But I’m Not Running Marathons! Running Over-distance in the Off Season

By Lauren Evans

An exceptional high school athlete recently asked me a very common-sense, important question: 

“I just don’t get why we are doing all these 6 mile runs in the summer! We are racing 2 and 3 miles all year. Why don’t we just practice running 3 miles and focus on getting better at that?”

Five minutes into my answer, I realized that I was still in the process of answering her question! I recognized that I had trouble giving her a simple explanation to this all-important question. Thus, I was inspired to write this article to help this particular high school athlete, and I hope it will help you too. 

Over-distance training, or running more miles in a particular training session than the distance of the event, has a place in everyone’s training schedule. With over-distance running, the runner is able to meet weekly mileage goals. Specifically, going over-distance aids in developing running economy, improves the strength of the musculoskeletal system, and it significantly benefits the development of the athlete’s aerobic base. Finally, it gives the athlete another tool for his or her mental toolbox. When the going gets tough in racing, the athlete can find great confidence in knowing that completing the distance won’t be a problem; it’s been done before!  

I first need to note that over-distance training has a place in the training plans for nearly any event except for races above 26.2 miles in length. It is unwise to re-create the pounding the body is forced through during a marathon in a training run. Save that for race-day.

Back on topic, there are four reasons to run over-distance for your event:

Practice makes perfect

Most of us have heard of “muscle memory”. Although this is a difficult aspect to prove scientifically because it is part of the human sub-conscious, it is an all-important trait of most sports. The more the athlete practices something new, the more it becomes ingrained in the body’s sub-conscious memory. For example, with increased practice in hitting forehands in tennis, the actual stroke begins to require less thought and analysis. Soon, the athlete begins to perform forehands much quicker and with better accuracy. A similar story can be told when it comes to the act of tying shoes or brushing teeth. Have you seen a little child try to tie his or her shoes or brush his or her teeth? You can tell that the child is learning and that it takes practice. When you or I brush our teeth, on the other hand, it requires little thought because we are proficient at the task.

The same goes for running. The more you practice, the better your running becomes. Professional runners, who are running an average of 70 – 140 miles per week, have better running form than newer runners, or those who are running less than 50 miles per week. The more you are able to practice a skill, the more efficient and the quicker you are able to perform it. 

Let’s take a look at the example of young African children who use running as a form of transportation daily, on average 8 – 12 km a day, or 35 – 50 miles per week. This is more than most American kids do in intensive training programs. According to the legendary running coach Joe Vigil, Kenyans have often run as much as 10,000 more miles than their American colleagues by the time they reach high school. (Running Times, June 2011) When you take adult Kenyan runners and compare them to runners from other countries of similar VO2 max, Kenyans were shown to have, in general, better running form. 

Improve the musculoskeletal system

The musculoskeletal system involves the bones, joints, muscles, ligaments, and tendons, all of which give the body support, stability, and provide for movement. The explanation that running more improves your form doesn’t mean that you should immediately up your mileage. On the contrary, think progression. By progressively increasing mileage, the runner will benefit. This works for nearly all runners, from the young middle-school runner to the adult runner. The push to increase mileage with children, however, should be driven by the kids themselves and not the parents. As of now, there is no scientific evidence that supports or refutes the safety of children who run high mileage. (Pediatrics, June 2007)

Meet Alana Hadley, a 14-year-old runner, who was recently profiled in the June 2011 edition of Running Times. She has progressed from doing 20 miles per week as an 8-year-old, to 50 miles per week as a 12-year-old and up to 70-75 miles per week today. And her 5k times have consistently dropped to championship times. Alana followed a logical progression in increasing her mileage so that it was 100% sure that her musculoskeletal system could thrive under the increased workload. 

We can all learn from Alana’s case. The musculoskeletal system is one aspect of training where the common phrase “Listen to your body” does not apply. The system of muscles and bones in your body rarely scream, “it’s time to take a break!” until something is, in fact, broken. Instead, you may be feeling good aerobically, or you may no longer have any lingering muscle soreness from a workout and think that you are ready for another workout. Make sure that you are slowly progressing in your intensity and mileage so that your musculoskeletal system has time to adapt; it is often the last body system to do so. According to Coach Greg McMillan, the musculoskeletal system is probably the top limiting factor when it comes to training. 

Coach McMillan’s wise words go both ways. First off, you should always increase mileage in a progression while including planned down weeks at strategic and consistent intervals. At the same time, by training the musculoskeletal system as a young runner, you will be more likely to be able to withstand harder training in the future without getting injured or sick, so start with the progression now!

Develop the aerobic base

Do you have problems finishing races? Does your form begin to break down when you are tired? 

Many athletes can answer these questions with an unfortunate but resounding ‘Yes’. This is no revelation, but the finish line is at the end of the race. You will find that the stronger you are as you near that finish line, the more successful you will be in running, and races themselves will be more enjoyable. The way to finish races stronger is by developing your aerobic system.

Olympic champion Edwin Moses went undefeated in the 400 meter hurdles between 1976 – 1984, for an incredible 9 years, 9 months, and 9 days. He is undoubtedly the best the event has ever seen, which makes him one of the top athletes of all time. Moses, a physics and engineering major in college, took a very scientific approach to his training. During training between competitions, Moses was known for increasing his mileage up to 70 miles per week. That is an average of 10 miles per day, and don’t forget that he was training for a race that was one loop of the track!

Edwin understood the benefits of going over-distance in order to develop his aerobic base. The stronger his aerobic base, the longer he could maintain perfect technique and form, which is especially vital in the hurdles. We can all take a page out of Edwin’s book; develop your aerobic base by training over-distance!

Provide mental strength

From a personal perspective, I know that if I can run 10 miles, I can finish a 10k race. At the same time, I know that if I can run 9 miles, I will not have a problem finishing a 5k with strength as long as I pace the race according to plan. Running over-distance gives me confidence because the idea of not being able to finish the distance of the race is a non-issue; I don’t question it. Instead, I can focus on pacing and running the race as strategically as I can, and the same is true for you.

Finally, there is no substitute for work. The harder you work, you become convinced that, without a doubt, that you deserve the success that you are striving for. This gives you a confidence that you are prepared, which is the best mental tool of all when it comes to racing. 

Focus on the progression 

Most kids and adults can safely run more miles than they are running now, and they will benefit from the increased practice. By putting in the miles, runners can see significant improvements to their aerobic capacity and running economy. Additionally, a more durable musculoskeletal system and a superior mental confidence all result in making for better runners. The goal is NOT to jump from 20 to 60 miles per week, but rather to jump from 55 one year to a consistent 60 – 65 the next year. The key word is progression. The body will adapt, but you have to give it time and space to do so.