How Much Running is Too Much for High School Runners?

This inquiry comes in from a concerned mom.
My daughter runs on a local cross country team. They start running every morning in the summer, 3 miles to 4 miles a day. In August they begin running 4-6 miles a day with races every weekend. In September they begin running 4-5 miles in the mornings and 3-5 miles in the afternoons. They had a retreat over the weekend and ran 20 miles of practice. Every year by this time of year…. the girls team of about 15 members, ages 13 years old to 18 years old at least 1-2 girls have stress fractures in their legs. Are they being trained too hard? Is this too intense for this age group?

The proof is in the pudding. Though teen runners are far more likely to encounter injuries due to their initial lack of conditioning and lack of year round training something like stress fractures at that rate is extreme. In all my years of coaching runners of all ages (including teen girls) I would be exaggerating if the incidence of stress fractures were as many as 1 in 300 (or more) per year. 1-2 out of 15 in a year is indeed beyond excessive.

The rule of thumb is still to increase mileage about 10% per week. So do the math. If they run everyday 3 or 4 miles per day they are running15-28 miles per week to start out. Then they are running as much as 8-10 miles per day – 50-70 miles per week! And compound that with a 20 mile run? For what purpose? Their cross-country race is only 5k!

No wonder these girls are hurting. Indeed there are differing philosophies – lots of miles versus the quality-over-quantity school. Even for the mileage folks that program is excessive for this age group. Many college level runners won’t run that kind of mileage. (One example; this past week I chatted with a sub-15:00 male college cross-country runner who ran less than 50 miles a week throughout his college career.)

Let’s compare that to quality-over-quantity research-based training. Moving from about 15 miles per week up to 30 miles per week (perhaps 35-40 for a very talented upper-classman) reduces injuries. The number one predictor of injuries is your history of injuries but a close number two predictor is total miles run; NOT the speed of those miles.

The proof is also in the pudding. I do not know what kind of times your girls are running but on 30 miles per week I have male runners who run 15-18 minutes and girls who can run 18-21 minutes. I think we have had one stress fracture in 3 or more years.

The remedy:
Train year round to get stronger to handle harder and longer workouts.
Keep quality training as part of your weekly workouts year round.
No drastic increases in mileage.
No excessively long long-runs.
Perform lower-leg running-specific strengthening drills.

Attend my high school running camp in the clean air of Flagstaff Arizona and learn research based ways to train while having a great time!

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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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24 Responses to How Much Running is Too Much for High School Runners?

  1. Christina says:

    The kids are going to do whatever the coach says even if they know that number of miles is bad. You need a running camp/clinic for coaches to train them how to train their gals/guys.

    • Dean Hebert says:

      This is true. But, unless coaches want to keep current with learning this will always be the case. And you don’t really want to get me started on what is out there as clinics for coaches.

  2. We never ran this much when I did XC! I am a high school athlete, and I ran cross-country for the first time last fall. I started in the last week of August. We had workouts or long runs every afternoon after school, and optional practices on Saturdays. Races were on Tuesdays or Saturdays.
    I’m at a small school with a very small team and no money behind it at all, so as you can imagine, we weren’t very elite. We just liked running (and racing). I wish I could have trained based on proven research and methods, but we did what we were told to do by our coach.

    • Dean Hebert says:

      I grew up similarly from a small town and had a wonderful caring coach who was a very good mentor to me but… knew little of training. But… at least from that, it fostered a passion for running that has stayed with me (and my brother) to this day… more than 30 years later.

  3. One of your buddies says:

    No matter how you slice it, that much running is WAY too much. Regardless of which sport it is, far too many coaches risk their many athletes well being for the sake of having one or two kids float to the top and have a positive training response to that garbage. My neighbors kid across the street just had an issue, where she is 10. TEN. The track coach had her doing sprints for 1 1/2 hours. A day. She quit when her legs gave out. I’m glad for her. Or the swimming coach who took my promising, excelling ten year old, and because he had a lot of potential, put him with the High Schoolers on the swim team, where his workouts went from 8 miles a week to 30. 3-0! Well too late for my kid who grew to hate swimming, but at least the guy eventually got fired because so many kids got injured or quit. Some of these coaches should be arrested for child abuse.

  4. JKal says:

    As a high school coach for 21 years I can say I have never EVER had one stress fracture in an athlete. Coach Dean is correct A. Don’t increase mileage too much too fast. B. Gradually increase workload as they get older, keep it short for the younger athletes C. I will add STAY ON TRAILS AND OFF PAVEMENT. D. Keep it at “singles” not doubles – single workouts seem to stress the young athletes less, doing two a day’s is tougher on them. Good luck and happy training.

    • Mark says:

      I agree could you explain keeping it at singles not doubles. I work out 5 days in the week and go the gym on the 6th day and take off

  5. David says:

    Coach Dean and I agree immensely on this subject. I am a high school coach and am all about intensity over excessive mileage…

    These kids, if they are talented, will have years to SLOWLY increase their mileage in order to reach loftier goals and faster times…

  6. Benedict says:

    Im on the Mcquaid xc team that won ny states for class a this year and im one of 6 guys on the team who did 500+ miles over the summer (i think Sully hit 628.) When we reached the xc season we slightly reduced the mileage but greatly upped the intensity. in season we do all of the regular speed and hill and temp workouts and do about 1/4 of our running on concrete or assault. we did suffer from injures throughout the season to such a degree that we were predicted to get third entering sectionals. however, that summer mileage had made us into so strong and deep of a team that we were able to pull it together and win states. i honestly think that those 500 miles, 5 miles a day for 100 days, on hilly trails made us into a juggernaut in class a. high mileage is absolutely necessary.

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Well done on your season and congratulations on your successes. The only problem is in the flawed logic – prevalent in distance advocates. And you elude to it in your comment. That is you attribute the success to heightened miles in the summer versus the great speed, hill and other work you did during the season – which could have been done on fewer miles during the summer months. That doesn’t mean summer running is unimportant!!!!! It just means that modest amounts of mileage with the proper mix of paces and types of runs will yield the same or better results and fewer injuries.

    • David says:

      Benedict, you say yourself that many of your runners suffered injuries throughout the season and Coach Dean also brings up a great point about the positive effects hill, speed and temp workouts had on your team’s success. Also, 5 miles per day isn’t crazy for a talented junior or senior runner (that’s 35 mpw), but if every athlete – no matter what age, ability or level was doing that amount of running then that could be a problem. As stated before, you can’t ramp up too quickly w/distance running. I know personally I was a 30+ mpw guy in high school (my junior/senior year only) and ran 9;20, 4:20, 1:57 and low-16s in the 5K in XC. Not until my senior year did I ever run a training run farther than 8 miles. Like Coach Dean has said more isn’t always better.

  7. Katie says:

    I run Cross Country with my high school right now. As a freshman, my summer goal is 275 miles. This is very easily achievable, and i don’t feel like i am being pushed to hard at all. On the other hand, the senior varsity girls are on track to run over 550 miles this summer. That is what i think, is over training. But our coach stresses the fact that if we hurt, don’t feel well, or even feel like we’ve ran too much in one day, to take some days off and rest.

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Katie,
      Thanks for contributing here. If it is a full 8-9 week summer your miles are very doable. As for 550, that MAY work for the very best runners (i.e. sub-19 minute girl 5k runners) but not for the majority of varsity runners. You’re right that is too much for most at that age. Just for comparison, I have a couple low-19 runners and they run 30-35 miles per week (40 max). That is what they can handle without overtraining or getting injured.

  8. Larry Gray says:

    Sorry to disagree with most. My high school xc days are long gone and were only 30-40 miles per week. My daughter now runs about 30 per week, but can’t compete with the best in Texas (sub 12 for 2 miles). These few girls are driven, and often run in the 50-70 mile per week mentioned in the above string. To win State and compete a national level, this is the commitment that must be made. Hard – easy, intervals, hills, whatever is appropriate for the season or the individual athlete. Greatness lies in the narrow range just short of injury. My daughter will probably not run this much, but if she chooses to I will be at her side for as long as I can, and then will cheer her on the rest of the way.

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Larry,
      I understand your comment but still 100% disagree. I have a girl from Texas who comes to my summer running camp every year – she runs in the 10s for 2 miles, is driven as you say and averages 30-40 miles per week. It is indeed WHAT we do with the miles and not the miles themselves. The misleading observational “data” is when someone sees that someone runs 50, 60, 80, 100 miles per week – they correlate the miles with the results. This observation is flawed. It is the same observation made of Kenyan runners. The fact is that those very Kenyans run 30-40% of their running @ 10k race pace or faster compared with most western runners who hover at 20-25%. And even at the marathon level, the research on training indicates that the overall PACE of training miles was a better indicator for results than the miles run. So the magic is in the hard, intervals and hills not in a bunch more mindless easy miles. And be sure not to misinterpret me – upper classman (and woman) can and should handle more miles than a Freshman. One more example is a local coach who I know well. She had previously advocated quality over quantity but this year was convinced her girls needed more miles and had them up to 70 miles per week. Last year they were top 7 in the state and this year won’t make top 10. Their performances have dropped off almost to the person! So, though again as with you this is observational data, my point is that method of “data gathering” is MORE flawed than true research and science. And that is where I follow… not anecdotal and observational evidence… at least when it is available.

  9. Eduardo Juarez says:

    I started running on October of freshmen year and finished the season at 18:54 in the 3 mile, running like 20mpw. I increased my mileage to about 40mpw in track and finished the season at 5:00 1600m and 10:57 3200m. The following summer, I increased to 70mpw and my 3 mile PR for XC was 17:18 at Mt Sac Invitational. 70mpw in track also, and got 4:48 and 10:39. I kept the same mileage for the next three seasons (70mpw) and got this: 16:23 flat course, 10:19 and 4:45 during Junior year and 15:50 during XC senior year. This season I decided I wanted to increase to 80mpw because I felt I had been doing the same for years and I just ran a 10:02 yesterday. I want to do good in college, have I messed up by running too much in HS?

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Eduardo,
      You may not have messed anything up but you got caught in the erroneous thinking that if some is good then more is better. To compare – I have 5K runners doing sub-16s on less than 40 miles a week. I have had milers in the 4:20s on 30-40 miles a week. Being able to handle the higher miles (that means actually running the miles and not getting injured) does not mean it’s good for you nor does it mean it’s the right thing nor does it mean you’ll get faster. Drop the miles… increase your speed and speed work as a proportion to your total miles. If your goal is to run sub-4:30 for instance.. run more reps at that pace or faster. If your goal is to run the 2 mile in 9:30 then run more reps at that pace. You need an integrated plan – you are talented. But only through a sound training plan will you reach your goals.

      • Eduardo Juarez says:

        Thank you for answering, I will follow your advice, but I still have a few questions. How much milage do I decrease (I ran 80mpw all of January and 70 all of February up to now)? If I decrease my milage and increase speed in workouts, will I risk peaking to soon in the season? How do you think my milage should have progressed after my Freshmen Track year that I ran 40 instead of what I have done? Again Thank you very much for your advice and time.

      • Dean Hebert says:

        It’s very difficult to say exactly what your mileage should be and all the workouts. That requires an integrated training plan. (That’s what people pay me for. :-) No use in looking back on what your mileage should have been.
        As for peaking… that is a misguided concept. Speed work should be kept as part of your training year round BUT the nature, type, intensity, distances all change depending on the time of year. My club does “quality” track workouts twice a week year round. Done right… you don’t “peak too early”. It is not “speed” workouts.. it is quality workouts. The problem with young runners is that they have no concept of pace. Quality means – 5k to 10k race pace … IT DOES NOT MEAN SPRINTING REPEATS UNTIL YOU BARF! As you get closer to races and key races… you increase the pace and change the repeat distances and the recovery times. That is it. And a good coach knows how to integrate these things.

  10. David says:

    If any of you think Coach Dean’s ideas are flawed, then let you share what I do. I will be a 43 year-old masters runner this year and have been plagued with nagging little injuries the past 12-months – the price of being over-40 :-)

    With two kids, a wife, a full-time job, and coaching on the side it’s hard to find time to run. But when I do run I run a lot of quality miles or intervals. I am trying to break 2-min in the 800 this year and 4:30 in the 1500 and I am pretty sure I will do it if I can get in the interval training I need.

    Proof in point, in a mere 3-4 weeks of training I went from being able to run a 59 sec 400 m down to a 56 sec 400 m. And went from running a 1:37 600 meter to a 1:31 600 meter. How? By loads of miles? No, by a systematic approach w/interval training. I may put in 25 miles per week now, if I’m lucky, and while I would like to put in a little more (30-40), I know I can still reach my goals with more quality workouts at race pace or faster…

    Just need more time to rest at this age :-)

    • Dean Hebert says:

      I’ll add to this that from 40-45 years of age I was still running 5Ks in 1545-1600 range and never during that time did I ever reach 50 miles in a week – in fact I looked this up; I only had about 6 weeks that entire year over 40 miles!

      • Eduardo Juarez says:

        Ok thanks, I feel more educated in running. I think my coach is fairly good, and I will follow his workout plans. He told me today that I ran a very good race on Saturday (10:02), but he wants me to break 9:40 to run Arcadia Invitational, and to hit that pace at the workouts. Attempting that was very hard today, and I honestly don’t feel I could run below 9:45. But I will try my best to keep my training with quality and I don’t really mind If I don’t reach coaches goal for me because I don’t think I can do it, and I’m not being low-spirited; my XC PR was 15:50, so I don’t think I can go from 15:50 level, to 9:35.

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