infant.  I set a new PR in the marathon that fall, by almost one hour.  It was such a good feeling.  My hard work had paid off.  I had gradually and consistently built my mileage, peaked higher than I ever had in the history of all my training efforts.

MCM 2011, 3:41:56

When I began a new training cycle a few months later in preparations for Rock n Roll USA in March, I looked closely at the work I had done in the summer/fall.  I knew I had to make changes if I was going to improve as a runner.  Do the same thing all the time … you will get the same results, right?  So I decided one thing I would attempt to do was to increase my mileage.  I felt my body could handle it, but made the plan and decided that along the way if at any time my body was NOT responding well to the higher mileage, I would come down and adjust.  The big picture – to remain HEALTHY and able to RUN – is always the most important thing.  One sure-fire way to get injured is to do too much too fast, to push well beyond our limits before our bodies are ready … I did not want to be reckless with upping my mileage.  I took it one run at a time, one week at a time.  And went with it.  My body adapted and adjusted and it worked.

I trained for Rock n Roll USA and peaked at 64 miles.  I set a new PR in the marathon by about 7 minutes.

RnR USA 2012, 3:34:46

And now I find myself training for my 10th marathon, MCM again this fall.  I am so excited.  I haven’t stopped dreaming and scheming.  My plan this time around is more aggressive than ever, but my main focus is the BIG PICTURE and I made a deal with myself to never not ever lose sight of that.

I ran over 65 miles last week and am on track to peak this cycle close to 80 miles.  This fact astonished me, but I am trusting in it because my body feels good and strong right now.  And I know that if I start to feel the signs of an injury or over training, I will immediately respond to them and change my plan.   There are a lot of ways to improve as a runner and increasing your mileage is not the only way!  For some, it is not even helpful because they hit a certain number and the body starts breaking down and rebelling and all is for naught.  I do not yet know what my threshold is.  I am giving my body time to adapt and easing into the higher mileage.  I am doing other things to get faster and stronger as well, it is not just the number of miles every week but the quality and purpose of those miles!

I wanted to write this post because I know a lot of my readers are training for races – whether it’s a marathon or 10k or something in between – and as a result are increasing mileage and the toll being placed placing on our bodies.  When you run more miles in a week than you ever have before, you are entering unknown territory and you have got to be self aware and smart, otherwise you will get injured or burn out.  In endurance sports we hear this all the time – “GO OUTSIDE YOUR COMFORT ZONE” – and I love that phrase and truly believe in it!  But is does not mean to do so recklessly or with abandon.  Testing our limits and going into uncharted waters is exhilarating and rewarding, but we do have to remain self aware and smart.  Incredibly intelligent and experienced athletes, coaches and scientists have done a lot of research for us and it is pretty much a proven fact that if we are reckless in running, we WILL get hurt.  99% of all running injuries are from over use – from ignoring what our bodies are telling us. When I heard this fact a light went on in my head — this means that 99% of all running injuries are avoidable.  I’m not saying it’s easy to avoid getting injured as a distance runner (far from it!) – it takes a lot of hard work and patience, determination and self awareness to stay on top of it – but it is also totally possible.

I’ve been thinking about some tips for how to increase mileage safely and wanted to list them here.  I would love your thoughts and advice if you have any more to add in the comments of this post!

Tips to remember as you are increasing your mileage:

  • How many miles to increase by each week – A *general* rule of thumb is the advice that you should not add more miles in one week than the total number of days you are running.  So, if you are running 5 days a week, never jump in mileage by more than 5 miles that week.  For example, if I ran 20 miles last week and am running 5 days this week, I will not increase my total mileage for the week to more than 25 miles.
  • Long run ratio – do not make your long run the bulk of your total mileage for the week.  When I became an RRCA running coach, I remember them telling us it is wise not to make your long run more than 40-50% of the total mileage you are running in that week.  Want to run 15 miles this week?  Don’t do a 10 mile long run and two shorter runs!  Putting too many of your weekly miles into one long run will tax your body too much and will not give you the best improvements in your fitness.
  • Speed work ratio – if you are going to do speed work as part of your training, it is recommended that you do not make the total miles of actual speed work more than 10% of your total mileage for the week.  For example, if I am running 20 total miles this week and go to the track as one of those runs I will not do more than 2 miles of speed work at the track.
  • Listen to your body & respond! – if you start climbing in mileage and are consistently feeling worn down and not fresh for the next workout, you are overdoing it.  Take an extra rest day, drop your mileage for the week and reset your plan.  Remember the big picture!  Higher mileage does not mean you are better trained and prepared, in fact it could mean you are running yourself into the ground and sabotaging all of your efforts.  If your body is hating it at 45 miles a week, change your goal.  Don’t push through and add on miles just to run more miles!
  • Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing – We are all unique.  Just because your buddy can run 80 miles a week doesn’t mean this is the right thing for you, right now or maybe even ever!  You must honor your own mileage just as you must honor your own pace.
  • Trust in the importance of gradual progression and keep track of what you are doing – Let’s say Jane had 50 miles planned this week, after running 45 last week.  She runs 6 days a week so this was a safe and smart build.  But on Tuesday she went out for a 10 mile run and was feeling AMAZING so she decided to turn it into a 12 mile run.  And then a few days later that week she was at the track and felt like a superstar so she turned 6 miles into 9.  And one evening a friend was going out for an easy 3 and she was feeling strong so decided why not just go with her, she would “run slow.”  At the end of the week for her long run she was supposed to do 15 but her buddies were going for 18 so she decided to hang with them and do more.  Before she knew it, Jane increased her mileage that week from 45 to 61 miles.  The next week she was feeling flat and heavy and her body was talking loud and clear with persistent aches and even some sharp pains.  Jane wasn’t really keeping track of what she was doing and wondered why this was happening to her.  I know some of us want the freedom from a plan, and we just want to RUN and be happy and that is great in theory.  But here is something about runners – we are addicted to our sport.  It is very hard for us to resist a run, we sometimes even forget we are human and we want to ignore when our bodies are telling us we are running too much.  We have to honor the progression and be PATIENT.  We have to trust that we will get there gradually.  Adding miles on willy-nilly just because we are feeling great is dangerous.  I am not saying you should never add miles on when you are feeling awesome – that is fine and I do it!  But when I make a run longer than I initially planned to, I adjust my schedule.  I take miles off my runs later in the week.  I adapt carefully.  
  • Inspire yourself – BELIEVE in yourself!! – Look at how far you have come in your training and let your progress motivate and inspire you to keep at it!  Go back to the beginning – what was your life like before you first started running?  Were you heavier?  Were you slower?  Did shorter distances take your breath away and leave you panting and exhausted?  Were you depressed?  I personally would answer YES to all of these questions.  Whenever I am doubting myself and whether or not I can conquer new distances, I think about how far I have come and how grateful I am to be where I am.  I do not need to run more miles just for the sake of running more miles.  There is purpose to it – I love it and it makes me stronger.  If I find that I am doing too much and not loving it anymore, I know I need to peel back and run less.  The big picture is always the most important thing.  I want to be running and I want to love running for the rest of my life.  I want to be healthy and balanced.  I want to feel happy and strong.  THIS is why I run.  So if I overdo it and lose sight of the big picture … what is the point really?

I would love to hear your thoughts on increasing mileage and what you have found works and doesn’t work for you!!

11 thoughts on “thoughts & tips on building mileage safely

  1. Do you have a research article behind some of the info you posted above? I'm very curious about the long run ratio! I've never heard that before, in fact I'm following a plan in runners world “The Less-Is-More Marathon Plan”, has me doing the majority of my miles IN my long run. Just very curious to read research stating the opposite- thanks!!

  2. Hi Leah! thanks for your comment 🙂 I learned this *general* rule of thumb when I took the RRCA coaching class a couple of years ago. I do not this this necessarily applies to every single person or plan, but feel it makes sense and is a safe way to look at it. That being said, I have yet to read the “less is more” plans or apply them to my own training thus far. I would love to hear from other readers what they think about this – for sure it isn't all black & white and there are lots of things to consider. I guess what it boils down to though is you have to do what is right for you and if your body responds well to this then do it!

  3. Fantastic tips! I am dealing with this issue right now as I try to get back into the training groove after some time off and find myself behind schedule. In the past I would push through it (and get injured) but I am now doing what you talk about and listening to my body. My long run this weekend was 8 miles because I just don't have the overall mileage to do more than that. I'm supplementing with long bike rides (50+ miles) instead of overdoing it on the running. Patience is key! See you at MCM!

  4. I'm also a RLRF girl and my long run flies in the face of that rule as well as its the bulk of my running mileage. BUT if I take my XT miles into account, it isn't. I think that's the difference. Great guidelines!

  5. You could have started this post with “Dear Caroline:”
    It is for me.
    thank you for posting this. I am one who got carried away, increased mileage too fast, pushed too much, did the miles because the plan called for them and ignored I was feeling some pain in my groin….well 3 mos lager I have an injury. It is mild but it is there and it is in an area that takes FOREVER to heal! I learned the hard way. I thought that because I am slower and I dont train for marathons yet I would not get injured and that I should push more. I am still fairly new at this, and I still have a lot to learn.

  6. Great tips, Jess! I am in awe of your body happily accepting those mileage increases! I wish I could say the same, but mine seems to get unhappy when I venture over 40 mpw no matter how carefully I inch up, so I've learned the less is more plans work better for me, as much as I'd love to be a high mileage runner. Instead, I found that I love spinning and am now teaching on the side, so I guess it worked out. Yay for your 65 miles, that's huge!

  7. This is a great post, with great information! I love technical posts like this:-) I think I have fallen pray in the past to building mileage too fast and to not adapting due to fatigue or aches and pains: I just push through it. And the results have been negative (plantar fasciitis) this time around I feel much smarter and will definitely keep you tips in mind! Thanks!

  8. Early in my running obsession I learned the hard way about too much too soon and too fast. But hey I learned and have been smarter ever since. In working with a running coach for my goal race in Sept and a fall ultra I learned a lot of the tips you shared here. I've PRd my last 10K and 5K 🙂

  9. As I age (44) I found that my body will only tolerate a certain number of miles per week. I have to focus on quality, not quantity, and increasing slowly, slowly each week is the key preventing injury. I am currently trying out a new program that scares me because the miles are much less than I'm used to! oh my! it scares me to even type that out. Must trust.

  10. This is a wonderful post! I think your points on a gradual progression of mileage is great and very applicable to me. As a new runner who recently joined a running group, it can be very easy to just follow everyone else. Luckily, I have been fairly smart and have listened to my body so far. But as I feel my body getting stronger and see myself being able to do more, it becomes more tempting to keep up with the “big guys”. This was a great reminder for me to stick to my plans/needs and not someone else's plan.

  11. Love this post!! It is so true. You inspire me!! I am running MCM this year with my hubby and hope to see you out there. Thanks for this amazing post and showing that it can be done.

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