Understanding the Value of High-Mileage Training.
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For background, I began my career in running as a short to mid-distance runner. Then, as injuries mounted from repetitive stress on my body, I shifted to triathlons for awhile. The varied stresses from swimming, cycling, and running allowed me to develop a robust cardiovascular foundation without the injuries I faced when running alone. Fast forward a few years when I started medical school and no longer had the time to train for a 3-discipline sport. In place of triathlons, I jumped head first into ultrarunning.
Enter low versus high mileage training philosophies. At the time, I didn’t think specifically about the volume I was doing, but I knew that generally speaking, it was on the low side. Due to time constraints and other contributing factors, I’d get in the minimum number of miles I needed to reach my goal. For instance, while training for my first 100 mile ultra, I was putting in 35-50 mile weeks rather than 80-100 mile weeks. While nothing to write home about, I finished the race, which was the only goal I had that year (and honestly, the way you should approach your first 100 miler). The following year I upped my mileage a bit and went back to the same race, finishing in under 24 hours- a nearly 3.5 hour PR. There were a lot of factors that contributed to my improved performance the second year and as I reflect on them, I figured I’d share some of them with you.
If you’re training for a 5k or even a 10 miler, this article probably isn’t for you. But if you’re interested in doing a longer distance race of 15-20 miles or longer then I’d highly recommend considering some of the following pros and cons of higher mileage volume. In this evolving world of hybrid training where athletes/individuals have multiple, disparate goals (often involving the desire to improve strength and endurance concurrently), there is little objective data on how to train for longer events. I’ve seen the pendulum swing both ways, from people trying to merge separate generic running and lifting programs together (which usually ends with a broken, overtrained athlete) to Brian MacKenzie’s CrossFit Endurance approach that left him unable to finish an ultra race (after being a pretty solid ultra runner before starting his own program).
There’s a sweet spot in there somewhere, I promise. Keep in mind, if your only goal is to become an excellent ultra runner, then put in the miles- all of them; every last one. However, if you have other goals too, like many of us do, or are really prone to injuries, then you need to think long and hard about what you’re getting out of each mile you run. You need to be putting in quality miles that set a solid foundation for you to build on. For ultra running, many of those miles will be Zone 2, aerobic-capacity building miles (also what I like to call “time on your feet”). These are NOT “junk” miles. These are absolutely necessary miles for long distance running and here’s why. By the way, if you’re a strength athlete who is just looking to build a stronger cardiovascular foundation, you may find more specific information by reading you So you want to run? Part 1 and Part 2.
Pros of High Mileage
Durability – Durability in this context relates to both a mental and physical capacity to withstand significant physical strain. Many ultra races push the athlete to a near breaking point, causing massive microtears in the muscles and significant lactic acid build-up. The only way you’ll know what to expect is to push yourself to this point at least a few times during training. Only during these sessions will you be able to identify when you can keep pushing. Repetitive sessions will also allow for physical and mental adaptation over time, possibly with improved lactic acid clearance, aerobic glycolysis, increased tendon/ligament and muscular strength around joints (more on this below), improved bone density, and maybe even development of calluses on your feet (for instance) where blisters would have occurred otherwise.
Joint Strength – As alluded to above, adequate joint strength is paramount to longevity in distance running. Your ankles, knees, hips, and lumbar spine will absorb the majority of the forces with each foot strike- and you will have a lot of foot strikes during a 50k, 50 miler, etc. Repetitive forces from high mileage running will put stress on the joints and force improved attachments to the bone. Durable joints are a must. If anything is going to start hurting during an ultra, I will pretty much bet on one of the joints between your ankles and your lower back. You’re going to want to know your weak link ahead of time. I’ve learned this the hard way; pulling out at mile 80 of the Uwharrie 100 because knee pain on my prosthetic side. What could I have done differently? Turns out, I could’ve grabbed a pair of trekking poles to take the weight and stress off my leg. Now, I can practice for next time.
Technique/Form – You’ll only know what your form looks like after many miles if you’ve actually put in the miles. That doesn’t mean that you need to run a 100 miles before your first 100. But it does mean that you need to do at least a few runs while fatigued (like during higher volume or higher intensity weeks) so that you can address any weaknesses in your form. As your form breaks down under fatigue, you’re at higher risk of injury and general discomfort. Think about it. You’re fatigued. You may start to round your shoulders and lean forward slightly, putting more stress on your lower back. This may seem insignificant at first, but think about having a 5-10 lb pack on your back with 10, 20, 30 miles to go.
Nutrition/Hydration Strategies – Can you train your gut? That’s a very good question. I would argue that you can, but this is only from anecdotal evidence. Physiologically, as you run, blood is directed away from your gut, which means your capacity to absorb fluids or digest food is limited. For shorter distance races, this physiological phenomenon is irrelevant. However, during longer distance races, blood glucose and liver/muscle glycogen is not sufficient to fuel your body during the entire race. You need to be taking in sufficient calories, but just consuming them is not necessarily enough. Your body needs to be able to extract the proper macronutrients without feeling bloated or bogged down. Determining what your body is able to digest, what foods are palatable, how much fluid you can take in, what types of fluid you can take in, etc are all imperative for race day. It’s not until you’re sufficiently fatigued that you’ll be able to start answering these questions.
Breaking In Gear – You’ve probably heard the wise words “don’t wear your new shoes for the first time on race day.” For longer races, you’ll have more than just a pair of shoes to break in. What clothing are you going to wear; what about socks, hydration vest? Have you worn these items for enough miles to know if/where they will chafe? Even your shorts may feel great at mile 10, 15 or 20, but what about mile 30 or 40. I’ve seen elite ultra runners pull out of races because of chafing in very, very sensitive areas. Okay, back to your shoes. Keeping your feet happy is also crucial during an ultra. What if you get a blister or a hot spot? Knowing these things ahead of time and how you’ll respond is just as crucial. The more you know before race day, the better prepared you’ll be. But you’ll only know if you put the miles on your feet.
Mental Toughness – Physical preparedness is important, but the value of mental preparedness for an ultra cannot be underestimated. As long as you can physically put one foot in front of the other, you retain the ability to keep pushing yourself. Again, you can’t (or don’t need to) develop mental toughness during a 10 mile Zone 2 run. But what about at 30, 40 or 50 miles in Zone 2? When Zone 2 becomes a 20 minute/mile walk you may rely on self-talk to get you to the finish line. Knowing what you need to tell yourself to keep going could make or break your finish.
Cons of High Mileage
Injuries – Any time you start putting in more miles, you put yourself at higher risk of injury. While there are plenty of advantages to higher mileage (see above), increased mileage also means more wear and tear on your joints and higher fatigue levels, which means form breakdown and higher risk of injury. If you’re injury prone or have any major imbalances, then you’ll want to tread carefully and ramp up mileage very slowly. You may also be someone who benefits from the “less is more”training philosophy.
Compromises Other Goals – For many individuals reading this article, you may have other goals besides being an elite ultra runner. Whether you have concurrent strength or even aesthetic goals, a high mileage running volume may compromise those goals temporarily. You’ll have to decide what’s most important to you. You may be able to manage your goals simultaneously even while putting in higher mileage, but that’ll depend on your overall, general training plan.