The fact that every runner is unique further complicates matters. An elite running coach once told me that one of his athletes would get injured anytime he ran more than 70 miles a week. Another athlete couldn't clock a decent 10-K time on less than 70. The lesson, of course, is that we must learn the quirks and requirements of our own bodies and play by its rules.
Luckily, there are some principles that, regardless of individual mileage and pace, apply to almost every runner -- whether you're slow or fast, training for a marathon or for life. Conceived by coaches and employed by elites, these time-tested rules will help you stay motivated, avoid injuries, and run strong year after year.
1. Do the Minimal Training Needed for Optimal Results
If you've improved by running 25 miles a week, you could be so much better by running 50, right? Not exactly. Training isn't a matter of cramming in as many miles as you can. It's about finding the balance of miles, days per week, and types of workouts that get you to your goals without injury or exhaustion. Tim Noakes, M.D, in his book Lore of Running, describes this concept as the "individual training threshold." And that threshold is uniquely yours. One runner may excel on 55 miles a week over six days with extra tempo running, while another runner may do well on 25 miles a week over four days, with a focus on short, fast repeats.
Action: Experiment with different mileage levels. If you've been logging megamiles (50+ per week), back off for a little and see if you can still hit your goal times in workouts. If you've been doing the bare minimum (three days per week), try adding a day or two. Keep a detailed log, noting how your body and your race times respond.
2. Be Consistent
Ask a coach what the single most important factor is in training, and most will answer "consistency." You won't improve if you run only once a week, or if you repeatedly run hard for a week, then take the next week off. Better running comes from regular running. Consistency, however, doesn't mean you need to train all-out year-round. Periods of structured training, paired with months of fewer miles, help you avoid physical and mental burnout.
Action: Maintain a minimum, even if that's 30 minutes two or three days a week, and run in the morning so you're sure to get it done. Plan your "down" months for times you know it'll be harder to run -- winter weather, big projects, life changes.
3. Balance Hard Efforts With Rest
Imagine running as hard as you can one day, then again the next day, and the next. Sooner or later, you'd barely be able to run at all. That's the scenario exercise physiologist Jack Daniels, Ph.D., uses to illustrate the necessity of the work-rest cycle. "The benefits of stressing the body come during recovery," he says. On easy or off days, your body is busy repairing muscle fibers, increasing your ability to process nutrients and oxygen, building new blood cells, and eliminating waste. If you don't give your body time to recover, sooner or later, you will tear it down. "The best runners," says former 2:09 marathoner and Boulder, Colorado, running coach Benji Durden, "are those who work very hard, but who also have a lazy streak."
Action: As a rule of thumb, put in one easy day between hard workouts (more if you're feeling fatigued) and take at least one full day off a week. During training, reduce your mileage by 15 to 20 percent every fourth week, and if you find that a certain week is particularly difficult, keep training at that week's level until it becomes comfortable.