Can Less Really be More?

Ok, so, what is the least you can run and still be able to finish a particular race or still be competitive? That is a question alluded to in so many conversations I’ve had over the years. I’ll outline here a high level view of just this issue.

Shorter races of course are easily accommodated on only a few days a week of running. You do not need to run too many miles to be able to complete a 5k. To be competitive (you need to define that for yourself of course) you will need to “optimize” your efforts however. Just getting a few miles in to complete the race won’t suffice to be competitive.

Longer races of course will require some extra miles. For the purpose of this article let’s define “longer” as 10 miles and beyond. The questions remain however, how many days a week and how many miles per week do I minimally need to run to race successfully? Also, let’s define “race” as an effort beyond just finishing; an effort which requires hitting a specific time or place goal.

In the early 1980s there simply weren’t enough hours in the day – three jobs, a wife and a young son and finishing a master’s degree. It’s not unusual. I’m sure many of you can relate. I experimented with how little could I run and still be satisfactorily “competitive”. It was an experiment of one… me.  

At the time I called it my “Extreme Hard-Easy” approach. I ran no more than four days a week, mostly just three and rarely less. I ran quite hard on the days I did run. The most common pattern included a track workout with mostly faster than 5K pace repeats (400-1600); a 4-6 mile run with 3-4 miles at 10k race pace; a long run of 8-12 miles very fast – half marathon race pace or faster. My weekly mileage varied greatly – 15-40 miles per week for months on end. My results were good in my opinion. I set PRs in many distances. I won a few races outright as well as many age group victories. I did not get injured during that time. I almost always felt like I wanted to run more.

Only in the intervening years have I studied and learned why this approach actually worked. High speed workouts have affects on your muscle enzymes that greatly enhance conditioning. For instance, it has been shown in studies that you can run two one-mile races and have the equivalent enzyme affects as going on an easy six mile run. Now that is efficient running! Since I ran many miles at or faster than goal paces my body also became efficient at those paces. This is also borne out in research – to get efficient at running, you have to spend time running at your target pace and high quality workouts also yield positive efficiency affects. And finally, it’s not surprising my injuries were non-existent. There is a direct correlation between miles run and injuries but not such a correlation between running quality and injuries. The last thing that I learned over the years is that if you run a minimalist approach such as this, is that you can enhance conditioning through very high intensity cross training. That would involve cycling, swimming, aqua-running, even stair-stepping or elliptical workouts as long as they were of an interval nature with high intensity work intervals. My problem was time however and so I couldn’t have fit more workouts into my life. If time is not an issue and you can do other workouts, these are viable condition enhancing workouts if done as described.

This is one reason I enjoy creating schedules for busy people. I lived it. I understand it. If I had my choices, I’d run everyday though. Because I just love the motion! A bad day running is better than a any day without running!


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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