Conventional wisdom holds that in order to run a good marathon or shorter distance races, it is necessary to train 5 or 6 days a week. Traditional marathon programs required running 40 to 60 miles (64 to 96 km) weekly. These were often scaled-down versions of elite runners’ programs.
Most of us juggle busy family lives, work commitments and social interests. Running 5-6 days per week, 40 to 60 miles weekly can easily add more stress to our already busy lives, as well as lead to overtraining and injury.
Now for the good news! It has been proven that for runners that are not racing at an elite level, this frequency and distance are not necessary for good or even personal best performance!
Running three days a week, supplemented by one or two
days of cross training is all that is required for
faster racing times and will
reduce your risk of injury
Cross-training can be aerobic in nature (e.g. cycling, swimming, elliptical) or strength training.
Studies and training programs from Olympian Jeff Galloway and Bill Pierce, exercise physiologist and chair of the Health and Science department at Furman University (South Carolina) have demonstrated that personal best marathons can be achieved running as infrequently as 3 days per week, supplemented by 1 or 2 of days of cross training.
The success of the 3 day per week training program has been substantiated at the International Association of Women Runners. Many of the women who have followed an IAWR Personalized Coaching Program have run personal bests in the marathon and half-marathon on our 3 day per week program. None of suffered injury during training or racing!
Does the same hold true for shorter distances? Yes. Another study took runners who ran 5-6 days per week, reduced their running time by 32% and substituted weight training. Their 5K times improved substantially.
How do you improve if you reduce running frequency and mileage? Running only three days a week requires that you make every run count. No junk miles. Other than your long runs, all runs are conducted at faster than usual pace, consisting of a mix of tempo, interval, hill running and race pace runs.
This approach makes logical sense. In order to run faster at race time, you must practice running faster in training. This principle holds true regardless of your current regular training pace or ability.
If you are not currently running faster than usual workouts, your cardiovascular system, muscles and tendons will take several weeks to adapt to the faster pace. Decrease your frequency by one run per week. Then, replace another run with a faster paced workout. You’ll know your body has grown accustom to the new stress of the faster pace when the workout becomes easier to complete. This adaptation process usually takes 3 or 4 weeks. Then add second fast workout and so on.
Although decreasing frequency and mileage (“kilometerage” will never catch on) will greatly decrease the incidence of injury, running faster can increase susceptibility to injury. That’s why the adaptation period is important. It allows muscles and tendons to get used to working harder.
In addition, we recommend including two strengthening sessions weekly, consisting of running-specific strengthening exercises that can be done at home. These will make you more injury-resistant, enhance your muscular endurance, increase your resistance to fatigue and strengthen your stride -- thereby improving your speed and performance. An example of a running specific exercise was featured in our article “Banish IT Band Pain” that appeared in the December 7th blog post. Click on Banish IT Band Pain to read the article.
If you are aiming for improved race performance and are strapped for time, this “less is best” approach will help you achieve your running objectives and maintain balance between the various aspects of your life that compete for your time and attention.
Bennett Cohen (the Savvy Runner) and Gail Gould are the Founders and Presidents of the International Association of Women Runners (IAWR). To learn more about this global community of women who share a passion for running, visit www.iawr-connect.com.