Can Running Less Make You Faster?

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If you’ve ever heard elite athletes talk about their 100-plus mile-training weeks and thought “more miles must be the key to success,” you’re not alone. And to some extent, you’d be correct. There have been multiple studies that show a strong correlation between running mileage and marathon performance. And since running more miles helps increase aerobic capacity (sometimes called v02 max) and improve your running economy (i.e. how efficiently your body uses oxygen while running), it makes sense that more miles might equal better.

But there are also a lot of reasons to scale back your mileage, too. If you’ve been struggling with injury, burn out or just want to try something new, it’s time to think about fewer miles.

You might be better off running less if…

You’re injury prone. For whatever reason (e.g. genetics, hormonal issues, etc.), some runners are more likely to get sidelined. If you have a history with injuries, it might be a good idea to think about lower mileage. If you’re training for a race, it might mean you need to accept more rest days (or cross training) because in the long run, running healthy, even if it’s less often, is better than not running at all.

You’re running too many junk miles. Many runners are guilty of this one—piling on warm up, cool down and recovery miles when we might be better served doing something else. Maybe that “something else” is faster running (i.e. tempo or track intervals), or maybe it’s an extra hour of sleep. In any case, before you run miles just for the heck of it, ask yourself about the run’s purpose. Each mile should be getting you closer to a goal, whatever that might be!

You’re not strength training. Many runners dutifully put in the miles, but they neglect the one thing that could make them a faster, more resilient runner. Strength training and mobility work is key for staving off injury, improving stride economy and getting faster. Of course, you still have to put in the miles if you want to see results on the roads, but many runners would benefit from swapping out an easy run for a strength session.

You’re overtraining. Overtraining can be sneaky to identify, but it generally happens when runners either do too much mileage/intensity or too little rest. Or more commonly, it happens because of a combination of the two. Runners who are overtrained often see a dip in performance, which leads them to think they need to run more. As you might guess, this leads to a vicious cycle of even more overtraining. Common signs of overtraining include excessive fatigue/lethargy, lack of motivation or enthusiasm for training, new or increased depression or anxiety, trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, weight loss or loss of appetite, increased sickness or injury, higher resting heart rate and decreased performance. If you’re new to running, you probably aren’t over trained, but if you’re stuck at a plateau or have been competing at a high level for years, it’s something to pay attention to. If you’re feeling stale or experiencing any of the above symptoms, try backing off on mileage or intensity for a few weeks. A little less stress on the body might be just what you need.

Every runner’s training cycle is an experiment of one. Figuring out your ideal combination of mileage and intensity will likely take a lot of trial and error, but if you’ve always put miles above everything else, hopefully these tips will encourage you to give that strategy a second look.

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