Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Thu, 20 Mar 2014 17:15:55 -0400

Miles Don't Count

(This piece is for my book-in-progress titled See How We Run: Best Writings from 25 Years of Running Commentary. I am posting an excerpt here each Friday, this one from March 1990.)

Runners training for a marathon form my favorite audience. No group listens more intently, or more critically, to my talks than these runners who are all headed for the same destination but are still mapping their route to it.

Each year I speak at clinics preparing marathoners for the Portland, Los Angeles and Long Beach races. Each year I learn as much from these runners than they do from me.

This year I’ve already learned how stubbornly they cling to the most misleading number in their logbooks. This count adds little to training and can take away a lot.

At Long Beach I spoke to runners pointing for that city’s marathon in May. The talk included my usual reformed-streaker’s appeal for taking at least one day off a week.

“When you’re taking longer training runs for a marathon,” I said, “you probably need an extra rest day each week to compensate. The harder that run is, the easier the others must be.”

During question time a woman from the audience said, “I see your point about days off. But I’m afraid to miss any because they hurt my weekly mileage”

My answer: “I don’t just want to hurt weekly mileage. I’d like to help kill that count.”

It’s the mile-counting that hurts. To stop the hurting, we have to quit keeping score this way.

The damage takes many forms, from subtle to serious. At the least, your program flattens to same-distance-every-day as the simplest way to meet the weekly quota. You avoid the lows by skipping the highs.

You sacrifice speed training and short races because they would cut into your distance that day. Or you add a few meaningless miles in a second session each day to inflate the total. Or at worst, you refuse to take the “penalty” of what you need the most: a day off.

Jeff Galloway, who routinely filled 140-mile weeks while training for the 1972 Olympics, now leads the move away from mile-counting. When he began giving advice to new marathoners a decade ago, he didn’t ask them to go to his former lengths but did urge them to keep a running total of weekly miles.

Jeff still followed the “collapse-point theory” back then. It predicts that The Wall will be struck at about triple a runner’s average daily training distance.

Under this theory a marathoner needs to average nearly nine miles a day – or a weekly 60-plus. Galloway’s original program, along with mine and many others from that era, listed 60 miles a week as the minimum.

Runners by the thousands trained this way. Most of them finished their marathons.

But a disturbing number broke down from pain and fatigue, some of them in the race itself but more in the training period. Galloway reviewed the bad experiences reported to him and concluded that “the program asked people to run too much without running enough.”

That is, mile-counting pressed them to run too much on days when they needed less – or none. Then it left them too tired or sore to run far enough on days when they needed more running.

Jeff Galloway hasn’t become anti-distance, nor have I. We both emphasize it more than ever.

Only now the emphasis is better placed: on an occasional high-mileage day, not on more miles per week. Galloway’s revised program (which I generally endorse) contains longer long runs than before (up to and even beyond marathon distance in his plan, and to about marathon time in mine), but also shorter short ones and more days of nothing (for full recovery before going long again). Fewer big efforts yield better ones.

UPDATE FROM 2014

Jeff Galloway’s name has become one of the biggest in marathon training since this piece was published. The number of successes from Galloway groups is pushing 200,000. Jeff himself qualified for the 2014 Boston Marathon, at age 68.

He’s best known for his walk breaks and extra-long training runs. But I appreciate his program even more for its lack of weekly mile-counting. I’ve adopted it as a cornerstone for the groups I’ve coached since 2005.

We increase the runs by two miles every other weekend, with a run of half as far but faster on the in-between Sunday. My recommendation for the other days is almost pure Galloway: up to two hours of easy running, with no run longer an hour or less than a half-hour. In other words, two to four days of 30 to 60 minutes.

Our runners’ success rate – judged by getting to the marathon start and through to the finish – is close to 100 percent. We could do more training, but at what cost?


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as PDFs for e-reader devices and apps, from Lulu.com. Just released was Joe’s Team. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]

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