Before the 1980 Olympic marathon trials, The Runner, surveyed the list of American contenders and uncovered a fact that certainly must have seemed intimidating to those seeking success in the sport of long distance running, whether at the national or personal level: Nearly all of those contenders trained more than 100 miles a week!
But are 100-mile weeks necessary? And whether or not they are necessary for the marathon elite, what about runners of, let's say, more pedestrian ability? What about runners who might have the talent, but not the time? Must they train at a Herculean level to achieve success? If not, what level of high mileage is necessary to maximize potential, not merely in marathons but in medium length distance races? Could the person who trains 30 miles a week achieve marked improvement in his 15-K or half-marathon times by increasing weekly mileage by 50 per cent to 45 miles? What is the truth about high mileage?
THE TRUTH ABOUT HIGH MILEAGE
Consider first the 100-mile week. Is it myth or reality? Even some of the elite runners disagree as to the necessity of regular training at this level. Don Kardong of Spokane, Washington achieved success (2:11:16 and fourth place in the 1976 Olympic marathon) with less mileage than most. "My feeling is that people pick 100 because it's a nice, round number," he says, "but an even rounder number is 88.
Tom Fleming, a 2:12:05 marathoner with several second-place finishes at Boston, however, claims: "You have to run 100 miles a week to be up there. That's all there is to it. To be a really top runner, you have to be all the way up to 140 miles a week. That's only 20 miles a day." Only? Well, that depends on your point of view.
Craig Virgin disagrees. A three-time Olympian and two-time world cross-country champion, Virgin was a low-mileage runner--relatively speaking. While setting P.R.s of 27:29.2 for 10,000 meters and 2:10:26 for the marathon (second at Boston in 1981), Virgin averaged 90-95 miles a week. He hadn't run his first 100-mile week until his junior year in college, and, except when training for his infrequent marathons, rarely strung 100-mile weeks together. "I don't think they give any awards for workouts," says Virgin. "To the best of my knowledge, there are no gold medals for `Most Mileage.' If it's the end of the week, and I have 98 miles in, I don't go for a third workout that day to get 100. That won't make the difference between winning and losing. It's what you do with that 100 miles a week, and I think people forget about that."
WHAT ABOUT THE AVERAGE RUNNER?
Regardless of the opinions of runners, the facts speak loudly: if you want to survive in the jungle of American road racing at the topmost level, you probably must train at, or near, the 100-mile level. To do that, you most likely must work out twice daily. But what about the average runner? Can we all benefit from increasing mileage?
Consider some of the physiological effects from high-mileage training. There does seem to be a special training effect achieved at high mileage that scientists have only begun to understand. There exists the possibility that the 100-mile week may be necessary to achieve maximum performance in the marathon with mileage near that (70-80 miles weekly) for achievement at middle distance races (10-K to 30-K).
The late physiologist Al Claremont, who had been a top competitor and high-mileage trainer in his native Canada, once told me: "Where you may get some advantage in high mileage--if you can stand it--is in the substrate, the metabolic level that relates to glycogen storage. With volume over 100 miles, you're depleting yourself on a chronic basis and forcing yourself to replenish your glycogen stores day after day."
Glycogen is a starch like substance produced in the liver and muscles and changed into a simple sugar as the body needs it. Carbohydrates in our diet offer our main source for glycogen, one reason why spaghetti has become such a popular pre-race meal among marathoner's. Glycogen is the preferred fuel for running, but it can become depleted within 60-90 minutes under normal training conditions. Thereafter, the predominant substrate is fat, which is metabolized less efficiently, forcing a reduction in pace.
Claremont stated: "If you can push the depletion level of the body in races from 60-90 minutes to two hours by training, you can maintain a higher intensity, which translates to a better running speed. That is where volume mileage has the advantage over high intensity training."
He suggested that the well-conditioned athlete teaches his body to burn a higher percentage of fat with glycogen, thus increasing the available duration of glycogen reserves well beyond the characteristic 60-90 minute depletion time: "Top marathoner's are probably so efficient in metabolizing both fats and glycogen throughout the length of their race, because of the vast volume of their training, that they probably rarely deplete their stores. As a result, they don't hit the wall."
William J. Fink of Ball State University suspects Claremont's assumption may be correct, but also suggests that volume training may result in a neuromuscular training effect, a more efficient recruitment of all available muscle fibers, which allows the work load to be parceled out over the distance more effectively: "When a runner doubles his training mileage, we often see no change in his maximum oxygen uptake (max VO2), his ability to deliver oxygen to the muscles. So we are forced to look to other areas to determine why volume training results in better performance."
One such area may be psychological, or so suggests Jack H. Wilmore, Ph.D. of the University of Texas at El Paso. "When you do 100 miles a week, your legs are chronically fatigued," he comments. "Then when finally you do taper before an important race, it makes you feel all the stronger. Since believing in your ability is a necessity in achieving success, training at a level of more than 100 miles may constitute positive reinforcement in a runner's belief in his own ability to compete well. The same would hold true for a 30-mile-a-week runner, who through a gradual buildup achieved an ability to train comfortably at 60.
Dr. Wilmore also suggests that there still may be other adaptive mechanisms that physiologists not only do not understand, but may not even have identified. "In one area it could relate to the punishment your legs take and how you adapt to it," he says, relating more to his own experiences as a marathoner rather than anything identified in a laboratory. "When I'm out of shape and I race at long distances, everything hurts. It feels like my connective tissues are coming apart. But when I'm ready for a marathon, and have put in the miles, everything moves smoothly. If you're talking about the reasons high mileage results in fast times, I'm not sure we know what we're looking for yet. Most scientists probably have not zeroed in on the real causes."
THE 55-MILE SOLUTION
One of the benefits of long training runs, of course, is fat reduction. "You reach your ideal weight by training down to it," says Paul D. Thompson, M.D., director of preventive cardiology at the University of Pittsburgh Heart Institute. Although carefully watching your diet is important, weight loss can most easily be accomplished by running far.
That 100-mile workout weeks may be necessary for optimum performance certainly must seem discouraging to the runner now doing 30 weekly miles and who wants to improve by eventually doubling that distance, but there is hope. In a survey of runners of average ability, I discovered that many "serious" runners train by doing around 60 miles a week. In another survey, coaches suggested 35 miles a week as sufficient for finishing a first marathon and 55 miles a week for "finishing well."
Interestingly, those coaches failed to discriminate between the amount of mileage necessary to finish well and to set a Personal Record. The actual survey numbers were 56.5 miles to finish well, 57.7 to set a P.R. Of course, that doesn't mean you can merely add 1.1 miles to your weekly routine and expect dramatic improvement. What this distinguished body of coaches apparently was trying to tell me, and through me all other runners who aspire to marathon success, was that high mileage is not the only reason for success.
Fifty-five miles a week is a reasonable commitment involving perhaps an hour a day during the week with a long run on the weekend. Increasing your training to match the magic 100 number may cost a price in time and energy that even most serious runners may not want to pay.
Top marathoner's talk about "red-lining," a term borrowed from auto racers. The red line is the mark on the tachometer of a high performance automobile where if you consistently rev your engine higher, it will disintegrate. Whoom! $125,000 worth of junk. Red-lining in running is pushing your body in training right to the point of self-destruction, achieving maximum efficiency, training the necessary miles to run P.R.s, but not so much that injury, or staleness, occurs. The red line for one of Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper's fitness joggers, interested only in good health, is 15 weekly miles. Dr. Cooper, the author of the best-selling Aerobics and subsequent books on the subject, suggests that if you run further than 15 miles a week, you're doing it for reasons other than fitness.
Someone whose goals extend beyond fitness to performance might red-line--after a gradual build-up--at 30 miles. Or 45. Or 60. Most often, these limits are physiological in nature. There's a Catch-22 in red-lining. You have to train hard to be able to train hard. But if you train too hard, you no longer will be able to train hard. Confused? It's simply that too many miles too soon result in injuries: strained tendons and ligaments, stress fractures, chronically dead legs, what commercial advertisers might label "tired blood."
ADAPTING TO STRESS
Lee Fidler, a running coach from Atlanta, Georgia, suggests that to reach even the 60-mile level, you have to move through a gradual progression in increments of 10 per cent a week. Then every third or fourth week, unload: drop back close to the starting point to recover. Fidler says: "If you build constantly week after week, you get stronger, but you also find your break point. It's best to approach your break point without reaching it. You advance in steps. Go up two or three steps, drop back one or two steps, then hop back to where you were and start stepping again."
Joe Catalano of East Walpole, Massachusetts has coached everyone from beginning joggers to his former wife, Patti Lyons Catalano, who had a marathon best of 2:27:51. He believes in building through repetition: "The more you repeat something the stronger you get," says Catalano. "The first time out can be exhausting. But as you practice more and more, your body adapts, you handle the stress, and you become stronger.
Catalano believes that people vary in their ability to increase mileage. He recommends a gradual climb, adding five extra miles a week for a top runner, but a lesser progression for others. "The endurance base is the single most important factor in getting fit," he advises. "People worry about speed, but if you concentrate first on mileage and improving your strength, you can move to the speed phase later."
While high mileage may produce fast times, simply adding mileage may not guarantee success either for the world-class athlete or the born-again jogger, whose goal is not a gold medal but merely qualifying for Boston. Quality must be mixed with quantity to produce maximum results. Don Kardong says: "People are too conscious of high mileage and not conscious enough about quality. It's a natural outcome of keeping a running diary. You become very concerned with how many miles you ran this week, but not with how fast you ran them. In the next few years we may see a shift back to quality rather than quantity."
HUNTING FOR SPEED
Thom Hunt, a distance runner from San Diego, California whose best marathon time is 2:12:, often varies his mileage from week to week and from season to season. "I do not do mega-mileage," he says, "yet I'm not afraid of it either." Hunt usually runs between 85 and 105, slightly higher immediately before marathons. But he patterns his workouts. "I might run 105 one week, 115 week after that, then go down and run a 90," says Hunt. "Rest is an important part of a training program. There are times of the year when you just go to the beach."
But what about the average runner, the 99-plus per cent of today's running population, who will never see the underside of 3:10 much less 2:10, those who because of a genetic mismatch do not have the basic equipment to match the Thom Hunts of the world either in a race or in workouts? Must this person be condemned to a life of marathoning mediocrity? Maybe not, because one of the great talents of today's top runners is not merely to race hard, but to be able to train hard so as to be able to race hard. That's Catch 22-A. Nevertheless, the runner who can increase training mileage should expect to improve as long as quality is not sacrificed for quantity. If you push your weekly mileage from 30 to 60 miles a week, you still may not be able to qualify for Boston, but you probably may grab that P.R. the next time you try a marathon.
Eventually all of us must face the fact that nothing comes free. A price must be paid for everything, and that includes excellence. The price that must be paid for wringing the 99th percentile of efficiency from your body may be worth it if you can improve your marathon time from 2:20 to 2:10. It may even be worth it to go from 3:10 to below three hours. Whether it is worth it at the other gradations of achievement can only be determined by each individual involved.