Have you heard the one about more miles and efficient running?

Efficiency is defined as the use of oxygen per energy output – for runners (cyclists, swimmers, etc.) it is oxygen use over the distance traversed in a given period (pace). Efficiency is gained through neuromuscular coordination. Better neuromuscular coordination leads to less wasted motion. Less wasted motion leads to less energy wasted. Reducing energy costs reduce oxygen costs.

Anyone who begins a new workout program will initially gain in conditioning and become more efficient in that activity just by doing the activity. This will always be the case in going from couch potato to athlete. It is also true (but perhaps less dramatic) in sports cross-overs (i.e. cycling to running). In those early workouts, training the muscles to respond correctly to the specific requried movements happens through doing more of that activity until the neuromusclular system “knows” the movements. This is when we become more coordinated in the activity. Whether that activity is on an elliptical trainer, swimming or running (or any other sports) the process is the same. Early gains are recognized through slower, repetitive efforts and gradually increasing your bouts of exercise.

Here is the point at which the “more is better” philosophy diverges from what science has shown to benefit you best in becoming efficient. Once you gain basic movement coordination, aerobic conditioning and muscular strengthening becoming more efficient depends on doing something different – not more of the same.

It has been definitively shown that becoming an efficient runner first and foremost comes through high quality running.

A key element in becoming efficient is to reduce your foot contact time. This is not done by artificially trying to run on your forefoot and stay off the ground during your runs. Foot contact time is reduced through high speed training & drills. By becoming stronger at faster movements, your body learns to coordinate it’s muscles better and reduce excess movements. You end up staying on the ground less time. You end up faster.

Secondly, efficiency is race pace specific. You do not get efficient at your marathon 8:00/mile pace by running at 9:00/mile on long runs and then adding in some speed work on the track at 7:00/mile pace. This is not an averaging thing! You must run progressively more and more miles at your goal pace (8:00/mile) in order to become efficient at that pace! You do not become successful at any race distance (not the mile and not the marathon and not anything in between) without running many miles at your projected goal pace.

The final point of course which science is reasonably clear is the crossover point at which “what you do” with the miles is more important than “the number miles”. 

Quite surprisingly to many of you, it is no more than a modest 40 miles a week (or less depending on the study)! At this point there is little doubt that what you do with your miles is more important than adding more miles. One study showed better progress in race times for a group averaging 38 miles per week over 50 mile a week runners! (They all started at 38 miles per week. One group stayed at 38 but changed some miles to high quality running and the other group just added more miles to 50.) Think about it, 31% more miles did not get better results!

Guess what, we also know that once a runner has the ability to run 20 miles per week they will make great gains by changing the nature of what they do from – just running to incorporating speed work and drills. They will progress far faster than the 20-mile-a-weeker who adds more miles versus adding more of the right miles. Anecdotally, I have found far greater progress introducing “speed” work even to complete novices than making them jog continuously until getting up to 20 miles a week. The nature of “speed” of course is relative to the individual.

I have one final application to share. Regarding Olympic/elite level runners does this still hold true? The answer is an undebatable, yes – just on a higher scale. There has been analyses done on Olympic marathoners’ training. After evaluating scads of data guess what single element most predictive of their performance? It was the average pace of training: the faster the paces in training, the faster they ran in the marathon. Training mileage was not well correlated. And the highly touted “miles” that Kenyans run is inaccurately portrayed. They run a higher percentage (about 30%) of their miles at 10k pace or faster than other runners. (Do the math. Even at 80 miles per week they would run the equivalent of race four 10Ks per week as part of their training!) They only run high mileage for a few weeks when they run as a team, once a year. The rest of the year it is far more modest. It is true that they run far more than the average age group runner. They look for every tenth of a second difference – it may mean the difference between Gold and nothing. The point is that even at this level, they become more efficient (as well as the fastest) through a higher percentage of high speed workouts to gain power and efficiency in their movements.

There is no doubt that adding many more miles will result in some improvement – along with a huge increase in chances for injuries. The real question to a competitive athlete is this: do you want to put more time than you have to into your sport to get the results you want?

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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 - trailrunningclub.com. 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 Running-Advice.com. 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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3 Responses to Have you heard the one about more miles and efficient running?

  1. Jimmy Holub says:

    BAM!!!

    Dean, if you look above, you will see another reason why I keep coming back to you for coaching. Good stuff. Thank you for the relevant workouts that you have prescribed for us in RxRunning. Maybe you should have your own running show and call it “Myth Busters”. (…oh wait, nevermind…) This article gave me feelings of vindication as I read it.

    Anecdote:

    [Dean, could you at some point comment on the good/bad/ugly aspects of doing the following method for half-marathon training?]

    Last year I experimented with a method new to me regarding long runs, while training to race a half marathon…

    The setting is training for the 2007 PF Chang RockNRoll Half Marathon in Phoenix, AZ. My goal for this race was very difficult for my ability level, on the edge of what I could accomplish in the training time available, setting up an emotional finish on race day.

    The Method: I did nearly every long run on the track so I could use my countdown-repeat timer to stay exactly on goal race pace, without interruption, minus the 1.6 mile warmup and 1.6 mile cooldown between my home and the track. My long runs started out at about 50 minutes total, including WU and CD.

    I became very accustomed to approaching my limits at that specific pace, trying to simulate race conditions. I actually called these long runs “distance trials”, rather than “time trials”. I always stopped short of straining myself, so as to prevent injury or damage that might impede training progress. Also, I switched directions about every 20 minutes if nobody else was using lane 1.

    Basically, I was able to maintain goal race pace for a longer and longer period of time at each long run. At first I could only do about 25:00 at goal race pace, goal finish time being 1:28:00. My last long run was 2 weeks before the race: WU + 1:07:00 + CD, totalling 1:34:00.

    Results: In the most difficult race of my life (nearly 20 years of running), I finished 5 seconds under my goal finish time.

  2. Jimmy,
    Your approach was actually very sound. You capitalized on the faster runs, lower mileage approach. When training time is limited it makes even more sense to use this type of training. If on top f the long trial runs you performed various track speed workouts you would have a reasonably well rounded distance race training plan.

  3. Thiwa says:

    Great…Thank For Share This.

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