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Optimum Marathon Mileage Base

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5/11/00 

Most responders seem to agree that the mileage base for an optimum marathon is an individual thing. I agree with that....to a point. But, I don't agree with the general feeling that "less is best." The question should be, "How much is the most I can handle?" Not, "How little can I get away with and still run good marathons, or even improve?"

Several people also made the point that quality is more important than quantity. From the context in which the point was made, I interpret them to mean that speedwork is more important than mileage. However, quantity is an element of quality in a marathon program....much more so than in a 5k or 10k program. Certainly, speedwork is vital for an optimum marathon performance. And, if mileage leaves a runner too tired to complete speedwork satisfactorily, s/he should reduce mileage until s/he can. But, reducing mileage below the maximum level that permits "quality" speedwork is counterproductive. Speedwork and mileage are equally important in an optimum marathon program. A rule of thumb should be to run as many miles as you can without degrading marathon training speedwork or inducing injury. In my opinion, that's an optimum balance between speed and mileage, or maximum "total quality" in a marathon program.

Rest is an important part of any runner's training. But that doesn't mean you have to sacrifice mileage that builds endurance base. It means alternating hard and easy days and weeks.....even seasons. That's why you should reduce mileage at least every third week and cut mileage while not marathon training. I like to alternate marathon and 10k seasons. The higher mileage of the former and the faster speedwork of the other complement each other, while each also serves as a break from the stresses of the other. It's a long-cycle form of hard/easy that helps to keep me fresh.

Several professional coaches offer multiple, progressive marathon training schedules. Daniels, Glover and Higdon are among them, in addition to the Pfitzinger & Douglas book that Kil mentioned. In every case, mileage increases as development progresses to achieve faster marathons. That's no coincidence. In general, you don't reach your maximum potential by reducing training mileage, unless you started at too high a level.

The year I began training and racing (1983), I averaged 28 miles/week over the entire year. While marathon training, I averaged 33 miles/week with a peak week of 50 miles and one long run of 18 miles. During the next 6 years (1984-89), I increased those numbers to 40 miles/week yearly average and, while marathon training, an average of 50 miles/week with peak weeks of 60-65 miles and four runs longer than 18 miles. I made steady progress as indicated by an annual improvement in my MCM time from 3:47 to 3:22....except for one year, 1987. Work requirements starting late spring that year left me with less time to run. My average mileage dropped to 36 miles/week for the year and my marathon program averaged 46 miles/week and peaked at 56 miles with three runs longer than 18 miles. That was only about 10% less mileage than in the year before and the two that followed. But, my MCM time slipped from the low 3:20's to 3:29 and my Maryland Marathon time from 3:24 in 1986 to 3:37 in 1987. It was the only year I didn't set a marathon PR. In addition, my times for all of my race distances slipped a little that fall. That told me something about my optimum training needs.....when my base mileage decreased by 10%, so did my race performances at all distances, including the marathon. OTOH, I couldn't run any more mileage than I ran in 1986 and 88/89 because I was always flirting with an injury. In fact, I finally "caught" one at the end of the 1989 marathon season that stopped me from running for 3 months and ended my first running life.

I can't directly compare the race times of my more recent "second running life" times to those of my first running life in the '80s because I'm 10 years older, 15 pounds heavier, and 40 minutes slower in the marathon. However, the best and strongest marathons I have ever run occurred in 1997 and 1998. Both years, marathon training averaged 43 mpw, peaked at 70 miles and included 13 runs longer than 18 miles, including 9 of 20+ miles in 1998....all of which are greater than my peak years 10 years earlier....although my overall average weekly mileage (27 and 32 miles) was less for these years than during my peak years. And, I was making progress again. Then, last year, my marathon training was interrupted twice for a week or more and my race times for all distances again suffered....one minute slower for the same 10k's and 2 minutes for the same half marathon as the previous year. I can't compare my Philly time last year to 97/98 because it was unseasonably hot last year.

I am convinced that a 16 week marathon program that starts at 35-40 miles/week, builds to 60+ miles and includes at least 8 weeks of 50+ miles and 4-6 runs of 20+ miles is best for me. Also, annual mileage that averages 30-35 miles/week is best for me to maintain the necessary endurance base for hard training and racing. (This is less than the 40 mpw that was "optimum" for me 10 years ago....but I'm 10 years older now! :) ) For optimum racing, this might be too much for some or too little for others. But, I don't believe 25-35 mpw is optimum marathon training for very many runners, except for someone who is very fragile and injury prone. For many people, that might be good average weekly mileage over an entire year and a good level to start a marathon program, but not peak, or even average, marathon training mileage for best performance. Cutting mileage to this level and still improving race performance simply says to me that the person still has a lot of room for further development and improved despite the mileage reduction. But, low mileage won't bring it all out.

At least once or twice a year, one of these "less is better" articles appears in some publication and gets some people stirred up. They are good for expanding general interest and participation in marathoning among the running community. They also help some people overcome mistakes they might be making in their marathon program, like tapering improperly or not managing their hard/easy cycle adequately. But, they don't change the basic physiology of marathoning. To reach your peak capabilities, you have to do the work in training....and that's tiring. You simply aren't going to race your best on a steady diet of 35 mpw while marathon training, unless higher mileage than that pushes you to an injury. And if you go to the starting line with dead legs, then the problem was more likely with the taper than the content of the rest of the program.

Jim2