A few years back an interesting and somewhat surprising correlation arose from a research study. They analyzed the training of world class runners. They found that average pace of training had a much stronger correlation to marathon times than total miles run. In other words, the runners who ran the most miles did not run the marathon faster. The runners who trained faster on fewer miles (albeit relatively fewer) were faster in the actual racing of marathons. We are talking about world class runners here so from the world record pace of about 4:46 per mile to the 5:10 per mile range (2:05-2:12 marathons) are still fast by all standards.
This is intriguing to me. It makes some logical sense. Run fast to race fast. Lots of “slow” running (again – relatively speaking) will yield slower racing. But, would you might also think that more miles makes someone an aerobic monster. That vaunted VO2max could be off the ceilings! The problem of course is that in separate research from all over the world now, VO2max has been shown to be a very poor predictor of race times and performance. That means if you lined people up in order of high VO2max to low VO2max, the finishing order in a race would not correlate well at all to your order.
Along comes research over the past perhaps 10 years that indicates that lactate threshold (pace at which lactate builds up in blood stream) and vVO2max (speed at which you reach your maximum oxygen uptake) are better indicators of that finishing order (runners with higher readings predominantly do indeed run faster than lower threshold runners).
Some very neat research by Veronica Billat (France) and Heikki Rusko (Finland) amongst others have found that sprint times are better predictors of marathon finishes! That’s right. If you lined up distance runners (not sprinters) and sprinted 50 meters; or 300 meters in another study; the finishing order was much better correlated to marathon finishing order than VO2max!
Ok, this is now all old news really, it’s been tested and researched with similar results over the past 10 plus years. But, I was wondering if we can do a retrospective look at an individual and validate this research on an individual level. We have to remember that research uses statistical analysis and sample groups vary etc. so it may or may not apply to an individual. In light of that, I went back through my records. It was tedious… yet fun. Anyway, here is what I found.
I went back over my running logs and analyzed running mileage and workout paces. (Though I didn’t have times/paces for all workouts many were noted. I do have everyone of my more than 52,000 miles logged.)
The best comparison of data came from 1976-1981 when I ran the Fiesta Bowl Marathon 4 times; all on the same course; with very different approaches to training. The first two times I ran; I put in 1148 and 1278 miles in the 3 months prior to racing. I ran 2:45:17 and 2:47:15 respectively. The following year, I ran 606 miles in the same preceding months (basically half the miles) and ran 2:45:08. I took two years off from marathoning and ran track and cross-country at the community college level and averaged 40 mile weeks for the most part during that time. I came back to the marathon and with 580 miles behind me (same preceding months) I ran 2:36:35, which to this day is my PR. Only 2 months before the 2:36 I ran the Copper Valley Marathon in 2:41:51 with only 460 miles behind me due to some injury time off.
Looking at many of my other 2:40s marathons there was indeed a theme of 35-50 mile weeks with the average weekly total close to the 40 mile mark. What stands out however were paces. The percentage of miles run at or faster than goal pace (approx. 6:00 per mile) were far greater. I routinely did track workouts every week – my average pace for the various intervals would equate to about 4:30-4:40 per mile pace for a total of 3-4 total quality miles. The other noticeable difference is that I ran 10-13 mile runs almost every week and certainly every other week at paces from 5:40-6:00 pace. It is remarkable to read from my logs in the months leading up to the ’76 & ’77 marathons. Regular comments were jotted down about how tired I was; how much I ached all over; but I was determined to get those mile in. I rarely did much pace or speed work because I was just too beat up and of course I was taught you only do that in the final weeks leading up to racing.
Granted there are other variables no one will know their impact. For instance, one could argue that if I had more miles combined with the higher pace I could have done even better. Or, the timing of my last “long” runs as we know today were too close to race day. I always raced a bit “damaged.” We’ll never know. What I do know is that with efficient training at higher speeds I didn’t need to run “more miles” to be competitive and that, at least in this one case study – it mirrors the science. In a worse case scenario it indicates that a runner can run every bit as fast (and faster) on less miles if they do the right things. Conversely, a runner who runs a lot of miles may in fact do well also (or may very well not) but they put a lot more time into their training with far greater risks for injuries.
[By the way, if one WANTS to run more miles just because the love it - that is a totally separate issue from training efficiency and racing results. If you love it - then do it. The point is not to fool yourself into thinking the "more and more miles" above what I call a "practical race base" makes you a "faster runner."]