Not all runners are created equal, and neither are their weekly mileage numbers.
“Not all athletes who are capable of the same performance have the same work capacity. There are several biological and psychological factors that determine work abilities. Counsilman (1971) provided interesting ‘behind-the-scenes’ examples regarding the work capacity and pain tolerance of swimmers Mark Spitz and John Kinsella. As opposed to Spitz, Kinsella liked to push himself, yet no other athlete matched Spitz’s performances” — Tudor Bompa
Arthur Lydiard is perhaps best known to runners for the emphasis that he placed on base training in the development of all runners from 800m specialists to marathoners. Specifically, he is known for the “hundred-mile week” — a staple of many (but not all) of his runners.
While some of Lydiard’s runners were 100 miles per week runners, some were 150 miles per week runners! Lydiard himself experimented with 250-mile weeks. In fact, rather than firmly adhering to a 100 miles per week policy, Lydiard had his athletes running as many “supplementary miles” in addition to their key aerobic workouts as their energy allowed.
So, rather than arbitrarily adhering to some fixed number, Lydiard tweaked the prescriptions for his runners based on their recovery abilities. All good coaches do this with their athletes. Rather than adhering to an arbitrary number of miles (from a book or a fellow coach or an excessively detailed training forecast), the intelligent coach takes into account the recovery profile of the athlete when determining how many miles to run.
Australian swim coach Bill Sweetenham elucidates this concept in his book, Championship Swim Training, where he defines the optimal “breakpoint” training volume as “doing the greatest amount of work in the shortest possible time, with the least amount of rest, during which the heart rate does not exceed 30 BBM and does not go below 50BBM. The athlete maintains quality technique and recovers fully for the next workout.”
Clearly, this definition adds an element of quality constraint that shifts the emphasis from “as many miles as possible” to “as many quality miles as possible.” It also mandates that the athlete recover between workouts (at least enough to maintain the requisite intensity). This recovery factor implores us to drop the mileage prejudice that is so common in running circles. As the legendary Bill Bowerman said, “If someone says, ‘Hey, I ran 100 miles this week. How far did you run?’ ignore him! What the hell difference does it make? The magic is in the man, not the 100 miles.”
In fact, the optimal volume that you settle on will have just as much to do with your physiology as your will to train. To be sure, most recreational runners are more time limited than physiology limited. However, among serious competitive runners the tendency to shoot for a particular round number without paying any mind to the specifics of one’s physiology is just as common.
So, what are the factors that come into play when determining optimal mileage?
- Size: Smaller, less muscular runners typically have quicker recovery profiles than larger runners.
- Gender: Females typically have quicker recovery profiles than males.
- Fiber type: Athletes with more slow-twitch fibers recover more quickly than athletes with a predominance of fast-twitch fibers.
- Basic conditioning: Athletes who have developed the ability to use fat as a substrate and spare carbohydrate during rest and low-intensity activity recover more quickly than athletes who lack this general conditioning.
So, at least two and a half out of the four factors contributing to how much work the athlete is able to handle are outside of the control of the athlete, and yet we still cling to our mileage prejudice.
In fact, as the opening quote of this article suggests, while the mileage that an athlete can handle may relate to his best event, it is not in and of itself performance limiting. Sure, a larger, world-class 800m runner may “only” run 70 miles per week, whereas a tiny Kenyan marathoner may run 150, yet, as mature athletes with many years of “sweet spot” volume training under their belts, both of them could probably outperform a random Division I collegiate 5K runner on a standard, Lydiard-influenced 100 miles per week program.
In other words, while a larger athlete may not have the recovery capacity and mileage tolerance of a smaller athlete, he has other things going for him that can make for an even playing field (at least in some events) despite the lower training volume. On the flipside, if the larger athlete decides to ignore his personal optimal mileage and copy the training of his smaller buddy, he may lose many of the attributes that make him competitive (higher maximal power, a higher VO2/unit of mass, etc).
Good coaches build the athlete’s training (including mileage) and select the athlete’s competitive events around their physiology rather than attempting to “swim upstream” by attempting the reverse.
I hope you are now convinced of the merits of determining your personal optimal volume rather than adhering to some arbitrary mileage numbers based on your event, your time goals, the latest magazine article, or some lucky number that you pull out of thin air. So, the next question becomes, How do I determine my own recovery profile? And just as importantly, What does my recovery profile tell me about my own specific “sweet spot” mileage? Check back tomorrow for Part II, where I’ll provide some answers.
About The Author:
Alan Couzens, MS (Sports Science), CSCS, PES, is an exercise physiologist and coach who helps athletes at www.EnduranceCorner.com. He has a passion for performance and has been coaching endurance athletes since 1993.