Quality over quantity... No miles are ever junk.
This week I posted a tweet about a study which has been published recently, analysing the GPS data of 14,000 runners. The results of the study in simple terms were that those who performed best in long distance running events had completed the most miles and had done them at a slower pace. The take home message was to run more miles and do them slower, if you want to race faster.
The tweet generated a lot of interest from athletes, coaches and sports scientists. Some agreed with the data and others questioned it's validity. There were lot's of comments about 'junk mileage' and 'quality over quantity', which is a particular bugbear of mine.
Let's start by looking at the study. From the graphs below, what you're looking at on the left, is running velocity in races, compared to overall training volume and on the right, running velocity in races and training intensity (zero would be stood still so the lower the number, the easier the workout). If you're super keen you can read the full study HERE
Anyhow... like any other study, of course there are things you could question. If you drill down into the methodology, there's things that may impact results, but what it gives in it's simplest form (and remember it was 14,000 people, so that's a large sample population), is a picture that the best runners did more miles and a lot of those miles were very slow.
Is this really a surprise?
Well it probably shouldn't be. World class distance swimmers probably swim in the region of 50-80k per week, with 10-20% being hard and the rest being relatively easy. Professional cyclists may do 400-500 miles per week, with 10-20% being hard and the rest being easy. And the kenyan distance runners will run 120-140 miles per week, 10-20% of which will be hard and the rest is very easy.
I'm sure that most people reading this blog are aware of the Kenyan training regime, you see it often enough in articles and on social media, stressing how slow they run on easy days and the fact that they follow the 80:20 principle, with at least 80% of their running being easy volume.
What's the issue with volume?
The biggest issue is that it takes up a lot of your time! It's all very well telling someone to ride 400 miles a week, but if you have a job and a family, it's simply not going to happen. For that reason, a lot of amateur athletes will do less hours and look at other ways to maximise their gains, from the limited time they have.
Train smarter and focus on quality over quantity!!
Training 'smarter' and 'quality over quantity' are terms which get used frequently and they refer to how you can make the most of your limited time, to get the biggest possible gains. Here's the issue, the 'quality over quantity' debate is very much flawed. It implies that faster and harder training is 'quality' and running a large volume of slower miles is 'NOT quality'. You can quickly understand where the term 'junk miles' comes from.
Sometimes you need to do miles at a slower pace / lower intensity and sometimes you need to do miles at a faster pace / higher intensity, as prescribed by your training plan. You can do those miles 'well' or you could do those miles 'badly'. For instance, you might run your slow miles too quickly, or equally, your fast stuff may be too slow. So... there is an objective to achieve, and if you achieve that objective, then it's fair to say that the workout was 'high quality'.
Whether the workout is shorter / higher intensity, or longer / lower intensity, is not the deciding factor as to whether it is deemed 'quality'. There is a lot of quality and a lot of benefits to be gained by doing a high volume of slow miles, just as there is with shorter and high intensity workouts. The term quality versus quantity is therefore flawed, because it implies that doing more miles is not quality and adds no value. Tell that to the Kenyans.
So what is junk mileage?
Good question... Well, maybe junk mileage could be defined as any workout, of any intensity, that is just done badly. You may have an interval workout planned and perhaps you're just 'not up for it' so you don't push hard enough and bail on the last few reps. Maybe you had a long easy run planned and ran it too hard so hard to stop early as a consequence? If you didn't achieve the objective for the session and you didn't do it well, then maybe that's junk?
That said, do we need an objective fore each session? Was it junk because you bailed on the last rep and went home or was it the wise thing to do? Is it junk because a session has no purpose? If you just go for a run because you need some stress relief and head out onto the local trails with no structure or objective in mind, is that really junk?
Quality over quantity suits our lifestyle
Oddly, I've seen people talking with extreme enthusiasm about how the Kenyans run their 120-140 mile weeks, emphasising how slow they go on the easy sessions to build that volume. Then I've seen the same person, the next day, denounce pointless mileage as junk and stating that we should focus on quality and not quantity.
The reality is, believing the term 'quality over quantity' suits our lifestyle. We have full time jobs, families and other commitments which take up a lot of our time. We want to believe that 'quality over quantity' exists and some commercial businesses want you to believe it too, as they can sell you an Ironman plan which requires 6 hours a week, with the promise that their 'clever training methods' negate the need for any significant time commitments. Their methods are so clever, that not even the best in the world seem to be aware of them.
This is really simple. All the best endurance athletes in the world, do enough volume to make your eyes water and the bulk of it is at a very easy pace. That's what the best in the world are doing. They do the shorter and harder stuff, but then they also do a lot of easy stuff to supplement it. You do not have the time to do that volume, so you have to adopt an approach which gives you the best return for your investment.
But here's the key thing. There is a significant difference between knowing that large volume works, but you just don't have the time.... and believing (or being told) that volume is wasted junk miles. You certainly can't make that judgement when you've never actually had the opportunity to experience the benefits.
How can I use this in my own training?
Of course, your training plan should be balanced, to include higher intensity work at the right times and as I've said above, you don't have the time to do huge volume like the pros. There are also different responders, so some people will benefit more from volume that others. But here are some simple ways you can adapt your training to gain the benefits.
1. On your Sunday ride or run , go slower to go longer. Slow down to run for 2.5 hours rather than running harder for 90 minutes, the same applies for cycling. Don't slip into the trap of not running and riding far enough, but justifying it in your head because you 'went harder'.
2. Don't become obsessed with too many short and hard sessions, such as FTP building workouts to increase 20 minute power. You can only go so far with intense workouts. You need intensity, but you also need easy volume.
3. Slow down in the pool to build swim volume. It's not ok to do 1500m of drills and get out because someone has spun you a bullshit story that 'swimming is all technique and drills are far better quality'. It suits their own agenda to believe that too.
4. Never believe that long zone 1 riding and running workouts are a waste of time and 'junk miles'. It's the curse of the 'silver bullet' instant gains attitude. Just ask yourself, what are the best in the world doing?
Most importantly, remember this. Training should provide a stimulus which then results in physiological changes, to make you a better athlete. The purpose of training is NOT to test your performance. Run easy and by all means set yourself an upper heart rate limit to ensure that you're running easy, but do not look at your minutes/mile pace. And if you worry about minutes/mile and specifically how that may be perceived by others, get the f**k off Strava.
Marc Laithwaite is a level 3 qualified coach, who has been coaching endurance sports for the last 22 years. He is a former sports science lecturer of 12 years and spent 2 years with the British Cycling team as a bloods analyst. He has worked with British Triathlon Coach Education as a coach educator and spent 5 years as head coach of the NW Regional Triathlon Talent Squad. He's also a former national age group triathlon champion, European duathlon champion and Ironman age group winner. At age 6, we was also Calagran campsite talent competition winner, with an amazing rendition of match stalk cats and dogs.
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