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Run More? Run Better? Let's Pick a Winner

Updated: Aug 31, 2023

Oh how I love this debate! The question: Is it better to run more miles or better quality miles in training for distance running? I'm sure you've had this conversation before... What makes the argument ongoing, and interesting, are the successes that coaches and athletes have had on both sides of this "line in the sand". You will find elites like Bernard Lagat, who has peaked at 60 miles per week for his entire, world record setting, career and you will find others like Kenenisa Bekele (previous world record holder in the 5,000 and 10,000 meter distances and arguably the best distance runner in history), who ran 150 miles per week in preparation for his, first ever, marathon. Lagat and Bekele have always been mid distance specialists, from 1500 meters to 5,000 meters (up to 10,000m for Bekele), and are World Champions in the 5,000, both having run under 13 minutes in the distance. So it would look like both high volume and high quality programs work, right? Yup! So is either one better? And what should YOU do? I think we have to compare the two approaches so we can discover the similarities and differences in order to choose a winner!

The thing both programs have in common... the focused, key workouts. While Bekele is chillin' well over a hundred miles per week, you can bet he doesn't miss the hard, pace specific workouts. Bekele and Lagat are probably doing some of the same workouts on some days, while on opposite sides of the planet, with very different goals. Why? Because when you want to run fast, you have to teach the body what it's in for... by running FAST! Intervals broken into shorter distances than a given race distance allow runners to work on speeds that cant be maintained for longer distances. This ingredient (I like to call "speed development") is one of the most important ingredients for every runner looking to see increases in performance ability. You may say, "Duh!!"... But it's really a common misconception that we should all build this huge base of miles before adding any speed work. So it sounds like I'm arguing for quality over quantity, right? Not exactly, not yet... Higher volume in training has a positive effect on a runners aerobic capacity, meaning the ability to take in oxygen during exercise. The more oxygenated the body, the more fat is utilized for energy demand and the longer one can go before energy depletion. Besides the more well known aerobic benefit of improved endurance and overall economy, a large aerobic capacity is important for a couple other reasons, as well: 1. It allows for faster recovery times during sustained speed interval workouts. Fast recovery means more specific work can be achieved in workouts. 2. Because of the oxygenating effect of these runs, the aerobic workouts themselves are a way to recover the body in between hard workout days. The muscles and connective tissues benefit from the increased blood flow, leading to faster muscle recovery.

3. Aerobic, easy to moderate running still puts a load on all of the tissues of the body from a mechanical standpoint. Building a large "base" of aerobic miles allows the athlete to build the strength of muscles, tendons and ligaments to withstand greater workloads without taxing the adrenal system and increasing cortisol early in training. So who is the WINNER? For most people quality will be the more practical approach simply because most people can't handle the high volume workload without burning out.

In my opinion, high volume should be reserved for advanced runners only, when an improvement in pace is the goal. Hard and easy days together are a winning recipe. You really can't have one without the other if you want to build a winning machine. It would probably be better stated to say "start with quality, build the quantity". Whether a program is high or low in volume, it should include a balance of aerobic and pace specific workouts and dynamically adjusting the ratios of each according to the phase of the program (base, sharpening, taper, etc). I believe that if an athlete is recovering well between workouts and can handle more, progression in volume is appropriate, regardless of what the current mileage is.

The Application:

Here's the gospel... Every runner should include every training stimulus into every week of training! This is true from middle school through middle age. Speed Development, Sustained Speed, Aerobic Development, Strength and Skill are the 5 ways I like to identify the stimuli. Many workouts can incorporate elements of more than one but its important to know how to use each stimulus to positively affect the others. For example; if you do a strength workout leading into a speed development workout the speed will suffer and the affect wont be positive on the overall progress of the athlete.

Start low and build. Start your training programs at a volume that is realistic and allows you to recover fully from the speed and strength training. Developing a strong body that can handle the rigors of running should be the first concern. A well rounded program does this naturally. As you progress through the program, increase the overall volume, with the highest percentage of work being aerobic development (this is true at every stage of training to different degrees). The key workouts, which I consider to be everything besides aerobic development, will also increase in volume and intensity as you get stronger, raising the overall volume but keeping ratios relatively the same. To simplify this, think of it in ratios. Example: you may start at 40-50 miles per week and 80/20 split aerobic/skill work. By the second month of training you may be up to 60 miles per week and the ratios are still 80/20 aerobic/anaerobic. Then 6-8 weeks out from your race, starting a sharpening phase, the milegae may still be in the 60s but the amount of skill will increase so you have a 60/40 split of aerobic/anaerobic.

Remember: even in low volume training plans, aerobic running makes up the greatest percentage of workload. The biggest mistake comes from phasing out the other elements completely.

Good luck out there, be smart and when in doubt... consult a COACH!! :)


(*originally posted January 31st, 2014)

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