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Runners love talking about weekly mileage, and for good reason. Your mileage—or total running volume—plays a big part in your success as a runner. Personally, every single breakthrough performance I’ve had occurred after a period of high-mileage running.
But like any skill, it takes patience and hard work to build over time, and that hard work is often viewed through the prism of total weekly volume.
An interesting recent study by Strava showed that those marathoners who qualified for the Boston Marathon ran more miles with more frequency. Here, the lesson is clear: if you want to run faster, it’s a good idea to run more. But while so many runners love discussing mileage, there also needs to be an important conversation around the actual structure of that mileage:
– How many hard speed workouts are run per week?
– How are those workouts spaced throughout the week?
– When does the long run happen (and how does it progress)?
– When are rest days planned, in relation to other runs?
The answers to these questions will begin to inform the structure of your training. Let’s now discuss how those mileage levels should be planned throughout the week, so you know how to structure your training as you get ready for your goal race.
Golden Rule #1: Distribute Effort Evenly
Most of us understand that we probably shouldn’t run two hard workouts on back-to-back days (even adherents to the Norwegian model of double threshold training admit that this is advanced, risky, and only a smart idea after you’ve covered all of the fundamentals).
But what runners often get wrong is properly distributing mileage, effort, and fun. Even heat adaptations. In short, everything must be distributed with intention.
Some days have to be mentally and physically challenging. Other days might be completely easy. You might have a fun but hard workout followed by an easy but mentally challenging cross-training session. And of course, we runners have to fit in some strength training at some point, too (even though we’d rather be running).
All of this work has to be roughly distributed evenly throughout the week, with priority put on your long run and faster workout.
These simple tips about effort distribution can help:
– Never run two hard workouts on back-to-back days unless you’re highly competitive and have discussed this strategy with your coach.
– Be cautious about running two very long runs on back-to-back days. It’s risky, but still an accepted practice among ultrarunners.
– Try to avoid two to three “boring” training sessions in a row (cross-training, treadmill running, or strength training). Fun is more important than you think; your motivation will thank you!
– Generally, overall mileage should be evenly distributed during the week, rather than front- or back-loaded (an obvious exception is if you’re running a very long run or have back-to-back long runs planned).
– More challenging weight lifting sessions should ideally be separated by two or three days.
You can see here that we’re defining “effort” very broadly. In these examples, it’s just a proxy for “difficulty,” even if that difficulty is mental rather than physical.
Golden Rule #2: Prioritize What’s Important
I’ve found that implementing a sound structure around a runner’s training leads to progress and improvement. It increases the methodical nature of training, helps with the progression of mileage, long runs, and workouts, allows for ample recovery, and takes out the guesswork of what to do each day.
But what happens when life gets in the way of your training? Most of us don’t run for a living and have family, professional, and social obligations that can easily upend the carefully planned structure of our running. In these instances, we must improvise. Adapting our training around our life is critical and is done so by having a clear sense of priorities. Every training plan is flexible and can be rearranged, shuffled around, and modified to fit your needs, so don’t think that changing a training plan means you’re not training well!
First, remember the tips mentioned previously. These can help you change the structure of your running without putting yourself at an undue risk of injury.
Second, prioritize what’s important. Even if you can’t get in all your training, you can often accomplish what’s most impactful and still keep moving forward. For most runners, I would prioritize:
1. The long run (most of us lack aerobic development so I consider this to be the most important run of the week)
2. The faster workout (as a driver of overall fitness, the workout is the second most important run of the week. If you’re training for a 5K or shorter, it’s the first!)
3. The next longest run (to keep building endurance)
We can also make other modifications to our training that still allow us to gain the benefits of a training strategy while saving a lot of time:
– Strides can be incorporated during a run, rather than after a run.
– Weight training can become a shorter bodyweight strength session done at home instead of the gym, to reduce commute time.
– A short recovery run can be skipped altogether in favor of a complete rest day.
These minor alterations end up saving you a lot of time when life gets in the way of your running, and the good news is that they barely take away from your fitness.
Example Training Weeks
Creating your own training plan, internalizing all these “rules” (which are meant to be flexible), and knowing how to modify a plan takes a certain level of expertise and trial-and-error. There’s no doubt that if you stay in the sport long enough, you’ll be able to “see the matrix” and do this yourself.
Here are a few example training weeks to help structure your running:
30 Miles Per Week
Tuesday: 5 miles + strides
Wednesday: 7 miles (workout)
Thursday: 5 miles + weight training
Saturday: 10 miles (long run)
Sunday: 3 miles + weight training
40 Miles Per Week
Tuesday: 6 miles + strides
Wednesday: 10 miles (workout)
Thursday: 5 miles + weight training
Saturday: 14 miles (long run)
Sunday: 5 miles + weight training
50 Miles Per Week
Monday: 8 miles (workout)
Tuesday: 5 miles + strides
Wednesday: 9 miles (workout) + weight training
Thursday: 5 miles
Saturday: 16 miles (long run)
Sunday: 7 miles + weight training
Of course, there are nearly a limitless number of ways that you can structure your week of training. But these examples show you a sound, methodical approach that evenly distributes effort overall, allows for sufficient recovery, and challenges you just enough on your quality training days.
Structure your running a bit more strategically and you might surprise yourself with how good you feel, how quickly you improve, and how much faster you race!
Jason Fitzgerald is the host of the Strength Running Podcast and the founder of Strength Running. A 2:39 marathoner, he’s coached thousands of runners to faster finishing times and fewer injuries with his results-oriented coaching philosophy. Follow him on Instagram or YouTube.