The Marathon – Average Pace vs. Mileage

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.”]


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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17 Responses to The Marathon – Average Pace vs. Mileage

  1. Adam says:

    Another way of looking at it is that you went into your lower mileage training period with a supremely well-developed endurance base consisting of several thousands of miles run at various paces. That, plus your prior racing history and marathon experience, produced your fast marathon time.

    What is the difference in average mileage, then, between the winners and non-winner elites mentioned in the studies? I gather they range between 100-140 miles, and that old Lydiard 100-mile threshold still sounds applicable. Daniels notes the law of diminishing returns follows 100 miles, but we know elites are trying to eek out every second of potential.

    As for training paces, I wouldn’t doubt that the faster the better. The caveat regards the runner’s capacity to recover for the next workout, and the notion that marathon training takes patience, so cramming in an overly fast workout may derail a long-term agenda in favor of a short-lived payoff.

  2. Adam,
    Excellent points. Since there were months of down time between those marathons the residual affect of the high mileage would have been virtually negated. In fact I was coming back from an injury and took many weeks off with little to no training prior to the low mileage efforts. Otherwise the logic would carry that if you run a couple months of high mileage you’re good for 5 years… or a lifetime. This of course is totally untrue – all the “de-training” research indicates that. In fact, de-conditioning begins within days and is almost complete in a matter of weeks. Also, a year between those first marathons would ameliorate any affect whatsoever of “marathon experience” being a key variable other than the psychological component.

    Average miles ranged widely from well under 100 to well over 140 in the group evaluated.

    Recovery indeed is important and very individual. Recovery times for fast (depending on what that is for the individual) will take as much or little as recovery from long miles. The real point is what is the biggest bang for the buck. So, indeed you MAY run a good marathon on many miles and that is what you enjoy – go for it. If on the other hand, you would like to reduce incidents of injuries, decrease total training time and still get the same or better results, then run faster not farther. (Of course with the caveat that to do a marathon you have to do your race-specific long runs, etc.).

  3. Adam says:

    Thanks for filling in some gaps, Coach Dean. I understand your point about de-training. I wonder if you really lose cell mitochondria that quickly, though. I think an endurance base is very easy to maintain once it’s built (it’s hard to build, though). Speed, strength, and race sharpness have to be approached in a more organized manner, though, and one can detrain any one of those attributes in a hurry and be left at square one. My guess is there are still threshold levels for adequate mileage as well as speed work to produce a good marathon result.

    I ran my first 10k on July 4th in 36:53. This was in the midst of a 60-mile week of base training, having done no speed work whatsoever. I hadn’t run any sub-6 minute miles for a couple of months and I was fairly cautious about my pace. My form fragmented in the last mile, which I ran in 5:24 (it featured a downhill) and I know some fast reps would have helped me hold it together. So, you could say I should be doing a lot of speed work so I can get a sub-35. I’m sure people have said to you that your 2:36 marathon could have been a 2:29 on 90 mpw.

    At any rate, as always I find your posts interesting and provocative. By the way, I am running Tucson this Dec. — are you still “in?” This will be a legitimate sub-3 attempt for me. I will be doing lots of LT and MP work!

  4. Adam – awesome results and yes I will be in Tucson.

    Here is a funny point about your 2:29 comment – I was actually on pace for 2:27 with only 2 miles to go and got a cramp in my calf and had to basically hobble to the finish! Fatigue wasn’t a factor… I was cruising 5:30-40 per mile almost effortlessly… and that was on 40 or so miles per week average.

    Since I’ve been there done that on the 90 plus miles per week people would just have to take my word for it… it wouldn’t have made the difference. Aside from all research, I know my body and came to know the horrible affects of all those miles.

    By the way another variable I did not get into was racing. Running races themselves are considered speed work.

    Tucson is a great course… be sure to train on some downhills though or your quads will be talking to you the last 6 miles. We’ll have to hook up – I think I’ll be down there a day or two ahead of time.

  5. luke says:

    Very interesting post! Indeed, maximum oxygen uptake (VO2max) is boosted by interval training at fast paces.

    However, a solid base is only built by running miles and miles. In order to avoid injury, a big part of the mileage should be taken at slower tempo, don’t you think so?

    I found your description of your training for the Fiesta Bowl Marathon very interesting. You improved although you had run lower mileage in the preceding months. But there is another factor: you had 4 more years under your feet when you were fastest…

    Thanks again for the interesting post! Cheers, -luke

  6. Luke,
    True, I had more years of running – but predominantly in the months before those “3 months of training” prior to marathon “build-ups”… were even MORE reduced and very variable. Without going back to every instance, I can say that weekly mileage over those years went from zero to a very few weeks over 50 (I had about 6 weeks during that time over 50)… and that is over a 4 year period. So, you make a nice point. Years of very modest mileage with high intensity training yielded better marathons in lieu of pounding out miles.

    The concept of “solid base of slow running” is antiquated and unsupported for most runners. True a total beginner will get the most benefit out of just increasing miles to the 25 miles per week range or so. Again, some nice VO2max improvement to mileage in the 40s. It is negligible after that and there is absolutely no doubt that changing WHAT you do with those miles is clearly more important than adding miles at that point.

    Aside from the research, I will add that anecdotally my runners run Boston Qualifying times on mileage that range from 35-45 miles per week. I’ve had sub-3:00 marathoners on 40 mile weeks. They outrun many of their peers who are routinely running 50, 60, 70,80 and even 90 miles per week. Most all of them have never run mega miles in any form at any time during their running careers – so past “long miles of training” simply can’t be a factor in their successes.

    As for the injury issue – virtually all the research indicates that #1 predictor of injury is past history of injuries and #2 is total mileage of training. Speed of workouts is poorly correlated to injuries sustained. Which of course means that at least statistically, my runners would incur fewer injuries than those doing lots of miles. Of course, anyone who abruptly introduces fast stuff into their training after doing nothing but jogging might be courting injury – just as abruptly adding a 20 miler would!

  7. I read this when prepping for the trail marathon I just completed this last weekend and tried to follow it. I’ve done the same race 4 times now. Twice with serious speedwork and medium mileage twice with high slower mileage. The speedwork definitely wins with average marathon times about 10-15 minutes faster. Thanks coach !

  8. luke says:

    Good points! Thanks for the input. …I’ll go for some fast running now!

  9. Jeff,
    It’s always good that the research and stats work for individuals. I know that it does for most of my runners too. Sometimes the hard thing about reading research… is that it involves samples of populations and all kinds of statistical analysis; by the very nature of stats applies to groups of people not individuals. There are always outliers when the “research” just doesn’t hold up. Luckily, as a coach, I have to first play the numbers game – stats and research is on my side for my group of runners – and then I have to be smart enough and intuitive enough to know how to tailor it to an individual when necessary. Keep up the good work!
    Upward and onward!

  10. funny, i put up your column on my CC/track team running webpage blog and i’m certainly doing more reading on it than them !!

  11. Pingback: A Runner’s Balancing Act » Blog Archive » Wishing I could train like a “real” runner.

  12. Love it! Thanks for sharing.

    Am training injured for NYC and have been doing minimal, but faster miles. Looks like it is working, but will know in a few weeks.


  13. Simon says:

    Very interesting coach Dean! This question has been nagging me for a while and glad to find your article while searching. Unfortunately there is not much public interest for this type of analogy. Can you recall how many training miles a week you had averaged to marathon pace (MP)? I presume, averaging MP for 10 mi/week won’t cut it and guessing it has to be at least 15+.

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Your MP goal miles have to progressively increase as a proportion of your total miles. In the beginning 10 might be ok. If I have a runner at let’s say 35-40 miles per week of training for the marathon and they want to run 3:00. Then they will start with 7-10 @ MGP (6:50/mile). I schedule a couple “goal weeks” in their program in which the entire week is GP runs. On average the rest of their weeks will be somewhere in between. BUT, the research on this is NOT just about GP miles.. it’s because the overall average pace is brought up a notch due to speed work! The marathoners who did more “fast” running were faster.. go figure right? The obvious is hard for many to grasp.

      • Simon says:

        Thanks coach for your quick response.
        Due to injury I had to reboot my training this past winter with low weekly mileage in 30s while healing, less than half of what I used to do. I progressed into low 40s with mid week steady state runs of 10 to 12 mi a few seconds slower than my goal marathon pace. I peaked to 60 mi while also getting MP averaged miles close to 20 while overall weekly mileage varied between 30 to 45 seconds slower than goal MP. After my last long 20 mi run (& 60 mi week) 3 weeks before the marathon, I totaled 55 mi @ 8:07 avg. Then last week 40 mi @ 7:36 with all the runs between 7:12 to 7:50 pace (fits one of your goal weeks :-), though it might be a little late), longest 12 mi at 7:43 avg. Most of the miles were on the last long run were around 7:30 with couple of miles w/u & c/d and 2 mi at 7:10 before c/d. This is the last week before Boston with minimal mileage, 3 short runs. I have done intervals only intermittently, not sure if it will have any effect? I am hoping to sustain 7:30 in the marathon.

  14. Dean Hebert says:

    The problem I see with your paces is that 7:12 to 7:50 is to large of a range. Though the research I allude to is about “average pace” in training it must be specific to the runner. For training purposes “Average” doesn’t mean just taking all your runs and averaging them. For instance GP miles has about a 2% variance to get a similar training effect. That means ABOUT 7:20-7:40 is the widest range for your GP miles. Faster is NOT better and slower is not better. That has to do with specificity of pace for the right neuromuscular training effect. I think you will be far better served getting your weekly mileage consistently 35-50 (max) to reduce injury rates. I have sub-3 hour marathoners running less than 45 miles per week and a couple who did it on 3-4 days a week of training. But, all miles were very purposeful and paces targeted.Good luck at Boston.

    • Simon says:

      Thanks coach for the wishes and great information. I will have to recalibrate a differently for my next marathon. I have been thinking a little fuzzy about average weekly training pace vs marathon pace. I am very glad to come across your well phrased article with proven results. Your two complete MGP training weeks is innovative approach to marathoning and see why your runners are very successful.

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