Is intensity worth more than mileage? Discuss.

oldshoes4Any of you who are training for a marathon or half marathon will now be fully aware of the tyranny of high mileage training. Particularly if you’re aiming for a marathon, you need to start from a base of around 15 miles a week, and get that up to at least 50, including weekly long runs of at least 20 miles. Well, that’s the theory anyway. And one that I subscribed to myself until a couple of years ago.

That was until I realised that after a 4 month build-up culminating in several 50 mile weeks, I was pretty much a dead man walking by the time I got to the start line. My knees felt pounded to death. I was rarely free of cramp, no matter how good my warm-up and cool-down. And don’t even get me started on how much I was spending on my favoured Asics Gel Cumulii, at the rate of a new pair every 400 miles (or 8 weeks, in old money).

Which was when I decided that there had to be a better way, and started to experiment with cross-training and speed-training as a substitute.

So these days, when I’m preparing for a marathon or half marathon, instead of running between 6 and 8 miles, 4 times a week, followed by a long run at the weekend, I’m far more inclined to do 20 miles on a Saturday, rest on Sunday, swim or cycle on Monday, do 8 miles on Tuesday, do some sprint intervals around a football pitch on Wednesday, do about 6 miles running on Thursday, then rest on Friday, to get some energy up for Saturday’s long, slow run.

Now, this all adds up to a weekly mileage of less than 35 miles on the road, which any running book will tell you is woefully inadequate. The thing is though, that my race times are about 10% quicker since I reduced my mileage, and I don’t spend my whole life feeling like I’m about to expire from exhaustion. Nor do my errant cartilages make such regular breaks for freedom.

Now, I’m fully aware that to publish such thoughts amounts to sacrilege in the world of the serious runner: nearly as bad as my borderline fascistic rejection of the walk/run strategy as a valid way of training for races.

What I’m talking about though is a training regime that works for me, as a 14 stone, 44 year-old bloke with bad knees. And what I’d love you to take away from this is the thought that maybe, just maybe, all of the running books that insist on a massive mileage as the only way to train, could be living in the dark ages.

Is there anyone else out there who doesn’t think that ‘miles in the bank’ are all there is to marathon and half-marathon training? If you’ve got any thoughts on this, please leave me a comment. I think that this is important stuff.

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6 thoughts on “Is intensity worth more than mileage? Discuss.

  1. I absolutely agree with you. I’m still a slave to the miles for this training season, and strangely I think it’s because I’m lazy and it’s easier for me to just go run than take the time to plan a really high quality schedule.

    Of course the elites run high-milage, but most of them also get to sleep all day.

    Your plan sounds very good. Someday I will try something like it. One cool thing about running is that we have our whole lives to experiment.

  2. Thanks for your comment Elle. I don’t blame you for sticking with high mileage if it’s working out for you. I think the ‘higher intensity/lower miles’ thing really comes into its own for us over-40s…

  3. At 42, I am a recent returner to running after an 8 year layoff having spent 15 years ruining my knees in the Army. I have signed up to run the Stroud Half at the end of Oct and started out running 1-3 miles 5-6 days a week back in June. No problems CV wise but even those short distances done daily quickly began to take their toll.
    Within the 1st couple of weeks I felt the old niggles coming back so had a 4 day rest and a rethink.
    I now run 3 days 1 week then 4 days the next in the following split starting on a Monday (speedwork, Rest, 4 mile race pace, Rest, 3 mile quicker than race pace, Rest, long run, speedwork, Rest, 4 mile race pace, Rest, long run, Rest, Rest)
    The mileage is slowly growing ready for October but the rest in between is proving a godsend so I am confident that I will get there without the aches and pains so common in those who are fast approaching our dotage.
    The other advantage is that by mixing up the type of session then any stagnation and boredom of running the same pace over usually the same course is taken care of.

  4. Hi Darren, another thing to consider if your knees are pretty wrecked, is how to take additional strain off them. For example, I’ve got lateral tears in the main cartilage in both knees, which used to be prone to popping out during marathons. My sainted physio recommended leg raises with weights to build up my quads, and I haven’t had a problem since. So, it may well be worth consulting a sports physio to see if there are any exercises that can help you out in the long term. Oh, and good luck at Stroud!

  5. I think there is a lot to be said for swapping some of those junk miles for quality cross training. Runners world have published a book called “Run Less, Run Faster” that preaches this very theory. I followed the training plan for FLM 2008, ran around 10 miles less a week during training and finished 10 min quicker than 2007. I also had far fewer aches and pains and generally felt more energised through the whole program.

  6. Interesting. Might have to check that out book myself – as I’m increasingly finding that speedwork and cross-training are doing me much more good in terms of reducing race times than an excess of ‘junk miles.’

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