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One of the most common questions amongst runners is, “How much should I run?” or the closely related question, “How often should I run?” Both of these questions address a foundational component of training, termed volume. Volume refers to how much you run, so it quantifies the number of miles or minutes you’re out pounding the pavement, trail, track, or treadmill during the week. It is the product of the number of days you run per week and how far you run on those days.
As runners, we eat up our stats. We love to keep track of our personal bests, our longest run, and even our lap splits in a workout, so it seems only natural that we care about how much we should run. After all, knowing how much to run is a key consideration for runners who want to maximize the benefits of their training and minimize the risk of injury, and let’s face it, who doesn’t want that? However, because the sport of running is diverse—encapsulating a wide range of participants, distances, terrains, paces, and goals—there is no single answer to how much you should run.
The Factors That Influence Running Frequency
While there are are countless factors that can come into play when determining your running volume and frequency, the following ones are typically the most important considerations:
It should come as no surprise that runners who have years of continuous training under their belt are able to safely run more than those who are new to the sport. Beginners need adequate time to gradually build their endurance and give the musculoskeletal system time to adapt to the physical demands of running. In fact, the cardiovascular system adapts to training faster than the muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, and physical structures are able to strengthen and adapt, so even though you may feel like you’re able to run further or on more consecutive days than your beginning running plan may recommend, the very slow progression in your training plan is a deliberate way to give your body the recovery it needs to develop and get used to high-impact exercise.
Current fitness level.
Your current fitness level also matters and actually differs from your experience level. For example, if you are brand new to running but have been doing a different mode of exercising (biking, hiking, swimming, spinning, rowing, elliptical, etc.) regularly up until this point, you should have a good cardiovascular fitness base already, which will enable you to handle running more or progress in your training volume more quickly.
On the other hand, if you’re an experienced runner who has had extended time away from the sport—perhaps because of an injury, pregnancy, or life simply getting in the way—you’ll want to err on the more conservative side of things (akin to a beginning runner) than your former years of miles may dictate.
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Injury history and risk.
This is a big one. If you are an injury-prone runner, and certainly if you’re currently rehabbing an injury or trying to quiet various niggles, you should run less often and perhaps shorter runs, supplementing with lower-impact cross-training activities (cycling, aqua jogging, swimming, elliptical trainer) as tolerated or desired.
The sweet spot of running volume and frequency will largely depend on your goals. Are you training for a race? If so, what is the distance of the race? Are you running as a way to improve your health? Are you primarily running for stress relief? In general, longer races necessitate longer training runs, and often involve running the majority of days in the week with a higher training volume overall.
Though there are plenty of truths behind the beautiful adage, “age is just a number,” it can play into how much you should run. There are plenty of exceptions to the rule, but in general, the older we get, the more recovery time the body needs and the less training stress the body can handle. As you approach and surpass your 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, you will likely find that your body no longer bounces back as quickly after a run and that you need to schedule in additional rest days each week.
Time and availability.
This factor is a given. We all have busy lives these days; your schedule may allow for only a few mornings to run each week, or your run time might be confined to what you can squeeze in during your lunch break at the office. Whatever the case may be, many runners are limited in training frequency by the competing demands life throws at us.
Your desire to run.
Not all runners only run. If running is your primary activity, you’ll run more days per week, but if you enjoy variety and like to pepper your week with yoga classes, weight lifting, spin workouts, a hike with your kids, and lap swimming, you’ll run fewer days per week.
So, How Much Should You Run?
Even our non-exhaustive list of factors demonstrates that determining how much you should run is best answered on a case-by-case basis, but here are some general guidelines:
Most experts agree that beginners should plan to run three to four days per week with at least one day of complete rest and optional cross-training on the other days. The duration of your initial run/walk sessions should be 20-30 minutes, increasing the percentage of time spent running in subsequent workouts. If you’re already fit from other exercise, you can probably increase the duration of the workouts and handle four days per week.
The minimum you should run.
Once you’re past the beginner stage, the answers to these questions become a lot more gray. In terms of physical fitness and exercising for general health, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ recommendations are for adults to be active nearly every day of the week, and to accrue a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week.
If we focus on running specifically, the general consensus amongst experts is that you need to run at least three days per week to improve, and the fewer days per week you run, the more crucial it is that those runs really count. In other words, they need to be high-quality workouts (intervals, hill repeats, threshold runs, long runs, etc.). Cross-training on non-running days will help augment the training benefits.
For the average recreational runner.
Most non-elite runners run five to six days a week. In general, a rest day is important to reduce injury risk, but more experienced or competitive runners may run every day or at least cross train on all non-running days. Weekly mileage or volume in terms of minutes is highly dependent on racing goals, with 5k runners running anywhere from 15-50 miles per week and marathoners landing somewhere in the 30-70 miles per week range, with plenty of variability.
The maximum you might run.
Elite runners may have upwards of 14 runs per week, a physically-demanding training schedule achieved by running twice most days. Termed “doubles,” two runs per day is a way to significantly increase your running volume while still giving your body some amount of rest. In general, doubles are only recommended for experienced runners who are healthy and running 60-70 miles per week or more. Even then, it’s vital that you listen to your body and heed to any signs or symptoms of potential injury, fatigue, or overtraining. It is also highly inadvisable to double with two hard runs; at least one of the workouts should simply be recovery or easy miles.
Deciding the frequency and volume of your training is a largely personal decision based on your fitness level, goals, experience level, and body. It’s important to bear in mind that some running is almost better than nothing, but also that too much of a “good” thing can actually be harmful. Striking the right balance involves the interplay of the different factors surrounding your personal situation, and is likely to constantly evolve as your circumstances change.