Notes from a high mileage experiment

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For six months I experimented with running 6-7 days/week instead of my usual 4 days/week. During that time I ran over 3,000 miles, averaging 118 miles/week and peaking at 186 miles/week. I terminated the experiment when I started to suffer from Overtraining Syndrome.

1 Background

I started running four days per week in August 2009, and I've become a big believer in this style of training. However, I think it's important to try out ideas that conflict with our beliefs. To test out the idea that fewer days per week of running is more effective, I embarked on an experiment in July 2011 of running 6-7 days per week, and I kept it up for six months. During this time I was committed to the idea of running more frequently and I did not have a fixed duration in mind.

2 Training Summary

While my training pattern varied somewhat, I typically did six long runs per week in the range 16-23 miles. Sometimes I took one day off per week, and sometimes it was a shorter run. For a few of the weeks I would run the same distance all seven days. This period includes one week of 185 miles as the overload week for a Three Phase Taper, and a 118 mile week when I averaged 7:10 pace, which is quick for me. If you exclude the taper/recovery/illness weeks, the average jumps to 128 miles/week. (The only illnesses I suffered during this period were migraines, which impaired my running for about a week each time.) You can see a more detailed breakdown of my training at the bottom of the page.

3 Overtraining and Termination

I converted back to running four days per week in January 2012. While I was doing surprisingly well physically, my psyche was suffering and I was getting at the beginnings of Overtraining Syndrome. At the time I did not understand Overtraining Syndrome, which I now believe should really be called "Training Induced Depression". These emotional changes had a severe impact on my family, and on January 16 I things came to a head. How bad was this time? So bad that it's only two years later that I can write about it. I instinctively knew that the training stress was at least part of the problem, so I reverted to training four days per week, and the main symptoms of Overtraining Syndrome abated over the next six weeks. Even now, it's unclear to me how much lingering long-term impact I have from this belt of overtraining syndrome.

4 Evaluation

As you would expect, changing your training style for so long ceases to be an experiment, and becomes the normal. There are a number of advantages I found to running more frequently.

  • Running more frequently makes it easier to accumulate impressive weekly mileage totals. It's far easier to clock up 100 miles/week running 6 to 7 days, than it is when you're only running 4 days. In fact, running 100 miles/week was trivial and even running 120 seemed remarkably easy. I found 140 miles/week (5x22 + 2x16) to be relatively comfortable though time-consuming.
  • It easier to know what to eat when your daily calorie burn is similar each day.
  • Having the same routine every day is much simpler.
  • I lost weight while running every day, getting down to below 130 pounds (60 Kg), which seems to be optimal.
  • I was surprised how much mileage my body could handle, and this provided quite a bit of confidence.

There are also some downsides to running more frequently.

  • The risk of Overtraining Syndrome goes up with Training Monotony. For me, the personal cost of this was a high, and I would not willingly go back to that situation.
  • It takes a lot more hours per week to put in those extra miles. I got to the point where I didn't seem to do anything but sleep, work, and run.

The big question is how my fitness changed with the greater running frequency. Overall, there was no improvement in my fitness with greater mileage and frequency, even though I was running about 50% more than other similar periods. I did have a good result in September (3 months into the experiment) at the 2011 North Coast 24 Hour National Championships, finishing second with 146 miles. However, by the end of the six-month experiment I felt like my fitness had gradually declined. Here are some comments from my running log near the end:

  • My legs were tired and I felt like I was running on sand, and by mile 13 I was ready to stop.
  • This run started off with the dead legs and went downhill from there.
  • I really wanted to go further, but the wheels fell off too badly.

Reading through my training logs from this period there is a pervasive malaise and fatigue. After a few weeks of returning to 4 days/week this mostly abated.

5 Counter Perspective

Obviously an experiment of one cannot provide generalized results. More importantly, comparing the two extremes of 4 days/week and 6-7 days/week could miss a sweet spot in the middle.

6 Lessons Learned

I feel that I learned two critical lessons from my experience.

  • The most important lesson is not around how frequently to run, but the importance of monitoring Mood State. The research I did into Overtraining Syndrome suggests that Mood State is one of the best indicators of how well an athlete is handling a given training load.
  • I also found as I researched Overtraining that Training Monotony is a key indicator of training effectiveness. I now monitor my training and make sure that my Training Monotony does not stay high for very long. I will intentionally tries it high as part of an overload period, But not as general training.

The experience has confirmed my belief that rest is an underrated and critical aspect of training. Training harder but less frequently can produce greater results than simply grinding out miles.

7 Training details

Date Distance (mile) Time Avg. pace (min/mi) Distance range (mile) Num. activities Notes
7/4/2011 118.01 16:07:30 8:12 16.68 to 27.06 5
7/11/2011 101.36 13:06:32 7:46 15.95 to 20.61 6
7/18/2011 122.95 16:30:36 8:03 16.05 to 20.00 7
7/25/2011 140.91 19:29:12 8:18 20.01 to 20.26 7
8/1/2011 80.46 10:45:28 8:01 2.73 to 17.83 6 Post migraine week
8/8/2011 151.07 21:03:32 8:22 13.11 to 24.00 7
8/15/2011 147.17 19:15:33 7:51 10.19 to 24.22 7
8/22/2011 185.6 24:51:42 8:02 22.95 to 27.16 7 Overload for Three Phase Taper
8/29/2011 112.78 13:28:33 7:10 5.23 to 26.25 7
9/5/2011 62.15 7:36:44 7:21 5.43 to 15.00 7
9/12/2011 164.18 26:01:18 9:31 2.19 to 146.28 5 2011 North Coast 24 Hour National Championships
9/19/2011 41.8 5:52:18 8:26 6.35 to 16.15 4 Post race recovery
9/26/2011 113.65 15:19:34 8:05 11.82 to 18.35 7
10/3/2011 108.45 14:09:54 7:50 14.04 to 21.32 6
10/10/2011 101.87 13:43:00 8:05 13.14 to 20.40 6
10/17/2011 150.39 19:49:24 7:55 17.67 to 26.17 7
10/24/2011 140.48 18:10:16 7:46 16.31 to 22.02 7
10/31/2011 166.7 23:14:46 8:22 21.15 to 25.12 7
11/7/2011 81.74 9:37:49 7:04 3.10 to 35.44 7 Paced 3:00 marathon group + 9 miles, then took some easy days
11/14/2011 119.93 16:44:09 8:22 16.19 to 20.67 7
11/21/2011 140.1 19:17:52 8:16 11.62 to 22.08 7
11/28/2011 89.07 11:58:07 8:04 5.69 to 30.61 5 Post migraine week
12/5/2011 105.04 14:04:46 8:03 15.93 to 26.25 5
12/12/2011 123.59 16:49:36 8:10 15.12 to 29.98 6
12/19/2011 119.59 16:59:31 8:32 16.14 to 27.08 6
12/26/2011 102.68 16:36:59 9:43 5.25 to 70.00 5 Crash at Freedom Park 24 hour
1/2/2012 79.62 11:00:54 8:18 4.02 to 16.17 6
1/9/2012 123.53 17:45:40 8:38 3.14 to 21.11 7
Average 117.7 8:10 6.3

Note that I normally suffer from 1-2 migraines/year, so the above incidents are not unusual.

8 Other athletes high mileage experiments

If you are interested in how other athletes have said when they increase their mileage I can highly recommend "An Interesting Analysis of Some Elites' Training History". The article concludes "The range of weekly mileage producing optimal performance by elites was 74 – 124 miles per week and some of the fastest performances ever recorded have been accomplished by elites running quite a bit less than 100 mpw. The data also support the belief that training at a too high training load results in a sub-optimal performance and may even permanently impair physical capacity."