Quantity Control

There's truth in the saying that it's quality, not quantity that counts

Posted: 28 July 2003
by Ed Eyestone

There was a time in my life when, if given a choice between quantity and quality, I’d inevitably have chosen the former. The all-you-can-eat buffet would win over the fancy restaurant every time (and yet my wife still married me). Runners often face the quantity-versus-quality conundrum: “Is it better to get in a 10-miler, so I can hit a certain weekly mileage goal, or should I do the interval session that would give me two hard work-outs this week?” In other words, is it better to run longer (quantity) or faster (quality)? Luckily, bigger brains than mine have grappled with this question.

Researchers Weigh In
A study at the University of Northern lowa examined the quantity part of this dilemma. In the study, 51 university-aged men and women volunteered to take part in an 18-week marathon-training programme. Although the participants were reasonably fit at the start of the study, none of them had completed a marathon. In fact, most weren’t even running 10 miles a week before beginning the programme.

The students were divided into a high-mileage and a low-mileage group. The high-mileage group began running an average of 23 miles a week, and progressed to 48 miles a week by the end of the 18-week programme. The low-mileage group ran 20 per cent less mileage, starting at 18 miles per week and peaking at 39 miles. Both groups ran identical weekend long runs, starting with an hour and advancing to two-and-a-half hours.

The quality of training for the two groups was also identical. Both groups trained at 75 per cent of their maximum heart rate, a pace that quality-wise could be considered moderate.

The key difference between the two groups was that the high-mileage group trained six days a week, while the low-mileage group only trained four days a week. On Mondays and Wednesdays, the low-mileage group didn’t run, while the high-mileage group ran for 45 minutes.

Race Day Results
At the end of the 18 weeks, the runners in both groups had nearly identical statistics:

  • Exactly the same reduction in percentage of body-fat (10 per cent)
  • Equivalent gain in muscle mass (three to five per cent)
  • Similar improvement in VO2max

And when it came to the most important stat of all – marathon finishing time – the two groups were equally similar: the men in both groups averaged 4:17, and the women averaged 4:51. So, despite taking two extra days off per week, the low-mileage runners performed just as well as the high-mileage runners during the marathon.

Out Of The Lab, Onto The Day
With results like these, will we soon see elite runners cutting their training to four days a week? Will running at a moderate pace become the ideal training rate? Not a chance.

But there are a few important training lessons which can be gleaned from this study:

  1. Less is more for beginners The Northern lowa study shows that novices can successfully complete a marathon by running four days a week and doing one weekly long run. And it doesn’t take years of training either. Just 18 weeks of minimal training (both quantity and quality) puts the marathon within the reach of most runners.
  2. Less can be more for others, too This study provides proof that the strength of your cardiovascular system will not spiral downwards to that of a sloth just because you miss an occasional work-out. This is especially true if you miss a moderate day of training. So, when you’re feeling run-down or are nursing an injury, take a day off with a clear conscience.
  3. Quantity and quality are a team, yet this study only examined quantity Once you add quality work-outs to the equation, the possibilities are endless for those who want to get faster. Just think: novice runners completed a marathon, training only four days a week. If you add another day or two of running, mix in a weekly tempo run and liven things up with some mile repetitions… what’s the current world record again?

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Discuss this article

Has anyone else read the new article featured on the homepage of the RW site?

Initial reaction is 48 miles maximum for a high mileage group?

It may work at a certain level but can we see Tergat cutting down to a maximum of 39 mpw to gain that elusive FLM win?
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 12:48

There didn't seem to be much difference in the milage either. I thought more accurate figures would have been produced if one group did really low milage and the other really high.

The advice at the end was to mix in some speed sessions - isn't that what most 'seasoned' runners do anyway??
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 12:51

My feeling on this is that there isn't enough difference between the high mileage group and the low mileage group to accurately compare results. And 49 miles isn't that high mileage by most people's standards - at only 9 miles a week more than the so-called low mileage group I honestly don't think you'd see a great deal of difference.
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 13:08

My thoughts are that 48mpw is NOT high mileage. For years I averaged around 60mpw and I never considered that a high amount. The distances chosen also don't really relate to a marathon - even on 48mpw hardly anyone is going to fulfill their potential in a marathon. It would have been more valid had the runners been tested over 10k or a 1/2m.

And the timescale was too short. 18 weeks is nowhere near long enough to assess the difference 'low' and 'high' mileage. My guess would be that if they kept that going for 5 years the 'high' mileage group would be a fair bit quicker than the 'low' mileage group.
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 13:32

Doesn't this article just tell us what we already knew? - That adding junk milage doesn't help.

I cannot see what the point would be of running 2 extra sessions of 45 minutes at 75% HR if you were already doing 3 of these sessions a week already...

I think it would have been much more interesting to see the benefit of adding in an extra medium-long run per week, or to see what benefit was gained from the addition 2 extra recovery runs when the other training was done at a higher intensity.
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 13:35

But of course, we must remember this was meant for beginners. A lot of better runners would be aiming for better than 4 hrs 17 mins.
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 13:38

My personal view is that there is no such thing as 'junk' miles. I'm also a great beleiver in the idea of 'lifetime' mileage. While I appreciate the article is aimed at the beginning marathoner, I think the vast majority of people will get more out of 48mpw than 23mpw.
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 13:45

That so called 'statistics' behind this piece of research are not very well explained in the article. It means very little saying that the average time of each group, 'high' and 'low' mileage, doesn't vary much without giving some estimate of the range of times in each group (the variance for non-statsy people).

The 'high' group may all have clocked 4:17 plus or minus 2 minutes to give their average of 4:17. On the other hand, the 'low' milers might have had Paul Tergat in their ranks, who then clocked 2:07. That then allows for the other low mileage folk to lag behind.

The sample size is a bit small too and there are a myriad of other factors that would influence the reductions in muscle mass and body fat %.

Another case of shoddy reporting of statistics to mislead the layperson.

the bat
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 13:58

Er.. in English please, for a running-ignorant person like me. High mileage is...? and low mileage is...?
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 13:59

I agree, Batfink, as the type of statistics usually shown in magazines like RW can be extremely misleading.

Many academics consider magazines like RW to be 'comics' and anything written in them is taken with more than a pinch of salt. I know of a sports science masters student who pretty much failed a module because he based his essay on articles in Men's Health and Ultrafit.

"Don't believe anything you read, and only half of what you see," as my headmaster used to say.
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 14:09

You guys have said all I wanted to say! This is what gives Sports Science a bad name...

The biggest flaw is without doubt that it takes no account of what the runners had been doing beforehand. If they had done lots of aerobic training, if they had come back from injury, etc... combine that with the minimal difference in milage, the short period of testing, the ignoring of other variations in the runners and about a hundred other flaws, and this "research" tells us nothing.

"junk milage" is not a waste of time, but the effects are seen LONG term and in recovery from harder sessions.

This sort of article is why RW is only good for events and results...

Posted: 30/07/2003 at 14:16

I don't doubt that the University, Wisconsin I think, were rigorous in their trial - the weak link is in the reporting of the method and results by the journalist writing for RW.

Also, when the tag line for the article includes the word "truth" when talking of the trial, it does serve to give statistics a bad name.

One of the biggest lies is the cliche of "lies, damned lies and statistics". Statistics don't lie, just the people interpreting or presenting the results.

<batfink steps off his soapbox and returns to the skies>
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 15:03

Nice speech, Batfink!
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 15:04

Don't necessarily agree that RW is only good for events listings and results - some of the articles are reasonably interesting. There was one some time ago which focussed on running only four times a week, but showed how to get the most out of those four sessions (a long run, a recovery run, a tempo run and a speed session). I base most of my training on this approach because time constraints mean I can't get out much more than this and I've been pleased with my results - I knocked over two minutes off my 5K PB just by focussing on quality rather than quantity.

Mind you, I was pretty much a beginner when I read this - most seasoned runners would already know this kind of thing. RW is great for beginners and for encouraging people to get into running in the first place, but perhaps not much use when you have years of experience under your belt.
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 15:07

Yes, RW can certainly help if you're a beginner...but then again, if you're a beginner, you won't know if the advice you're given is correct or not.

When it comes to statistics and 'proving' things, we must always remember how long it took to definitely show that smoking damaged health. There were hundreds of those studies performed before a link could be proven. So it's never good to rely on just one or two studies.
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 15:40

Good points, u/a.
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 15:45

Statistics are at their weakest when it comes to sport psychology, I find. The claim that 66% of sports people perform better using imagery is often quoted in that field (not sure of the exact number, but it's close to 66%). But they never really say which 66% - the top two-thirds or the bottom two thirds.

Psychology uses statistics as otherwise trying to generalise their findings is impossible. The problem is that everybody responds differently to different stimuli, and that includes training.
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 15:59

Don't get me started on the "science" of psychology!!!!
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 16:09

OK guys, you are obviously all experts in your fields and can asses this kind of article differently to me. I found the article encouraging becasue it promoted the idea that people can achieve something without becoming obsessive about mileage. I suspect anyone who actually tries it will havea similar experience to meand willlearn as they go along.

I'm a veteran beginner who completed FLM in a very slow time based on totally indequate training after it became clear that my body would NOT do high mileage or short recovery times.

As a result of injuries sustained trying to keep to a schedule designed for younger fitter peeps I revised my objective to 'start as fit as possible and uninjured', with a second objective 'to finish uninjured'.

I did all but one of the long runs, and between two and three shorter runs each week, trying to get full 'value' out of them for me. That meant a session at the track working on speed, a higher heart-rate run mid-week, and a gentle jog around to keep moving which I sometimes switched with a gym session. If i couldn't run because of injury (which was often), I used the gym and worked on strength. I also worked on core strength.

I started uninjured, and I finished uninjured. If I had managed 4:17 I would have been delighted, but my mileage never got anywhere near 48 per week, and I am convinced that without the base mileage I'll never speed up.

Now about to up my mileage in trainig for Dublin, but don't intend going above40 miles per week at any stage. Maybe next year when muscles and joints are stronger.
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 16:18

The RW article isn't new research - I read about it somewhere - about a year ago

Found this in PP tho' which might be of interest

"Scientific investigations indicate that expanding one's training from just five weekly miles to about 25 miles per week can improve performance by around 20-25 per cent, and upgrading weekly mileage from 25 to 50 miles can boost performance by 10 per cent or so. However, changing from 50 to 70 weekly miles nets very small (or no) gains in performance, and going beyond 70 miles per week has not been linked with any measurable physiological benefits but has been related to dramatic increases in the risk of overtraining and injury. The relationship between training mileage and performance gains is an excellent example of the familiar law of diminishing returns.

same article says that elite female runners usually do 50-100 weekly miles.

Posted: 30/07/2003 at 17:34

SS, so why do the top runners seem to do 70+ mpw?
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 17:38

This is classic. The article is presumably talking about increase in VO2 Max over a short period of time. Elite runners are doing 100+miles per week because they need to. It may not increase VO2 Max in a 12 week period (i.e. to do 70+mpw), but it may allow for better recovery, injury prevention in the LONG term, a better base from which to do speed work and many other things that a brief research article can't possibly cover.

Consider Steve Ovett - 1500m runner who ran over 100mpw all winter. Or Peter Snell who won gold at 2 olympics over 800m and ran in excess of 200mpw including recovery runs - his PB is still NZ natioanl record 40 years later!

The bottom line is that there are so many factors and that they cover such a long period of time that such research will never be more than of limited benefit.
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 17:52

Pantman - Tim Noakes' Lore of Running looks at the training of some of the great athletes and draws some interesting conclusions based, as you say, over a long period of time, not one small study rehashed to make an attention grabbing headline to sell a magazine.
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 17:55

I think we are on teh same wavelength here BR... (BTW you'll have e-mail in a tic re. your question)
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 17:58

BR exactly... I couldn't work that out - seemed to contradict itself - but then I guess periodisation comes into play

Same article was referrring to a Chinese athlete who did .....175 miles a week

"Wang, of course, is Wang Junxia, the Chinese female who last year clipped 16 seconds from the 3K world record and shattered Ingrid Kristiansen's 'invulnerable' world 10K mark by an astonishing 42 seconds. Overall, Wang broke three world records at distances ranging from 1500 to 10,000 metres within a six-day span, and her 2:24:07 marathon, though not a world best, was the fastest female effort at that distance in 1993. Qu is fellow countrywoman Qu Yunxia, who complemented Wang's wondrous running by steaming through a world-record 3:50.46 in the 1500 metres. Qu progressed from a ranking of 73rd in the world to the absolute top of the heap in just one short year.

Few people know for certain what's behind these incredible performances but various reports indicate that the quicksilver pair often run about 25 miles per day during certain phases of their training. If so, Wang and Qu have the heaviest training loads in the world, far above the 50-100 weekly miles usually chalked up by elite female runners."

I'd've thought that if you're one of the people capable of running long distances, easily and fast, then different 'rules' apply - because the effort involved / time on your feet / ability to recover etc will be so dramatically different to people like me who break down every time they go over 25 miles a week!

Posted: 30/07/2003 at 18:12

You'll probably tell me 'everyone' knows that Wang was on speed or something similar!
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 18:13

Wang did "crash" training where you do obscene amounts of training for a very limited time and then recover just as drastically - super-duper-compensation!

Posted: 30/07/2003 at 18:25

This is very interesting. I'd still like to know why all the best runners seems to do mega mileage weeks. I wonder what times they would run if they stuck to 30-40 miles a week.
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 18:47

'course - it could be that the top runners say they run 25 miles a week more than they really do - hoping that the opposition copies them and overtrains.....
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 20:02

lol, ss!
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 20:42

SS - if anything I think top runners tend to underestate the amount of miles they do. Seb Coe is often given as an example of an athlete who achieved great things off a relatively low mileage. While it's true that he wasn't a classic 'high mileage' runner he did do more than most people realise. During his base peiod in the winter he would often run 90 miles a week. He's also on record saying that he didn't add up all the 'junk' miles he ran, only the 'important' miles. So if for example he did a session of 12x400 he would write that down as 3miles, not including the 2-3miles warm and 2-3miles warm down.

Another point is that most top runners are actually quite modest and don't like to brag about their achievments/abilities. It can actually sound pretty sad telling someone that you run 100+miles a week, go the gym three times a week, get physio nearly every day, go to bed by 10pm, never get drunk etc etc. An elite athlete talking to a non-elite is generally going to feel more comfortable talking about rest and recovery, not overdoing things... "I guess I'm just lucky" ... and so on. It's difficult to tell someone that you are good basically because you train your nuts off... because the inference is that the other person isn't training hard enough.
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 21:22

Looks like you who (??foolishly) subscibe to RW are becomming fed up with their emphasis on "beginners". I think I get better ideas on training and general running advice from the RW forum site !!
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 22:11

I don't subscribe! I'm thinking about it as the events page is really handy and I like to plan ahead. But it seems wrong until they improve it somewhat...
Posted: 30/07/2003 at 22:20

You can buy a book with all the years events in it-better reading!
Posted: 31/07/2003 at 08:20

I've just read all the postings here with much interest as I felt dubious about the article.

I just started running 5 years ago to stay fit after recovering from a bad ankle break while climbing. I know that I only managed to run a marathon after 4 months running due to going out 5 days per week and doing about 40 miles higher mileage. I have since successfully chopped 15 minutes off my marathon time by increasing the mileage and doing a bit of speedwork.

I do not consider any run to be junk as they all help towards building a base.
Posted: 31/07/2003 at 09:11

I don't think it is particularly useful to compare a top elite runner with an average "recreational" runner- the lifestyles are worlds apart. The average recreational runner will be fitting training in around all the work, family and home running commitments whereas an elite athlete has made certain choices involving work, family etc to allow running to be at the forefront. They sleep during the day and are not training after a days work with the kids to bath and get to bed after.
Articles such as the RW one aren't aimed at elite runnners- they have coaches and expert knowledge to tell them how much to train, the rest of us find it encouraging that you can still make headway in spite of the time constraints of our lifestyles.
Posted: 31/07/2003 at 09:52

Yes, I've also read that information regarding the improvement in performance with increasing miles up to about 75 mpw, and then improvement decreases. What we have to remember is that for an elite athlete, running an extra 20 miles a week to take an extra 1% off their racing times is well worth it.
Posted: 31/07/2003 at 10:55

So........I'm confused.........nothing new there then........but if someone could clarify.....if less is more,is more, less or is more, more, more or less????
Posted: 31/07/2003 at 12:29

from the article on the front page of the RW website, there is insufficient evidence to conclude whether high and low mileage routines, as defined in the reporting of the trial, yield the same results, as defined by the reporting of the trial.

there, a reasonable accurate description of the facts presented - unlike the original article!

the bat
Posted: 31/07/2003 at 12:49

batfink - thanks for that - i fink

I've got a VO2 max of 33 - but did the FLM in 5:28 including 3 loo stops! - so I actually beat the time which these VO2 max ratings said I'd do it in - by quite a bit (c20 minutes ? can't remember how what the predicted time is exactly)

For the 3 months prior to the FLM in 2001 - I ran mainly just one long 3hour probaly 15 mile run a week round and round a football pitch and cross trained in the gym 4 days a week - due to injuries galore - I cross trained really really hard - but never for longer than 60 minutes

OK I did the FLM REALLY slowly and so found the whole thing easy and enjoyable - didn't even gasp once or break into a sweat which is completely unlike me

I have a fairly strong suspicion that had I trained 'properly' - be it 3 or 4 runs a week - or more - I'd've been nearer the 6 hour mark

Point is - everyone is different - some more so than others.....and less maybe more for some but less for others - but huge headlines which seem to state 'do this and it'll work for you' could ruin some people's training completely and so are at best misleading because they are too superficial - as are the articles which follow.
Posted: 31/07/2003 at 13:38

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