When it comes to running training, preparation is key — that’s pretty much lesson number 1. But sometimes, figuring out how to prep can feel overwhelming, so it’s helpful to ask yourself a handful of questions to guide your development of a training plan. For example...
How many miles should you run per week?
How many miles will improve your 5k time?
Is there such a thing as “running too much”?
How many miles can you run without getting injured?
All valid questions — and extremely important, at that.
Here’s the kicker: the questions are the easy part. Things start to get tricky when you realize how nuanced each of these aspects are, especially when it boils down to how much you need to run to get the results you want.
Each of these answers depend on a number of different factors: the distance of your race, the amount of months before you race, your previous running experience, your short- and long-term goals, previous running injury history, etc.
So before you go diving into any training, take a moment (or several moments) to figure out where you stand and where you want to end up. Determining your weekly mileage can feel like a beast to take on, especially since there isn’t any specific “mileage threshold” that’ll get you injured. Optimal mileage varies with every individual and their training practices, so it’s well worth your time to assess your specific needs and capabilities.
And lucky for you, we’ve got just the blog to help you through it.
How Many Miles Should You Run?
First, we’ll start with the basics: how many miles should you be logging every week?
Well, as mentioned before, it sort of depends.
Lots of people run for leisure or for the health benefits, so if you’re not in the market for finishing a 5k or hitting a specific race goal, you don’t have to strive for a very high mileage. Simply running a few miles a day (or even every other day) is enough to help you stay in good shape, burn excess fat, and maintain aerobic fitness.
However, for those of you who do run races, it’s a bit trickier (a lot more, really).
There’s plenty to keep in mind when trying to determine your optimal mileage, but it mostly boils down to two major components: the type of race you’re training for, and what phrase of training you’re in.
Your choice of race is particularly important, since its length and event date will determine how much training you need and in what timeframe. Plus, your personal goals can have a big influence on the intensity of your workouts too (i.e., if you want to beat your PR, your training will look extremely different from someone who wants to run a race solely to complete it).
And, of course, how much you run is highly dependent on your training plan. Most experts will suggest a training plan that’s broken down into four phases of progression — and each one will demand a different level of intensity or focus as you work through them.
Ultimately, different races will require different training plans, so it’s difficult to determine what an “optimal” mileage looks like without getting into the gritty details, or without having a running expert personally examine your training plan.
But, while we may not be able to tell you what your magic mileage number is, we can at least give you the knowledge of how to approach your mileage goals (including what NOT to do).
Mileage and Injury Risk
So here’s the thing: because your mileage can vary so easily, you aren’t necessarily restricted in how much you run. There isn’t a number of miles that’s considered to be “too much” in the running world — which might sound suspicious, but here’s the twist...
It’s not the mileage that leads to injury; it’s more so the rate at which you increase it.
Aiming for a high mileage isn’t inherently a bad thing, but people often fall victim to the mentality that “more is better.” This often causes runners to take on too much too soon, and jumping into these higher intensities is one of the most common causes of injury, and that’s where the 10 percent rule came to life.
The 10 Percent Rule
If you aren’t familiar with the concept, the 10 percent rule is a handy way to guide your training to increase mileage without increasing risk of injury. The basic premise is pretty simple: don’t increase your weekly mileage by more than 10 percent every week (i.e., if you run 20 miles a week, run no more than 22 miles the next).
The same goes for your longest individual runs, too — make sure that you aren’t adding more than 10 percent. (So if your longest run tops out at 5 miles, make sure you aren’t going more than 5.5 miles the next week.) This ensures that you don’t go overboard on your individual runs while you’re focused on the bigger picture.
Nice and easy, right?
Granted, while many of us are a fan of easy math, the system isn’t perfect. For example, if you’re already starting out with lower miles, using the 10 percent rule will progress you at a slower rate than those who have a higher mileage (i.e., if you run 10 miles a week, you’ll only increase your mileage by 1, but if you run 100 miles a week, you’ll up your mileage by 10). So it’s clear that this rule isn’t based on an exact science — but it’s a helpful technique, particularly for runners clocking anywhere between 20-60 miles a week.
The bottom line is that you can aim high and achieve great results, as long as you take it in increments. It’s imperative to pace yourself; even if there isn’t necessarily a definitive point where someone’s running “too much mileage,” it doesn’t mean you’re immune to risks.
Overtraining and Insufficient Recovery
The biggest risk of increasing your mileage is known as overtraining — which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. When you overwork your body past the point of exhaustion, it struggles to recover from all the stress it’s been under, and that only leads to all-around worsened performance.
Exposing yourself to long periods of hard training can negatively impact both your body and mind, particularly because it’s often a result of not resting enough between training sessions. You’ll likely experience the typical symptoms of overworking your body, like delayed recovery, increased risk of injury, or poor performance, but you’re also subject to further detriments, too. Many people who have overtrained also have to deal with low appetite, difficulty sleeping, or an elevated resting heart rate, and the symptoms only worsen the more your body suffers with insufficient recovery.
On top of the more apparent symptoms, research indicates that overtraining syndrome can also lead to adrenal insufficiency. Basically, your adrenal glands produce stress hormones (like adrenaline and cortisol) — but, as you can imagine, a surplus of stress hormones isn’t ideal.
Long-term exposure to these stressors is extremely detrimental; it can ultimately cause your adrenal glands to stop working altogether if they’re overworked for too long.
This is where that lack of hormone production can cause depressive-like symptoms. You’ll start to feel more exhausted, which often leads to feeling unmotivated or disinterested in maintaining their training (both of which are huge red flags for any athlete). What’s worse is that some athletes think they’ve simply hit a rut and try to push themselves even harder, which is double a recipe for disaster.
If you find yourself experiencing any symptoms of overtraining, it’s ESSENTIAL that you modify your training plan. You can be as impressive of an athlete as you want, but it’ll only get you so far if you aren’t training under the best circumstances for both your body and mind.
It’s vital that you take immediate action and reduce your training — or, even better, completely put a stop to it.
Granted, that sounds like a pretty unfavorable solution, but remember: it’s only temporary. It’s also extremely necessary for your body’s recovery. Research suggests that resting for up to 14 days is best for acute overtraining. Most runners tend to avoid the “better to be safe than sorry” approach, but in the case of chronic overtraining, it’s absolutely better to play it safe than face the consequences.
And, on that note of playing it safe, let’s look into some preventative measures that can help you up your mileage without putting you at higher risk of injury.
Injury Prevention for High Mileage
Knowing how to safely approach higher mileage goals is a great first step, but it’s certainly not the only thing you can do. After all, your technique is impacted by a wide range of factors — why not skew your training to boost your performance and reduce risk of injury?
It’s pretty much a win-win.
So let’s dive into these additional methods that’ll ensure optimal performance, because who doesn’t need more of that?
People will often suggest supplementing an increase in mileage with cross training, usually as a means of “giving your legs a break.” In theory, this makes perfect sense — offloading your legs with a swim or a bike ride is ideal when you’re looking to avoid the repetitive pounding of running.
The only caveat is that your cross training won’t go directly towards improving your running performance, which falls in line with the principle of specificity. This principle basically states that getting better at something requires training as specific to your activity as possible (in other words, if you want to become a faster runner, you need to run).
But specificity shouldn’t be confused with exclusivity — there’s lots to benefit from dabbling in more than one sport, and being well-rounded is essential to being a healthy athlete.
In fact, research has shown how cross training can be optimal during off-season training. Athletes have benefitted from using stationary bikes and elliptical training, specifically in regards to maintaining their fitness levels throughout the off season. While the principle of specificity may indicate that your running performance may falter, you can still easily maintain your endurance capacity. Most athletes can keep a steady lactate threshold and VO2 max while cross training in the off season, theoretically giving them an edge over other athletes that opted out of physical activity altogether.
Plus, mixing some cross training is one of the most helpful techniques to avoid that awful overtraining syndrome. Instead of restricting yourself solely to running, complement your mileage by pairing it with alternative endurance activities that can keep you heart healthy without placing your body under more stress than it can handle.
Good Form and Biomechanics
Of course, the ultimate method for preventing injury stems from your own knowledge and execution, both of which come down to your running form.
It’s no secret that form is key for optimal performance, so assessing your body’s biomechanics is always a valuable investment. This kind of assessment can be especially valuable during off-season, as you can hone your mechanics and correct potential form errors before you dive headfirst into race training.
You can also consider speaking to a coach or a running specialist to even further take advantage of your off-season time — they can provide you with data specific to your running gait, pinpointing what can be improved upon before you jump back into regular training. When it comes down to it, running is a skill that requires consistent, proactive improvement to effectively enhance your performance, and having biomechanical knowledge of your form allows you to hone your training to be as specific and deliberate as possible.
Plus, working with a specialist also gives you the perfect opportunity to prepare or reassess your training plan. You can make sure that you aren’t at risk of overtraining while also feeling confident that your progression plan will get you the results you want to see.
Additional Training Considerations
On top of all this, don’t forget the basics! Don’t let your ambition to improve cause you to neglect those classic best practices.
You want to be sure you fuel your body properly and allot enough time to rest, which is especially imperative when you’re looking to increase your workload. Eating the right kinds of foods and maintaining proper hydration will keep your body energized as you work towards bigger and better goals. Similarly, proper rest is vital when you take on more physical activity (and we know you know that; we’re just here to remind you to actually do it).
It’s also imperative that you take good care of your mental health; although it can feel productive to achieve a certain mileage goal in a short amount of time, improving your performance isn’t all about the numbers. In fact, it’s just the opposite: improving your performance is all about your mental state.
Keep yourself in check — more miles doesn’t inherently equate to better running, and feeling a lack of motivation or disinterest isn’t just a simple rut you can always push through. Just because progress can be quantifiable doesn’t mean it always will be; you’re still making excellent progress when you get in enough rest days, or manage to fix a little quirk in your running form.
Start Getting Those Miles In
Increasing your mileage is totally doable, and it’s totally safe as long as you don’t overwork yourself. Ultimately, there’s no conclusive “mileage threshold” where you’ll get injured; more than anything, it’s based on your personal resiliency, running form, and smart training habits. There are plenty of techniques that can make your increased workload more manageable, and that’s the mark of a good athlete — doing the work without having the work do you in.
So as you head off to log in your miles for the week, don’t get sucked into thinking your miles are the only aspect that makes you a better runner. When you approach your goals with the bigger picture in mind, your improvements will come with ease.
Carfagno, D. G., & Hendrix, J. C. (2014). Overtraining Syndrome in the Athlete: Current Clinical Practice. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 13(1), 45-51.
Jakobsen, B., Króner, W., Schmidt, K., & Kjeldsen, S. (1994). Prevention of injuries in long-distance runners. Knee Surgery, Sports Traumatology, Arthroscopy, 2(4), 245-249.
Kreher, J., & Schwartz, J. (2012). Overtraining Syndrome: A Practical Guide. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach, 4(2), 128-138.
Kurz, M. (1997). The Relationship of Training Methods between NCAA Division I Cross-Country Runners with 10,000 Meter Performance, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.
Pablo Borceguin, DPT
Dr. Borceguin is the resident running expert of the Competitive EDGE team — in addition to his graduate degree from California State University, Fresno, he is well-versed in coaching multiple sports (e.g., high school cross country, track, and soccer) throughout San Jose and Fresno. Pablo is dedicated to using his experience as a coach, athlete, and healthcare professional to best educate his clients and other endurance athletes. He himself has competed in a number of sports, including cross country, track and field, multiple triathlons, wrestling, soccer, and tennis.