Quantity Control

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?