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Chase Performance Gains by (Safely) Increasing Your Mileage Megan Roche and Addie Dog log miles in Calero Park outside San Jose, California. Photo by David Roche

Chase Performance Gains by (Safely) Increasing Your Mileage

The biggest secret of running training is simple: run more miles. Here is how to harness the power of the "Trial of Miles."

David Roche May 9th, 2017

Nearly every runner probing the outer limits of their genetic potential has a story to tell about the “Trial of Miles.”

The Trial of Miles is that mythical time when runners learn the truth behind this famous quote about running development from John L. Parker’s Once A Runner: “The only true way [to maximize your running potential] is to marshal the ferocity of your ambition over the course of many days, weeks, months, and (if you could finally come to accept it) years.”

As the hero in that story learns, the secret is simple—it’s the “process of removing, molecule by molecule, the very tough rubber that comprised the bottoms of his training shoes.”

In other words, in running and in life, less is rarely more. Reaching big, scary goals usually requires more focus, more passion and more work.

My personal introduction to the Trial of Miles happened during the summer of 2012, when I was interning at a non-profit in Boulder, Colorado, with just a few cents to my name. Every Wednesday, the local market had a big sale—avocados five for $1, sweet potatoes just a few cents, peanut butter by the pound and olive oil by the barrel. I turned a few bucks into tens of thousands of calories, and those calories got turned into miles.

Each day, I ran 60 to 90 minutes in the morning and afternoon, sometimes fast but never structured, with no GPS watch or complicated training methodology. I started out running around 60 miles per week in May, and by the end of August I was running over 100. At the tail end of summer, racing with my pinky toes showing through holes in my shoes, I won the Trail 10K National Championship.

Moral of the story: If you can strategically increase your training volume while staying healthy and motivated, you can experience breakthroughs you might never have thought possible.

At the pro level, runners like Jim Walmsley and Chris Mocko credit their monumental success to increases in training. But the principles behind the Trial of Miles can work wonders for any level of athlete, whether you are starting at 10 miles per week or 100 miles per week.

Increasing volume strategically works because it improves running economy, aerobic development and just about every other biomechanical, neuromuscular and cardiovascular variable that goes into making a strong runner. However, it’s not for everyone. Make sure you are generally healthy, with at least a couple of years of consistent running under your belt and a long-term commitment to seeing what you are made of. If you are over 50 or have had stress injuries in the past, be especially carefully with any increases in training volume.

When you start the Trial, think of yourself like a caterpillar subject to Chaos Theory. Based on the initial conditions of your physiology and background, you have no idea how long you will need to spend in your cocoon, and there are no guarantees of what type of butterfly will emerge. But there is only one way to find out.

So how can you design your own Trial of Miles? Here are five rules.

 

1. Develop a weekly goal mileage or total time running.

The Trial of Miles doesn’t rely on specific daily workouts, but on the accumulation of training volume over time. Start with a weekly goal around your current training level, and then increase progressively as you adapt and the training load feels less stressful.

There are no magic numbers to aim for, but once you reach a certain level (around 70 miles per week for men and 50 miles per week for women, with variation depending on background), do your research and talk to knowledgeable runners or coaches about how much you can handle healthily. Take one full rest day each week, and every three weeks take one down week where you decrease volume by 15-to-30 percent (unless directed otherwise by a coach).

 

2. Run mostly easy, but allow yourself to finish some runs faster when you feel frisky.

Hard workouts are important components of a well-rounded training plan, but it’s essential not to overload the body with stress. Therefore, while increasing volume during the Trial of Miles, structured workouts can take a back seat to just making sure you get the runs in.

Because it’s difficult to predict when you will feel great and when you will feel crappy, start every run easy—at an aerobic and conversational effort. As you build into the run, you can progress a bit, to where you can still say a few words but not a full paragraph. And on the rare day when you feel like a mystical super-unicorn sent to prance over the trails, you can end the last third of the run even faster.

For advanced athletes, add strides in the second half of a few runs each week when you feel good, to work on running economy. These athletes might also benefit from workouts during The Trial, but be careful not to overdo it.

 

3. Run two times in a day occasionally if you have time.

As your volume climbs, it’s more difficult mentally and physically to get all of your running done at once. So use the time you have—run in the morning, then again at lunch or after work. Even better: run commute to work in the morning and evening.

Many professional runners throughout history have run twice a day for many reasons, including somewhat controversial ones like optimizing natural hormone production. But stripped down to their essence, double runs allow you to add more stress without the injury risk that consistent longer runs entail.

 

4.  Eat plenty.

Every day in the Trial of Miles (and training generally) involves minor amounts of breakdown. When you are recovering from your runs, your body is healing those imperceptible injuries and adapting to that stress. To heal and adapt properly, you need energy availability, or calories beyond the bare minimum necessary to complete its normal functions. So keep the calories flowing!

In general, athletes thrive off of diets high in good fats to fuel the aerobic engine, with plenty of protein to rebuild muscle and enough carbs to provide energy. But don’t let the quest for a perfect diet be the enemy of a good diet. When in doubt, feed the machine more so the machine can roar.

 

5. Think long-term health above all else.

The Trial of Miles—and running for performance generally—can be risky. If you feel an injury brewing, even if it seems minor, take time off. If you feel over-stressed, try something new. And, by gosh, if your running is not contributing to long-term contentedness, recalibrate your goals.

Be especially aware of warning signs of overtraining like chronically tired legs, reduced libido or abnormal shifts in mood. Undertaking the Trial of Miles is doing to your body what a blacksmith does when crafting a sword: you are playing with fire, and you could get burned. But if you do it right, crafting your body carefully over time, the result might be something sharp, tough and almost unbreakable for training battles to come.

David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.

Related: How Much Mileage Should You Run?

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17 Comments on "Chase Performance Gains by (Safely) Increasing Your Mileage"

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Kyle
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In life, less is often more. It’s an adage for a reason. At least enough that the word “rarely” doesn’t apply.

David Roche
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Thanks for the comment Kyle! That line is meant to convey that hard work at any task is a pre-requisite for mastery.

Tommy
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Thanks for another great article Dave! I can personally attest that more miles will help create a bigger,stronger engine…. went from 25 miles/wk to 40+ (and still increasing) and what a difference!… I do think it is important to sprinkle in some speed work (20% of your total miles I believe is the textbook answer) otherwise you just end up getting great at running….well…slow. I firmly believe that if something does not challenge you then it will not change you.

David Roche
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Thanks for sharing your story Tommy! I love the hard work you are putting in and dedication you are demonstrating!

Benedict
Guest

David, thanks for the reminder that that which is worth having and achieving is worth working (training) for and investing in over the long haul, whether in running or in life.

David Roche
Guest

Thank you Benedict! You are awesome!

Celia
Guest

Just curious, why 50 miles for women and 70 miles for men?

David Roche
Guest

It’s just a general line where injury risk could increase substantially if a person isn’t thinking strategically about their training. For most that are running lots, it’s not too relevant. But always want to make sure people don’t jump overboard!

jkb
Guest

Because women are generally slower and it could take more time to complete the same distance and thus more stress. It could lead to overtraining if women attempted to train the same absolute intensity and volume as men. Or if I attempted to train as David I would break down by the second week…
It’s about averages, not individuals. As a man I wish I could be on par with David’s Superwife!

David Roche
Guest

Nothing to do with pace! Women are often faster than men (Megan trains faster than I do!). It’s just that female runners have unique physiological demands that raise risk for some injuries in some people, but not everyone. The female athlete triad is especially difficult for some runners, so it’s always good to talk with experts about your unique experience and physiology.

Steve Izer
Guest
Run twice a day when you can??? I have had a subscription to Trail Runner for years and this is embarrassing. I have been running for 39 years(24 of them on trails) and the thought never occurred to me to run twice a day. I think that most of your readers are regular men and women…not elite world class runners. Why recommend what is most likely a surefire way to injure oneself by running twice a day? I think it would be poor judgment to follow that advice. I think most of the training books would not recommend two a… Read more »
David Roche
Guest

Thanks for the comment Steve! This article is about a very specific type of training reserved for runners trying to reach the very limits of their genetic potential. We try to write articles for every trail runner with every different type of goal, from those running their first 5k to the season veteran. Training is never one-size-fits-all, and this article is merely one size designed for a specific goal that many runners will not have.

Scott Binette
Guest

One reason why non-elite runners may want to consider running twice a day is to reduce the risk of injury. Instead of doing their daily mileage all in one sitting, they can split it up, so they’re running half as much (at one time), and levelling the load throughout the day. It’s also a much safer way to add additional mileage.

Elizabeth
Guest

I love the twice-a-day run and I’m not close to elite. i think it helps me build strength while keeping injury risk down. These can be 30 minute runs…they don’t need to be long to gain benefits.

Adam
Guest

Thank you for another great article; I’m currently running c.40 miles a week and hoping to increase that (a lot) so this is really useful. I have already written up the key points from this to structure my training plan when I get home! Thanks again

Dave
Guest

Excellent article. It conveys your passion while giving great advice. I especially like targeting how you feel. Too often plans are too rigid.

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