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How Important is Running When Training to Run?

Posted by on Jan 23, 2013 | 18 Comments

Runners are supposed to train by running, right? The logic seems simple enough. Indeed, if you’re an elite runner, you probably need to pile up a shit ton of miles.

But what if you’re a recreational runner that has little hope of cracking the top 10% in any given race? Can you do other activities besides running?

This is a question I’ve explored in the past. After all, my single best race performance came after months of very little training (Western States, 2011.) The issue resurfaced after Shelly and I did unusually well in our marathon last week. She finished in about 5:11 (I DNFed at the end) which was exceedingly good considering we fucked around for the entire race. We took our time. We walked occasionally. We spent A LOT of time chatting at aid stations.

Our training over the last three months have consisted of about four runs, none exceeding 12 miles. We do run to our gym, which is about four miles there and back. Otherwise, our training has been KemmeFitness-style workouts, boxing, kick boxing, and jiu jitsu.

Not only did that training result in a decent time, our recovery was excellent. We felt pretty good the rest of the day. We were fine the following day. It would seem that our performance is just as good if not better than the times we follow a dedicated run training plan.

There is one noteworthy element to this idea- both of us have several years-worth of endurance base built up. The “no running” plan might not work as well for someone new to the sport.

Anyway, it’s comforting to know we can run races successfully with little or no actual running as training. Like other elements of our lives, we like to add plenty of variety. Races or adventure runs in the mountains are fun, but we get bored of the “gotta get the miles in” runs. We’d rather add new activities (like the mma training) than doing the same thing day after day.

This idea isn’t new. Aside from our own experimentation with very low mileage training, our friends Christian and Krista have successfully run ultras with little to no actual running. I’ve also met plenty of runners that do very little running as training.

The magic numbers, at least for me, seem to be an 8-10 mile run every other week, with a marathon-distance or longer run every 6-8 weeks.

So… if you’re a runner that’s not really fond of running (there are a few others out there), take up some other physical activity. Run an occasional race. Do an occasional long run. You don’t have to be a slave to a running regimen.

Thoughts?

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18 Comments

  1. Charles
    January 25, 2013

    I think your onto something. Do you force yourself to run, not enjoy it, get burnout and go into your race stale, weak and overtrained? I have been running for a few years, lots of halfs, I full marathon and all of the training runs. Before I needed to run a similar distance to gain the confidence that I could do it. Now I am realizing I can cover the distance with much less training and come into the race fresh and do well for my standards. I am doing my first off road 50k in a couple weeks. I was getting about 40 miles a week and am now no longer motivated. Great. I am going to be so fresh for this race :)

  2. Krista
    January 24, 2013

    I don’t think people quite get it yet. Alternative training especially when it comes to ultra distances is a scary endeavor with a lot of risk because you just don’t know where your body will be at mile 40, 60 or even 100. That’s a frightening leap of faith for the average somewhat competitive runner to take. Most will fall back on the training they know works for them. But if you’re beyond being competitive but still have that mojo and some fiyah you really have nothing to lose.

    By training the way I do, I have not only increased my PR in distances, but I have increased my times as well. While I will never be an elite I am certainly in a better position to be more competitive with my running now than ever before.

    Here’s a little beginning perspective on the training I do… http://www.theranchathletics.com/news/100k-Training-in-7hrs-or-Less

    I don’t think I would be running the distances I’ve done or even come close to placing 3rd overall women’s in my 100k had it not been for my style of training. And I can’t even begin to tell you the confidence the strength training has given me in my everyday life.

    My two cents.

  3. Charlie M.
    January 24, 2013

    Training gives you confidence if you want to put the pedal to the metal in the last 3 miles of a marathon, or the last 5 miles of a 50K, or so that you can keep shuffling in the last 10 miles of a 100 miler rather than crawling.

    It’s just confidence. You are what you repeatedly do. Building a base is great, but life is always a balance between opposing forces (in this discussion, not training enough versus over-training). You will never escape that aspect of life while you are alive.

    If you want to run a “fun” 5-hour marathon, fine. I’ve done that. But sometimes feeling strong in a 3-hour marathon can be “fun” too. I think it is far more likely to bust a strong marathon off a balanced training plan than a sparse one. But as you say, experiment of one.

    • Rob Y
      January 24, 2013

      EXACTLY!

  4. John Y.
    January 23, 2013

    I’m still firmly ensconced in the, “If you want to get better at X, make sure you X”. If you want to get better at running, then run…

    Of course, being a Cross Fitter myself, I can say the the adaptation of squats and dead lifts to my workout regimen has worked very well. I rarely run more than 10 or so miles per week and can hold sub 7:00 for a few hundreds of meters/kilometers/miles (after doing dozens of squats/dead lifts/push ups/clean and jerk/push press/thrusters or whatever hits my fancy).

    Racing is a seasonal thing for me, I can’t stand the cold but love where I live (and here we have single digit temps this week!) so I’ll gut out the winter and start hitting races in the spring. I would love to run a longer race (1/2 marathon and above) but I notice inflation has hit the entry fees so it gets more expensive the longer you want to race/cause oneself great discomfort. Gotta Run! (figuratively)

  5. StephenB
    January 23, 2013

    “It would seem that our performance is just as good if not better than the times we follow a dedicated run training plan.”

    But you DNF’d. Sounds like your goal was to have fun as opposed to race, which it sounds like you accomplished. But if a PR is your goal, then I would argue that you need to find a good program and stick with it.

    • Jason
      January 23, 2013

      I DNFed a few feet from the finish (BRUcrew challenge) and all of my significant PRs have been accomplished with low mileage training. Experiment of one = this plan works pretty well for me.

      • StephenB
        January 23, 2013

        Me too. After 7 tries, I finally broke 4 hours this fall in Chicago using the Daniels training plan. My peak week was 45 miles, but 37 was about average. Each week I had 3 days easy (like 6 miles @9:45 easy), one long and one quality. Even though the mileage wasn’t super high, every workout had a reason behind it, so I felt that the time was efficiently used. My longest run was only 18 miles. The race was my best ever; I ran the 2nd half faster than the first (since 90% of people don’t do that, I passed so many people the 2nd half), and have never felt so strong after 20 miles. Not dying at the end definitely makes for a better experience! ;)

  6. Ken S.
    January 23, 2013

    Some people will respond well to low mileage training and some won’t. It seems like you are really talking about maintaining a base that you have built up over years. Maintaining is much easier than building.

    Brian Mackenzie of CrossFit Endurance, and many other people have been promoting low mileage training coupled with other activities for years now. In general, the running community been very dismissive of these ideas, and yet they keep coming up again and again. So there must be something to them.

    • Jason
      January 23, 2013

      Christian Peterson did mention the importance of long runs for adaptation purposes, which are important. CFE generally poo-poos that idea. Still, the traditional LSD running crowd assumes we know a lot more about how the body works than what we really do.

  7. Rob Y
    January 23, 2013

    Can you finish races off very little training? Absolutely. Can you expect to maximize you potential off very little training? Unlikely. You get out what you put in. Simple.

    • Jason
      January 23, 2013

      There’s a point of diminishing returns with training, and that point is going to vary with each individual. I’m finding the low running volume seems to increase performance. There could be a lot of reasons for this ranging from motivation to “freshness.” At any rate, it gives me an excuse to explore new hobiies… which will one day include unicycling. :-)

      • Rob Y
        January 24, 2013

        I’m not sure this is strictly true. While you might think that you’re realizing increased performance based on your current training volume might it not also be true that once you’ve gotten used to a higher training volume that you’d realize even better performances? I’m not disagreeing with your experience but are your performances actually close to your potential or are you just satisfied with the results? There is a huge difference. I guess it’s all relative but I know when I’m building up for a goal race that yes at first I feel exhausted, tired and sometimes unmotivated but that’s part of it. After a couple weeks that “curve” eases up and I’m actually able to enjoy a higher volume training regime. I feel incredibly strong, fresh and mentally ready to go as I peak and taper for my event. I think a lot of folks start the build up curve and balk thinking it’s too tough to endure and get through. Yes it is but with experience and perseverance you can get through. The key is to maintain consistency in your training and keep up good base mileage. While I’ve done well off relatively low volume training, I’ve done MUCH better on a higher volume more focused approach. While we might not ever be elite runners we can still learn a lot from their approach!

  8. Barefoot Tyler
    January 23, 2013

    I slightly agree with this stance. I feel the most important runs for ultra training are the long 20+ mile weekend runs. The other short runs are either to build speed or just keep the legs fresh. I like to run every day and I am currently on a streak of at least one mile a day. Some days I do more, but I always do a mile. The exercise helps me clear my head after a day at work. Other sports could do that too(and I do other things), but I don’t want to give up my mile of running or walking every day.

  9. Theo
    January 23, 2013

    So which is it? Run more or less?

    http://barefootrunninguniversity.com/2012/02/05/you-dont-run-enough-bro/

    I personally love running and run everyday because I love it. Nothing to do with racing. I do love to race though.

    • Jason
      January 23, 2013

      Damn you people that research my previous posts! :-)

      • Dave
        January 24, 2013

        Jason, if we were looking for sober, consistent, well researched advice(heck, or even just sobriety) we wouldn’t be reading your blog.

  10. Kelsey
    January 23, 2013

    I completely agree with this. I did the DWD 50M in September as my first ultra, with my only real “training run” was an accidental 5 hour in the beginning of July. I fucked around for most of the course, had fun and still took 3rd.