January 2001

Non-Coach's Column! - from Paul Briscoe "Mileage"

Last time I started to look at some practical ways in which the average runner, without the time and energy of an elite athlete, might improve their racing performance. I looked specifically at the effect of weight on running and means of getting your weight down to improve performance. Now I want to go on to look at the running itself - how far, how fast and how often? This is undoubtedly a complex question with no single answer apart, perhaps, from saying "train as hard as your body and your lifestyle can comfortably cope with".

The first question we need to ask is - why is it of benefit to train harder? This might seem obvious, but doing more miles for the sake of it is no good for anyone. Training prepares you both physically and mentally for racing. It not only reduces your weight (see last issue) but also strengthens and tones your relevant skeletal muscles and your heart, thus allowing you to run faster and for longer for the same effort. It is also believed to increase the proportion of slow twitch muscle fibres and your ability to metabolise fat, thus increasing your endurance. Adding speed work should improve your overall speed whilst some faster paced training runs and races will improve your strength or "speed endurance" (your ability to maintain what speed you have for longer) - so God help us all if Paul Webster ever gets around to doing some serious training!!!

So what is the minimum you can get away with and still race well? I have never found two authors who agreed on this question and it obviously varies from person to person. If your only goal is simply to "get round", you can get away with little more than good "background" fitness - research suggests that going out perhaps 4 times per week for 30 minutes of running in your "aerobic range" (i.e. 70-85% of your maximum heart rate - assuming your max. approximates to 220 minus your age) is sufficient to achieve good cardiovascular fitness. For longer events you would probably need to build up one of your weekly runs to much more than 30 minutes, perhaps 2/3 of your intended race distance. However, if you want race or post a good time, you will certainly need to do much more than this - you will need to impersonate an elite athlete!

My own experience is inconclusive. At school I ran well off 3 or 4 training runs/week, each one being no more than maybe 5 miles. Having said that, I always ran fast and was very active generally - Iím sure that at that age I was doing plenty enough. After that, apart from a brief spell in 1978, I hardly ran at all for 7 years. I was then inspired to start training seriously after seeing the end of the 1984 Dundee Marathon. I set myself the "impossible" goal of preparing for the Aberdeen Marathon in just 4Ĺ months, expecting from past form to run well under 3 hours. My average weekly mileage for the 2 months up to the marathon was only around 40 but I did peak at 49 for the last 2 weeks before tapering - this comprised 3 x 4 mile runs, 2 x 8Ĺ mile runs plus a 20 mile run each week, with one day off. Again, I ran all of my miles fairly fast (around 6 min/mile pace) but did no speed work. In the race I set off at this same 6 min/mile pace, maintaining it through 10 but fully expecting to hit the "Wall" beyond 20. Instead, I just cruised on, passing people all the way to the finish and came home in 2hrs 38min! Obviously, I must have been born to be a long distance runner and I suspect there are few who could achieve such a time off so little. After that event, I was expected to get under 2hrs 20min but, despite increased mileage and speed work, I only ever managed 2hrs 29min (although it should be 2hrs 26min, because the old Dundee course was about Ĺ mile too long!). Iím sure this had a lot to do with a chronic back/hip problem and I think my off-road performances are far more indicative of what I should have achieved on the road. Certainly, my consistency in the Three Peaks has been down to very hard training. Clearly though, higher mileage is only part of the equation - it may be possible to reduce your mileage if you train regularly at a faster pace and are able to keep your weight down.

What do the coaches have to say? Top coaches to elite athletes certainly recommend high mileage for distance runners. All of the international distance runners I know use this formula, combined with regular speed work. Indeed, every truly successful long distance runner I have known (including top local runners) has run every day - frequently twice per day! Arguably Britainís most successful distance runners in recent times have been Liz McColgan and Paula Radcliffe, both of whom are notorious for their high training loads (the "work ethic" as George Black called it!) and whilst both might well be at their best over longer distances, they have both still topped the British rankings at shorter events too! There is therefore no escaping the fact that if you want to reach your full potential, even over 10K, you will have to do high mileage. Precisely how much you should do is open to debate - some athletes average 20 miles/day, although a lot of these miles are done very steady (say 1 min/ mile slower than marathon race pace). However, most of the internationals I have known havenít been quite so extreme, maybe averaging "only" 80-100 miles/week but run off a rather faster training pace. It is this strategy which I have adopted and I think it is fair to say that all of the most successful male Striders over the years, such as Steve Oí, Keith Cluderay and Terry Bean have done the same, despite holding down full-time jobs and often balancing their training with family commitments. So it is possible for all of us to train at this level if we want to succeed enough - you simply need to have the determination, inclination and the adaptability to work such a schedule into your life.

Clearly, there are many who do not have the time, inclination or energy to train like an Olympic athlete but who still aspire to do better than they have in the past. So the next question is "How can I get by on less?". My first training manual was "The Competitive Runnerís Handbook", written by two experienced American coaches, Bob Glover and Pete Schuder, who had worked with hundreds of runners of all standards. The manual recommended that to race up to the Ĺ marathon distance, even "basic" competitors (middle and back of the pack runners) should run at least 45-60 miles/week (off 5-7 sessions), with a longer run most weeks of at least 15 miles, maintaining this for 2 months prior to tapering for your event. For a marathon, basic competitors were recommended to do 50-65 miles/week, with a long run of 18-20 miles. All schedules also included at least one speed session per week. I believe that these are realistic training targets for any runner who is serious about improving. Remember, too, that these are the minimum requirements and higher mileage with longer runs would be necessary for those aspiring to be well up the field. Of course, there are other "lifestyle" factors to consider. For instance, older runners can often (or maybe need to) get by on less - it should be remembered that as you get older, your body takes longer to recover from each run. Therefore, for super-vets, high mileage could easily become counter-productive and taking rest days may be a good policy. This is probably why 70 year olds can break age-graded records off 30 miles per week when younger runners need to do far more to be competitive! Also, if you have a very active job or cycle/swim as well, you may well get by on less actual running.

One thing that I am convinced of is the importance of the long run - Iím sure it is my regular weekly long runs which have given me the extra staying power in races that has always been my hallmark. I also suspect that this was the main reason I ran so well off low mileage in my first marathon. If you donít do one at the moment then you should certainly try to build a long run of at least 90 minutes into your training programme most weekends. If you go out with the Striders on a Sunday morning, youíll certainly get plenty of banter and some good fun to help you through.

So what can we conclude from all this? You will certainly have to train like an elite athlete if you want to reach your full potential. However, if youíre a mere mortal wanting to improve you should still try to train at least 5 and preferably 6 times/week. You should also certainly do one longer run most weeks. Ideally, to prepare for all distances, you should aim to average at least 50 miles/week. This may sound a lot if youíve never done it (nobody said it would be easy!) but it is only an average of 7 miles/day, so if you do a long run of 15 miles or more on a Sunday with the Striders and do say 9 miles on a Tuesday from the Old Leos, you only need to average 5 miles/day for the rest of the week. Of course, if all of the above represents a big step up in training, you should only increase your mileage gradually over a period of months rather than weeks.

If you are operating at a "low" mileage, you may well also benefit from doing quite a lot of your training at a fast pace - marathon race pace or possibly faster still for short runs. If you go down this route you must remember that the body needs time to recover, so you shouldnít try to blast all of your runs, or youíll leave your best performances on the training grounds! Most coaches preach the importance of following a hard day with an easy one (although some elite runners thrive on hard runs almost every day!). Beware especially of blasting your long runs - doing the occasional one hard will benefit your strength but trying to do it every Sunday could finish you off. You will also benefit from doing some specific speed work, which is why all you people who do a "steady" on a Tuesday night need to get back to doing the reps with the big boys!!! Weíll take a closer look at speed next time.


In the last VSNews I controversially suggested that the old adage of "long slow distance" for burning off fat may be incorrect and that you might actually burn off more fat overall by running at a faster pace because of the increased recovery time. Niels has since told me of some recent research from Denmark on this precise subject which confirms my view! Whilst you burn off a slightly higher proportion of fat during a run if you take it easy, this is apparently more than offset by the extra fat burned off after a hard run by your metabolism whilst your body recovers. So, yet another excuse for taking it easy in training bites the dust!!!