The use of charts for mileage progression

My previous post got me thinking about mileage charts again.  I haven’t given them much thought in well over a year, since I haven’t actually been using them for about as long, but it’s a topic that I think is very important to runners in training.  I used to be more of a proponent of the “listen to your body” philosophy, but as I found out the hard way, often your body wants more than it can handle.  While the “10%  rule” is of course totally arbitrary, I (and many others) have found that it’s a fairly good guideline to keeping your mileage progression under control to avoid injuries related to sudden jumps in volume.  In general, I found myself and my teammates in college were afflicted by two classes of overuse injuries: ones related to changes in volume over time and ones related to the sustained stress of continuous high mileage (or intensity).  Controlling, overcoming, and avoiding the sustained-volume injuries is the focus of much of what I write about: how to shore up biomechanical defects, stride patterns, and other factors associated with injury.  To a certain extent, a particular level of stress is necessary to becoming a great runner.  You will have a hard time hacking it as a male collegiate cross country runner if you can’t handle at least 70 miles a week. 
Example #1: Mileage chart from my junior year.  Click to enlarge.
But injuries related to changes in volume can likely be avoided, or at least minimized, by following a logical mileage progression.  Some runners can plow right through lower mileages until they approach their previous “peak” mileage with no problem; others will struggle even at modest mileages if they ramp up their mileage too fast.  I belonged in the latter category.  I probably sustained more injuries at 50 miles a week than I did at 100, and it wasn’t for lack of weeks on the high end of things.  As any runner who has made a return to running after a long time off knows, the same adaptive mechanism that allows you to handle progressively larger volumes over time also works in reverse: after a long time off from running, even very low mileage is a large, new stress on your body, which it may not tolerate well. 
So hence, mileage charts.

On this blog, I prefer not to use examples from my middle-of-the-road college career, but today’s article is one in which I think it can be instructive.  After I began to struggle with injuries my junior year, the numerical side of me took hold and forced me to hold myself to a planned-out chart.  In the following discussion on the various points to consider when designing a mileage progression, I’ll use two real examples of mileage charts I used as a junior and senior in college to illustrate.
The term “mileage chart” is a bit of a misnomer, in the case of my charts; each one is really a “duration chart,” since it tracks minutes, not true mileage.  Believing then, as I do now, that the body operates primarily on effort and time, not pace and distance, I constructed the charts aiming for about a 10% progression in total minutes of running per week.  Structuring a program around duration is better for experienced runners, as it leaves them less likely to become obsessive about numbers like distance and pace.  On the other hand, counting minutes or hours is quite silly.  For that reason, I assigned all easy runs a nominal pace of 7:30 miles (probably on the conservative side, but really, this is an arbitrary decision) so I could still track volume.  If you are a newbie, young or old, it does make sense to base your progression on true distance, as you will probably need some encouragement to move from plodding to jogging to running.
The next issue is how to structure each week.  My general belief on this is that your lower volume weeks should be structured as similarly to your higher volume weeks as possible.  If, for example, you want your peak mileage to have a 90min mid-week long run and a 120min Saturday long run, all of your weeks should have a midweek long run and a longer weekend long run.  This sort of scaling has its limits, of course: if you want to be doing 10 runs a week during your peak mileage weeks, you shouldn’t start out with the same! When it comes to how to design your generic weekly structure and figuring out how to scale them up (or down), you’ve got two options: top-down or bottom-up.
With a top-down approach, you design your peak or near-peak mileage weeks first, then scale back in 10% increments.  This works best if you already know what you’re in for.  If you are returning from injury, for example, and want to return to previous mileage levels, this approach would work best.
A bottom-up approach is just the opposite: start with where you’re at, then build up in 10% increments and see where it takes you.  You’ll likely have a goal mileage that you’ll be aiming at, but when you push into new territory, you won’t really know what will work best for you yet.  You may find that long, continuous runs wear you down too much, or that doubling too often leaves you exhausted or eats up too much time to eat, sleep, and go about the rest of your life.  These are all adjustments you can make, but can’t anticipate, once you reach new mileage heights.  You have to start somewhere, of course, because 10% more than zero is still zero! While the 10% rule is great for “normal” mileages, it is laughably conservative with ultra-low volumes.  The main reason I ripped the running media’s coverage of this recent study was because it discussed the 10% rule as it applied to novice runners doing 4-5 miles a week.  For young, reasonably healthy, competitive runners, a more realistic option is something like “10% or 4-5mi per week, whichever is greater” (with the caveat that you should listen to your body if it’s giving you red flags that you are increasing too fast).
Moving on, you should also keep in mind the limits of the timeframe you are working within.  For most high school and college runners, this is the length of your summer or winter break between track and cross country or cross country and track.  Unfortunately, the NCAA system and many state high school systems sometimes do not allow adequate time between track and cross country to build aerobic fitness.  The very short period between cross country and indoor track is particularly bad, but even 10 or 12 weeks between outdoor track and cross country is about a month short if you need to start at fairly low mileage.  Keeping this in mind, you’ll need to deal with the reality of the time you are given.  Once your season begins, it is irresponsible to continue to increase volume until you’ve adapted to the jump in intensity.   Ideally, you’d stabilize your mileage for several weeks while you phase in higher intensity, then go back to increasing overall volume.  In the real world, however, this isn’t always practical, so a more realistic approach is to phase in intensity very gradually during your mileage ramp-up.  This is riskier, to be sure, but sometimes necessary given a high school or college racing schedule.  If you are coming off an injury, I can’t say I recommend that approach, though to mitigate the risk you could back off your mileage ramp-up to something like 7 or 8% per week.
Another point to consider is where to start.  Again, there is a top-down approach and a bottom-up approach, and the same conditions apply: If you are healthy and are aiming to reach new heights, figure out when you need to be at peak mileage and count backwards from there.  If you are looking to get back in action after an injury, start with an overly conservative structure and work your way upwards. 
Truthfully, if you have a restricted timeframe to get your training in, you probably won’t reach your peak mileage on time.  Don’t fret; illness, travel, minor injuries, or other setbacks are inevitable.  Even world and Olympic champions have this problem—check out some of the schedules of Renato Canova’s athletes if you don’t believe me! I’ve found that it’s best to roll with the punches and pick up where you left off instead of trying to leapfrog your way ahead by 15 or 20% if you miss a few days.  I only reached peak mileage using one of the two charts in this post.  My junior year, I topped out around 95 miles a week, but I only hit 80 or so my senior year.  Both of these seasons, I was returning from injury, so my mileage started from the “bottom up” approach.  Regardless, I set big PRs during both seasons, so it isn’t really necessary to hit that magic peak volume.  Results come equally from a gradual buildup and the high-volume plateau that (ideally) follows.
Example #2: Mileage chart from my senior year, returning after a serious injury.  Click here for better resolution.
You can also use your experiences from one season to influence how you design your mileage buildup for the next.  Here is where you can examine my planned mileage progression as a senior to see the differences.  After autumn of my senior year, where I sustained a cascade of injuries that ultimately cost me the entire cross country season, I reviewed my running logs over the past several years to identify what led to improvements, what led to injury, and how to maximize the former while minimizing the latter.  One change I made was moving from weekly long runs to biweekly ones with a very easy recovery day following, which is reflected on the chart.  Instead of just one week, each cycle is two weeks long.  To be cautious during my comeback from injury, I also backed off the weekly rise from ~10% to ~8%. 
The particulars of how you design your own mileage progression will be heavily dependent on your own idiosyncrasies and preferences.  I thoroughly enjoy doubling, so I introduce it early and do it often.  Other people can’t find the time to run twice a day, or feel that it wears them down too much, so their weekly structure when running 90 or 100 miles a week will be very different than mine.  For me, very long, continuous running was a real killer, so I minimized runs over 90min as a senior in college (while still hitting 70-80 miles a week, mind you). 
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that there is a very good case to be made for alternative mileage buildup strategies.  Jack Daniels, for example, advocates what you might call an equilibrium model where mileage is increased by 25-30%, then maintained for several weeks before another jump.  While the equilibrium part makes sense from a physiology perspective, I worry that 25 or 30% is too large of a jump to safely make all at once.  Speaking from experience, 65 miles a week is a lot different than 80.  The equilibrium strategy might make sense for lower volumes, however, where the change in absolute volume is not so great. 
A few people push for “just running” or “going by feel,” and bash scheduled mileage progressions as overly technical and unnecessary.  While some runners may be able to jump from 50 to 90 miles in one or two weeks, recommending this for everyone is irresponsible “n = 1-ism” that has undoubtedly racked many runners (including me) with injury.  Maybe you could argue that I wasn’t “really” listening to my body, but other very knowledgeable folks in the running community have very reasonably suggested that physiological adaptations (heart/lungs) happen faster than biomechanical ones (muscles, bones, tendons), leading to your body feeling like it can handle more than it’s ready for.
Several other coaches advocate a stress/recovery model in which mileage is increased for 2-3 weeks in a row, then drops for a recovery week.  While I’ve never tried this myself, it makes a lot of sense physiologically.  A lot of what we are learning about bone remodeling, for example, indicates that it takes several weeks for bone to adapt to a new stress, and there is even a window where the bone is weaker than before.  The stress/recovery model accounts for this; its only drawback is that it necessarily requires a longer period of time to reach peak mileage.  This is a particularly smart strategy if you are pressing into new mileage territory, as it allows you to introduce a brand-new stress (like a 100-mile week), then recover from it before you get too worn down.  John Kellogg, one of my major coaching influences, even recommends introducing high volume in smaller 3-5 day “blocks” of 10-20 miles a day, then recovering at a much lower volume for several days following.  Again, this is smart when pressing into new high mileage territory, and checks out in the physiology department.  Why did I still go with the generic 10% rule? Chalk that one up to being driven towards relentless progress or being incorrigibly old-school.

About the Author

John J Davis, PhD

I have been coaching runners and writing about training and injuries for over ten years. I've helped total novices, NXN-qualifying high schoolers, elite-field competitors at major marathons, and runners everywhere in between. I have a Ph.D. in Human Performance, and I do scientific research focused on the biomechanics of overuse injuries in runners. I published my first book, Modern Training and Physiology for Middle and Long-Distance Runners, in 2013.

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