Rather than just running 10 percent more every week, there’s a better way. And to determine that better way, it’s important to understand a few things first.
First, forget the concept of ‘mileage’
That’s right. The body does not understand the concept of mileage. The two things it does understand are duration and intensity – how long you are running and how hard you are running. Think about it. Running 3 miles up a steep mountain could take an hour and you may have to kill yourself to get to the top in that hour. On the flip side, running 3 miles down a gradual descent may take you fewer than 20 minutes. So, does the body know you ran 3 miles? No. It knows you ran an hour hard or that you glided along for 20 minutes.
Your Typical Volume
In order to determine what your baseline is, you first need to understand what your typical volume across your many weeks of running. How many hours:minutes do you typically run in a week? An easy way to do this is to take a year or two’s worth of weeks, add them together and average them. This is your foundational baseline of weekly volume, and is a great place to start for building up your volume.
As you increase your weekly volume, shoot for 5-20% a week. The range accounts for multiple factors such as: are you below your baseline volume and working back up toward it (in which case you can ramp up more aggressively); are you at or above your baseline and continuing to increase volume (in which case you may want to slow the progression down a little to avoid hammering the legs too much too soon); are you running mostly aerobically or are you starting to add some race-specific intensity (in which case volume could plateau or even reduce to account for the increase in intensity); and so on.
Insert Occasional Adaptation Weeks
Simply, an adaptation week is one that is a repeat of the previous week’s training – the types of workouts, the duration of the workouts and the overall volume for the week. Adaptation weeks do not stall progress. Rather, they reinforce the progress made to that point. And, if the adaptation week goes well, then you’re ready for the next boost in volume the following week.
Adaptations are not critical every step of the way. If you think of your training cycle, the second-to-last “hard” week could be an adaptation week before the final “hard” week is another boost heading into the “easy” recovery week.
When It’s Time to Recover
The most challenging things for runners to do, especially Masters runners, is to hit the brakes on training when it is progressing so well and insert that ever-critical recovery week. Periodically during your training cycle, the overall mileage and workout intensity should dip to allow the body an opportunity to recover and adapt.
Recovery weeks, as with recovery days, are money. This is when true progress occurs. The body needs to be able to lick its wounds, absorb the training, process it and, in the end, make you bigger/faster/stronger. Recovery weeks are typically 50-70% of full training volume and intervals are typically reduced by 50-70%. The key is to do just enough to stay tuned up but not enough to continue breaking yourself down. If your long run is typically 2 hours, then shorten it to 60-75 minutes. If you ran 4 miles of intervals at the track last week, then shorten that to 1.5-2 miles in the recovery week. And so on.
Mileage decreases during a recovery week should be about 10-25 percent depending on how hard you’re training, your experience level and past susceptibility to running injuries. The key is to no wait until your legs are sore and you can barely get out of bed in the morning to insert a recovery week. It’s better to leave some intense training “on the table” and insert a recovery week before you feel you really need it. You’ll know you’ve hit it about perfectly when you get to the Friday of the recovery week and you’re starting to get excited for the following Monday (which begins the next hard cycle). If you hit the weekend of the recovery week and you’re still feeling the malaise of training hard, then you waited too long to recover. Likewise, if you hit Tuesday of the recovery week and you’re already feeling stellar then you have not produced enough load from which to recover. Typically, with a well-balanced program, a recovery week can occur every 5th or 6th week.
So, there you have it. As you look toward your upcoming goals – maybe you’re running your first half-marathon, or you're preparing for Boston next April, or your first ultramarathon, for example – by following the above tips, you can probably progress more intelligently, methodically and quickly so you hit the start line with a higher level of confidence.