Last week (How to Run Faster – Part 1 – The Plan) I mentioned that when I hear runners asking how to get faster, the first thing I always hear is that they should add intervals and speed work. Intervals are important, but they shouldn’t be the first tool you reach for when trying to improve your running pace.
A 2016 study of marathon runners showed that runners who ran intervals completed their marathon 3 minutes – 5 minutes faster than those runners who did not incorporate intervals into their training. However, when comparing runners who ran an average of 30 miles per week during training vs. runners who ran 50 miles per week, the higher mileage runners saw an improvement of 25 minutes – 32 minutes in their marathon time! I believe that for the vast majority of runners, running more miles should be #1 on the training plan if you want to run faster.
So, what is happening in our bodies when we run more? Your heart gets stronger and is able to deliver oxygen-rich blood to your legs faster. You gain muscular endurance as your mitochondria (the “powerhouse” of your cells) increase in size and quantity. The capillaries that deliver blood to your muscles grow. And, your muscles and tendons learn to be more efficient at the running motion – so, every step is a little easier than it was before.
I always use the analogy of a car when talking about running more mileage versus intervals. Starting to train with intervals and speedwork is like putting high-octane fuel in your car — it’s going to help you get the most speed out of what you have. But, running more miles consistently is like putting a bigger engine in the car. You will be able to go farther, faster. And, when you are ready to add that high-octane fuel, you will get even more out of it.
The Magic of Miles
If I have been injured, or maybe over in Europe for an extended period researching new races and running tours, my weekly mileage drops a lot. So, when I’m ready to start increasing again, I find that once I hit about 60 – 65 miles in week, magic happens. Even though I’m increasing my miles, and my legs are tired, I will all of a sudden start running faster, my heart rate will drop for the same run I did the week before. And, my Garmin Recovery Advisor will show that I need 10 – 15 hours to recover from my runs, rather than the 15 – 20 hours that it would recommend in the preceding weeks.
Now, I’ve always been a higher-mileage runner, and a 7-day/week runner, so don’t take “60 miles” as gospel. Each of us is different and you need to listen to your body. (It’s better to run less and be healthy, rather than get injured!) But, I encourage you to increase your mileage slowly and see if you can find that same magic.
How To Safely Increase Mileage
Lot’s of people talk about the 10% Rule for increasing mileage. The rule says that you should add no more than 10% more miles each week. This is a decent rule-of-thumb, but don’t it’s not written in stone. If you are running 4 times per week for a total of 20 miles (5 miles each run), then you may be able to add another day of running to your week without too much risk of injury. That would be about a 20% increase. On the other hand, if you are already running 40 – 50 miles per week, then 10% may be too aggressive. In order to stay injury-free, you may need to limit yourself to a 5% increase.
The other plan I like when increasing miles is to step up for 3 weeks, and then step down for 1 week to let your body recover. So, you may start at 40 miles, and in the following you bump up the miles to 43. Then, 47 miles, and then you have a recover week where you drop it back to 42 miles. And, then you start the process again, but the starting point is a couple miles higher than the previous month.
If that is too aggressive for you (some body’s can handle increasing mileage easier than other), then I would suggest stepping up the mileage 5% and keeping it at the new level for 2 – 4 weeks to let your body adapt before increasing again. The most important thing is to not get injured – so, back off if you feel an injury coming on.
While I said that increasing mileage is more important than intervals, that doesn’t mean that intervals aren’t important. Intervals are another tool to help you run faster in your next marathon or half marathon, and I’ll talk about interval training next week. So, stay tuned and get out there and run!