Rethinking Mileage – A Systems Based Approach (Part 1)


In distance running circles we often hear how mileage is the most important part of training.   Mileage is important, but focus on mileage misses the bigger picture.  How does a coach get an appropriate number of miles to elicit the desired improvement he wants out of his athletes?  A coach must base the training on time spent running rather than distance spent running giving your athletes a pace range which you expect them to be in based on how they feel.   This is already done with repeats, interval workouts, and threshold type work even though athletes are running a fixed distance so there is no reason it should not be done on continuous run days when the training load should be easier rather than hard.  We often cut hard workouts short for athletes when they can no longer hit times, there is no need to make an easy day hard by giving a set distance and pace desired.  When we start the season, I don’t even give a pace, I give a time they are expected to run and have them base it on what feels hard, medium, or easy and then I start to figure out the paces they should be able to run at a hard, medium, or easy pace.

The bigger picture with respect to mileage should be about training load and density, how to provide optimal loading and density of training to produce a near optimal adaptation which manifests itself into optimal race results with our best performances happening at the most important time of season.  It is all about a balance between quantity and quality of training.  Mileage should not be seen as an input into a system, but rather an output of a training system.  The system inputs here are duration and intensity which produce total volume of mileage.  Mileage itself doesn’t translate or correlate as closely to performance as many distance runners assume and some coaches would like to assume.  There is only one axiom when it comes training, “We perform how we are trained to perform!”

I will use one of my athletes as a case study of why this works and to stimulate discussion of the whys and hows.  The mileage presented in the chart below a continuous 7 day aggregate running total of mileage over the course of this past cross country season compared to the season before that while also highlighting her improvement between the same races from last season to this past season.

mileage-chart-rbThe red line represents this past season’s mileage, the green line represents the season before, and the blue line represents in seconds the improvement on the same training day during the season at the same race.

With a running 7 Day Aggregate total of mileage what may not be noticeable in the season long training plan is a built in weekly taper with a long run on Mondays and a day off after a Meet day, with the hardest Workout day being Tuesday when athletes worked at goal pace. What is also missing is any cross training which the athlete did.  We utilize cross training as both injury prevention and recovery modalities in the form of swimming, aqua jogging, biking, or ellipitical work.

The major differences in training from the season prior besides what can be gained from analysis of the chart from the difference in cumulative mileage and the tapering methods used, but the addition of a strength program, incorporation of a dynamic flexibility routine in warmups along with continuous skill based drills in the warmup routine along with a focus on goal pace during hard workout days.  This particular athlete set a new lifetime PR by 62 seconds and improved in all but one race throughout the racing season compared to the season before with difference in Season Best time of 65 seconds.  To answer “How and why does an athlete improve this much?” One must factor in more than just changes in cumulative mileage, average weekly mileage, and taper methods.  I don’t make the assumption the reduction in mileage or tapering where the only reasons for improvement, they are a part of the reason, but they are also outputs of how a system based approach works.    I was surprised to see the drastic difference in mileage when I reviewed the athlete’s training log from this past season to the previous season.  I was even more surprised when our taper hit the 17-24 miles per week range for a 4 week period of time with continued improvements in race times and holding fitness.  In the next part of this article we will address how and why performance improved, but first lets generate some thoughts and discussion on the matter.




Daniel Andrews
Daniel is an Assistant Cross Country and Track & Field coach at Millikin University, A partner at Illinois Top Times, and runs his own technology business. He majored in Physical Education at Illinois State University and has taken Masters level courses in Biomechanics and Biology. He is in his 11th season coaching track and field, having coached in each event group for multiple seasons at the high school, jr. high, and club levels before taking his current position at Millikin.

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