Intro to Low Mileage Running

“Since the first running boom of the 1970’s, an increasing number of runners have begun to believe that the more they train, the more successful they will be. In fact, there is a limit to the amount of training the body can benefit from.– Tim Noakes, Lore of Running (p. 291)

When I started running, I scoffed at the idea that you could actually hurt yourself by running too much. The phrase “running injury” seemed like an oxymoron. How could one injure oneself simply by running?

I went about training as I pleased. Everything seemed fine until I felt a stabbing pain underneath my kneecap. A doctor told me it was patella femoral syndrome (runner’s knee) and prescribed physical therapy. I went through the prescribed physical therapy and the pain eventually went away.

I had no idea that the pain underneath my kneecap would be the first in a long list of running injuries. I eventually suffered 2 stress fractures, IT Band syndrome, Achilles tendonitis, Morton’s neuroma, and a host of other nagging injuries.

The pattern of injury was clear: I’d start running more, I’d begin to get faster, then I’d be sidelined with an injury. After I’d recover from the injury, I’d promptly repeat the process again.

In hindsight, it seems ridiculous that I kept repeating the same process over and over, expecting different results. I began to wonder if there was another approach to getting faster that didn’t require getting injured.

A New Approach

“Only when top runners stop trying, lose interest, and train less do they again start performing to their potential. Only then, when it is too late, do they begin to understand the training threshold concept, and only then do they learn that too much training was more detrimental to their performance than too little training.” -Tim Noakes, Lore of Running p.293

Fourteen years later, I decided I’d had enough injuries and started to take a new approach to my training. Rather than following a structured training plan, I just ran what I felt like. I simply ran for the sheer joy of it. Although I was running less mileage, I was getting faster. My body was adapting to a new type of training.

I allowed myself to run very hard key workouts only 1–2 days a week; everything else was easy running. After each key workout, I’d take several days easy or not run at all. I was having fun, I was injury free, and surprisingly, I was getting faster. I started to wonder, “is it possible to get faster while reducing the amount of miles I run?

I knew I was onto something when in October of 2011, I was able to keep up just under a 6 minute per mile pace for 10 miles, running 59:59 in the Twin Cities 10 Miler. I ran the last mile of the race in 5 min 30 sec and felt like I was running on all cylinders.

Three weeks later, I ran another 10 mile race, this time maintaining a pace of 5:45 per mile for a total of 57:31, taking 2nd place overall. Four weeks after that I ran a personal best in a local 5k Turkey Trot, running 16:37, winning the race outright and setting the course record (it was a small local race after all).

I was ecstatic with my results! Within the next year I set or equalled personal bests in every distance from the 5k to Half-Marathon, ran a marathon in 2:55, and completed a trail 50k in 3:46, all while running about 25 miles per week.

I hadn’t planned on setting any personal records, but as my training progressed, I kept getting faster week-by-week. I was having fun and felt great. My goals were to be able to run a couple of times per week, avoid burnout, have fun, and run some local races. If my times improved, even better.

I stopped worrying about the getting the right mix of long runs, tempo runs, or intervals. I just ran what felt right. I started running whatever I felt was fun and gave me confidence in my running. Training typically included a weekly time trial of varying from 1 mile to 10 miles.

I was so happy with my results because I hadn’t set out to run any personal records training this way. Yet, by reducing my training mileage and focusing on staying injury free, I had been able to continue doing the activity I loved, and personal records at the same time.

Throughout this book, I am going to share with you how you can maximize your training and reduce injuries while running fewer miles. By listening to your body and focusing on specific workouts tailored to your event, you can optimize your results and stay injury free. I’ll tell you how to structure your training to get the most out of your running, and how taking a minimal approach to training can help you reduce injuries, get faster, and have more fun.

By training in a highly specific way, you’ll be able to get the most from your training. You’ll minimize your risk of injury, have more fun, have more time for other things, and maybe even set some personal records.

This isn’t a magic formula, it’s just one runner sharing his experience with other runners. I can’t guarantee success; I can only tell you what I’ve done, and how it might work for you. If you value your time and are willing to give an unconventional approach a try, you’ve picked up the right book.

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Listen To Your Body

“No rigid protocol. Only guidelines. Too much protocol can be suffocating and become an end in itself. Each day is special. Each day is different.” – Bernd Heinrich, Why We Run (p. 225)

Instead of following an arbitrary training schedule, let your body tell you when it is ready for your next key workout. Sometimes, you’ll be ready after a few days, other times you will need a week to 10 days to fully recover. This is especially true if your key workouts are getting longer, like when training for a marathon.

It is important to use intuition to guide your training; not a rigid schedule. Listen to the signals your body sends you. Not just how your muscles and tendons feel, but also your motivation to train hard.

You should enjoy testing yourself on the road or trail. If you are feeling blasé about your training, take a few days easy. Your body will let you know if you are ready for another key workout, or whether to take a rest day.

Ask yourself, “Am I excited about this workout?”. If the answer is “no”, then take the day easy or skip running altogether.

Race your way into shape

“I have been astounded at times by how little training I need once I reach a peak. On occasion I have limited my entire running program to one race a week. I have gone as long as a month on such a schedule and noticed no change in my racing times.” – George Sheehan, Training: More or Less

One option to consider when using a low-mileage approach is to simply race your way into shape. Every weekend, run a race. During the week, run easy.

Racing has a lot of advantages over training alone. You get to run with other people. This can be a huge psychological boon. Whenever you have people watching you run, you tend to run faster. Even by uploading your run data to online services like Strava or Garmin Connect, you will run faster because you know people will be able to see your run.

Another benefit to racing is that it takes the guesswork out of creating workouts. It couldn’t be more simple. Get to the starting line and run. Racing trains your body for the specific stress of running faster over a given distance. Racing also helps you flex your mental muscle by forcing yourself to run fast when you don’t feel like it.

If you are training for a marathon, racing your way into shape is especially helpful because the race course will have aid stations along the way with water and sports drinks. No need to carry anything with you, or plant water bottles along your route, let the race director take care of that for you.

When training for a marathon, include progressively longer races and plug your times into an online marathon race predictor, to give you an idea of where you are at in your training.

Stress + Rest = Adaptation

With low-mileage running, the goal is not to follow a particular program, or schedule, but to optimize performance by maximizing adaptations to specific stress. Listen to your body, and focus on running workouts that are specific to your race.

Low-mileage running is a way of running based around key workouts, rather than building high weekly mileage. You’ll be exploiting your body’s recovery and adaptation mechanisms by running specific key workout, then allowing your body to recover.

Take Full Recover Between Key Workouts

Running injuries are the result from cumulative, repetitive stress on the body. They aren’t the result of one-off hard efforts. By running key workouts just 1–2 times per week, you capture the benefits that come with hard training, while keeping your risk of injury low.

If you stress your body appropriately through hard training, then give it time to recover, you’ll get faster.

Too many runners focus just on the hard training and ignore recovery. They make the mistake of not allowing for adequate recovery between workouts.

You’ll only get faster if you allow your body to properly recover between workouts.

Key Workouts

Key workouts give you the biggest bang for your buck. Structure training around key workouts to help your body adapt to specific paces.

If you’re training for a marathon, your most important key workout is your 15–20 mile long-run. For a half-marathon, it’s your 8–10 mile fast paced run. For the 10k it is a mix sustained efforts of 3–6 miles and interval work. For the 5k it’s short time trials and fast intervals.

  • Key workouts give the necessary stimulus to support your racing, they help you get faster
  • All other running outside of key workouts is done at an easy pace with occasional 10 – 20 second sprints mixed in
  • Track key workouts closely so you can do an apples-to-apples comparison over time

Minimum Effective Dose

“Who every records that exceptional runners like Walter George and Alf Shrubb achieved quite remarkable performances on very low mileage? George ran a mile in 4:10 and 10 miles in 49:49 on little more than 3km of training per day. Even Paavo Nurmi, the most medaled Olympic runner of all times, trained pathetically little but performed exceptionally, even by today’s standards.”

  • Tim Noakes (Lore of Running p.292)

If you want to stay injury free while getting faster, it is essential to find the minimum effective dose of training to get your desired results. If your goal is to run a sub 5 min mile, and you can achieve this by running 20 miles per week, why run more?

Running more miles than necessary will only increase your chance of injury and burnout.

Find the minimum amount of running necessary to achieve your goals.

Follow the 80:20 Rule

“It is clear that genetic ability has more to do with why great athletes beat us than their hard training, and there is no earthly way in which training can reverse the physiological realities and thus reduce the chasm that divides us from them. Unfortunately, too many runners believe that they must train hard to run well and end up doing too much to try to compensate for their genetic deficits”

– Tim Noakes (Lore of Running p.291)

I learned from my experience with low-mileage running that 80% of the benefits you get from training come from just 20 percent of the training.

By pairing your training down to the bare essentials, you can get 80 percent of the benefits with just a fraction of the running.

By focusing on what’s important, you can cut back on your weekly mileage, helping to reduce injuries while maximizing your results.

Through my experience with a low-mileage approach, I’ve come to believe that many runners spend too much time slogging away endless slow miles, that have limited value.