How To Increase Running Mileage Safely by Mackenzie Madison
(Originally featured in the July/August 2015 issue of Freeplay magazine)
Running is one of the hardest sports on the body. The amount of force generated and placed on the tendons, ligaments, bones and joints while running is greater than almost any other sport. It is important to learn how to adapt our bodies to be able to handle an increase in running mileage and intensity safely- especially after coming back from an injury. But what is deemed as a “safe” increase in running mileage? That is the million-dollar question! If we had that answer then we wouldn’t have running injuries and our training would go to plan without a hitch. While there is no right answer or exact protocol that can be applied to every runner, here are some general guidelines to follow to get in more running mileage.
One thing to take into consideration before you increase your running mileage is your current amount of life stress. Is it higher or lower than normal? Stress is stress on the body whether it’s good or bad, physical or emotional. The body does not differentiate between the good or bad stress nor does it know the difference between physical or emotional stress.
I had an elite level coach give me a great analogy about stress. He broke stress down into a daily numerical value of 100 points. Each day you only have 100 points of stress to divvy out between training stress, emotional stress, work stress, relationship stress etc. In other words your body can only handle so much stress. The stressors that are taking the most points are either out of priority or choice. It’s best to look at how those 100 points can be spread more equally out and more “good” training stress can take place. If you are in a position where you are having a lot of external stress besides training stress it’s best to take precaution while increasing running mileage.
A lot of times other life stressors outside of training are the cause of an injury. In this day and age we want more: we want to train more, live more, run more. Really take a step back and analyze your current life and training situation to understand where a lot of your energy is being directed. Doing so will make you a better runner and give you key pointers on how to increase your running mileage by decreasing stress in other areas of your life.
Runners unfortunately place this huge importance on total weekly mileage. It is almost as if nothing else matters except for our weekly running mileage. As a coach I get that athletes like to define things in a numerical value such as weekly training hours or mileage. Doing so does have some face value but it doesn’t even scratch the surface as far as describing what kind of miles or hours of training they were. Someone could run 50 miles of long slow steady work and then another athlete could put in 50 miles of hard intensity interval sessions. These two types of training are vastly different from each other. One is definitely easier on the body than the other.
When you want to increase running mileage you need to look at how much of your running mileage is intensity and how much of it is just endurance-based mileage. It is important to first develop a base where you are able to complete some consistency in your running program without adding too much intensity- if any. Once you have developed a strong base then you can start increasing the intensity. The general rule of thumb with intensity and mileage is to only increase one or the other in your weekly cycle. This holds true especially when starting back up from an injury.
The 10% Rule
If you are a runner then you’ve probably heard of the “10% Rule.” The 10% Rule states that you should increase your mileage by 10% each week. This general rule does not always have your best interest at heart as a runner. Overall, it is highly advisable to never increase your weekly run mileage by 10%. It is also important to understand that overall weekly mileage increase is highly individualized. The 10% rule should be used in a continuum fashion in which you should consider increasing your weekly mileage from 0-10%. The other factors that you should consider while increasing your overall running mileage are: How much intensity are you running? How is your recovery? How are your stress levels? Are you injured? If you have been battling some injuries, are stressed, not recovering well, or are really putting in some serious mileage already it’s better to run a conservative amount of mileage.
Change Up Your Surface
When you start to increase your overall running mileage it is wise to incorporate a variety of training tools and running surfaces to decrease the running force stressors on the body. One of the most important things you can do to safely increase your running mileage is to change your running surface to a softer one. You can do this by just switching from concrete to asphalt. Other great surfaces to run on would be dirt, bark trails or a treadmill or aqua jogging. It is also good to rotate running shoes while increasing your mileage so that they do not get too worn out by either a bad running pattern or loose their cushion. Running shoes help to detract from the overall force placed upon your body. It is highly advisable to not complete all of your mileage in minimalist running shoes especially while increasing run mileage.
Strength and Form
Most runners seem to ride the fine line between increasing their overall running mileage and injury. As noted before our bodies have a tough time handling and recovering from the extreme amount of force that is created from running. Like a car, certain parts of our bodies start to break down with wear and tear and need to be tuned up. The more mileage we have on our cars, the more risk we run into for things to go wrong. The same goes for our bodies, which is why it is important to focus on making sure that we are running on all cylinders. Most professional and collegiate runners complete running form drills and dynamic stretching before they complete their workouts. They do so to activate all muscle groups that are needed to have a strong and fully active running stride. Having the correct running form is imperative for preventing injury and safely increasing overall running mileage.
In addition to completing running form drills it is also highly advisable that you incorporate a general strength-training program that also highlights any strength deficiencies that you have. As female runners we should always place a great amount of importance on hip and core strengthening. Every runner has some sort of strength discrepancy and it is important to continually work on your weaknesses especially before and while increasing overall running mileage.
A lot of times runners listen more to the training plan rather than their bodies when in fact it should be the opposite. Listening to your body’s aches and pains should take priority over accomplishing a set number of weekly miles. It takes awhile to learn ones limits and know when too much is too much. If you have to question whether you should go for a run or continue to run, it’s best to call it. Your body is not a set machine that can tolerate “X” amount of increased mileage each week. Depending on the overall status of your stress levels you might not be able to recover as quickly one week as you did the other. Some runners follow a 10-day cycle vs. a weekly cycle. It might be wise to stretch out your training runs over a 10-day cycle instead of a weekly cycle therefore giving you more recovery days and allowing for higher quality training sessions.
The Alter G treadmill is a fantastic way to incorporate more running miles. The Alter G decreases your lower body pressure by allowing a specific percentage of your body to be unloaded onto the treadmill belt. It is a unique way to run without all of the stressor forces of gravity.
The Alter G can be a great tool for those returning to running after an injury. Typically an athlete will start running on the Alter G at 50-60% of their total body weight. Once the athlete is able to run pain free at 60% then they will be able to slowly and gradually increase to 65%, 70% and so on letting pain be their guide. What is great about the Alter G is that it allows a runner to maintain a normal running gait pattern while working on cardio fitness. The biggest benefit from having a normal gait pattern is that no abnormal gait patterns are created due to the injury and the athlete comes out with a proper running form. The Alter G treadmill has an edge over aqua jogging since it utilizes all of the same muscle groups and creates a more direct running form movement than aquatic therapy. You can start running on an Alter G with a healing stress fracture even- of course with your Doctors permission.
Planning Out Your Training
There are a couple key principles to understand when increasing your run volume if you are healthy. One of them being that you can’t continually follow the 10% rule or you would be running 100+ mile weeks. It is best to increase weekly mileage for 2-4 weeks max and then have a “down” week in which you decrease your running mileage by 10-20%. Once you start reaching some of your highest mileage weeks you might want to reconsider including a down week every 2 weeks or even every other week. It is also important to not continually increase your mileage until you hit 70-80-90 or even 100 miles. You want to be able to stop at a mileage that is appropriate for your current racing distance but most importantly a mileage amount that is appropriate for your body. Remember that putting in the miles doesn’t necessarily make you a faster runner. Putting in the intensity also makes you a faster runner. You will reach a point at a specific weekly mileage in which your recovery is lacking and can’t complete your workouts with the intensity that is needed. It is important to listen to your body and figure out where your mileage limits are. As a coach and professional athlete there is a point when quality mileage is more important than quantity.