Less is not more. More is almost always more. So if you want breakthroughs on the trails, the best way to get them is to run more than you have before.
People complicate it, but running is like almost every other activity. Want to be a good pianist? Practice a lot. Want to be a great surgeon? Cut a lot of people open.
In both activities, it is important that your practice has some direction. Mindlessly slamming the piano keys or taking a knife to grandma during her afternoon nap will not make you an expert (nor popular with the neighbors). But in all cases, the common denominator of expertise is time invested.
It took me way too many years to learn this lesson. In summer 2010, I had just graduated college after gradually getting into running over the previous four years. I was running 20 to 30 mostly hard miles per week (along with some biking), thinking I was doing things right. Then, I found a dog-eared copy of the cult-classic novel Once a Runner, and everything changed.
Once a Runner tells the fictional story of Quenton Cassidy, who goes to the woods, trains his butt off and ends up winning an Olympic medal. It wasn’t the melodramatic prose or poignant narrative that struck me—it was the mileage. Cassidy was running as much in a day as I was running in a week.
After adding a few more dog ears to the book and returning it to the library, I gobbled up every resource on running training I could get my hands on. I found out what all elites know—Cassidy was merely doing what it takes to be one of the best runners in the world.
With Cassidy’s ghost as my training partner, I methodically increased my mileage from 20 or 30 per week to 90 over two years. I ran slower most of the time, did just one harder workout a week and stopped biking, lifting weights or doing any other athletic pursuit whatsoever. I went from a solid but unspectacular local runner to a national trail champion.
As Cassidy said, “The only true way is to marshal the ferocity of your ambition over the course of many days, weeks, months, and (if you could finally come to accept it) years. The Trial of Miles; Miles of Trials.”
What makes running different than activities like the piano is that doing it too much or too hard will result in injury. The injury conundrum makes running unique, and, in my opinion, is the main reason coaches exist. How can we keep you healthy and avoid burnout while maximizing your volume? That question is running training distilled down to its essence.
I’ve written about how to stay healthy before. Cliff notes version: run easy most of the time, practice injury prevention and eat as hard as you train. But I haven’t confronted the other piece: How much running should you be doing?
It depends on whether your goal is to finish strong (defined here as being confident that you have done enough training to reach the finish line smiling, even on a bad day) or perform optimally (being confident that you are doing the most you possibly can to reach your running potential). Both are great goals, and both come with different types of sacrifices and planning.
To Finish Strong
The general guidelines for finishing strong (and smiling) are below. These mileage totals give you the volume needed to be sure your legs are prepared for racing the distance, with enough training to do the necessary long runs and avoid the race-day trauma that results from running on unprepared legs. (Endurance-based cross training, like biking or Elliptigo, does not count toward total mileage, but can be a valuable addition to a training program.)
5K: 10 miles per week (over at least 2 runs)
10K: 15 miles per week (over at least 3 runs)
Half-marathon: 25 miles per week (over at least 3 runs)
Marathon: 30 miles per week (over at least 4 runs)
50 miles: 40 miles per week (over at least 4 runs)
100 miles: 40 miles per week (over at least 4 runs)
Longer races require more volume, and more volume requires more runs per week; concentrating too much mileage in too few runs increases injury risk.
At this level, 100 miles requires the same volume as 50 miles, because in those races, you will be stepping into the deep, dark abyss of the unknown no matter what. So if you are just aiming to finish strong, it is more important to focus on key long efforts (and pray to the ultra-gods profusely for their favor).
To Perform Optimally
Performance is a tricky, deceiving monster. Much of elite performance is dictated by choosing the right parents. Therefore, we aren’t talking about absolute race performance here, but personal performance relative to genetic capabilities.
The numbers below represent peak sustained volume, or the highest volume you will achieve and sustain for at least a month during hard training.
This formulation is overly simple—you should work up to this volume slowly over time, building a base then adding workouts and modifying total volume based on periodization principles (more on this in our March 2016 issue and its training special). Remember, volume comes with diminishing returns and is highly individual, so be careful not to run too much for you.
5K to 10K: 6 to 12 hours per week
Half-marathon to 50K: 7 to 15 hours per week
50 to 100 miles: 8 to 16 hours
That is quite the range, but gives you an idea of the numbers you want to work toward over time. The lower end is for injury-prone or time-crunched runners, especially those who have not run high mileage previously.
These numbers are in time (rather than distance) to account for variances in terrain—steeper, more technical trails are slower, but have a similar aerobic stimulus. Finally, these numbers go out the window for older runners—injuries are more likely for runners in their 50s, 60s and 70s.
A less accurate but clearer way to picture it is in optimal miles per week, assuming non-technical terrain and a consistently durable runner:
5K to 10K: 50-70 miles per week (women), 70-90 (men)
Half-marathon to 50K: 60-90 (women), 70-110 (men)
50 to 100 miles: 60-110 (women), 80-120 (men)
If you’re anything like me when I first started learning about training, you may be saying, “That is a lot of mileage!” Good. That is the point of this article—being an expert takes a lot of time, and it’s essential to acknowledge it whether you are a runner or a pianist.
Still, these numbers are not hard-and-fast rules, just guidelines. Just because you can’t reach these numbers doesn’t mean you won’t be amazing at trail running.
Remember, never increase mileage by more than 10 percent in a week (and 3 to 5 percent if you’ve never run higher mileage before). It took me two years to go from 20 to 30 miles per week to 90 miles per week.
No matter what, always be extremely attentive to injury. Staying healthy is the most important part of running, and durability is a talent in its own right.
There may be shortcuts to good (or even great) performance, but there are no shortcuts to your best performance. Plan for the long term, methodically increase volume and do smart workouts once or twice a week after you have a solid running base.
To put it another way, it’s all about the trial of miles, and miles of trials.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.