It’s probably one of the most common questions asked amongst runners, as a way of establishing how hard someone is training. The logic being that the more we train, the greater the stress on the body – right?
Well, no. Of course, all other things being equal, a higher training volume is harder on the body. But given that almost no runner spends all of their time running at the same effort (nor should they) but rather includes a variety of different runs within training, you can’t simply apply this logic without taking factors such as the intensity of training into account.
So how did mileage become this yardstick used to quantify our training? The thing is, us humans like things that we can measure. We continuously over-emphasize the importance of that which we can measure easily, and under-emphasize that which we can’t. Take the school system for example; there’s an extreme level of importance placed on testing and memorizing rather than a more general ‘learning’ experience – simply because it’s something that we are able to test and record with ease. The more intangible aspects of education are often ignored. Similarly, mileage has become this proxy for the level of our training because it’s the easiest thing we can measure. It’s simple and precise.
However, what we’re really looking to control and moderate in training is a more generalized ‘stress’ level on the body. Stress is caused in so many different ways in training, and merely looking at the volume of training will seldom provide a clear enough picture of the effect that it’s having on the body. Of course, I’m sure that many of you are already thinking that such measurements already exist – apps such as TrainingPeaks use a ‘stress score’ measurement to try and account for the difficulty of training and its stress. However, these still need to be used with caution as they’re quantifying dozens of factors into a single score, when the reality is that there are far too many factors at play to do this; and many of which will be very different and unique from one person to another.
So then what role does/should mileage play in regards to evaluating our training load? Of course, it’s still an important factor and indicator to consider. A good way to look at it is to see mileage as a result of training too, rather than only as a component of training. What this means is that we should look at mileage as something that has naturally accumulated through the various training that we’ve been doing – rather than something where we’re trying to hit a target merely for the sake of it. This is something that has become over-emphasized as we are constantly reminded of it – be it through weekly ‘Strava goals’ or other challenges based around mileage.
The point of this all being, try to look at mileage in a more holistic manner with regards to your other training. For instance; if my mileage has increased, has it been at the expense of other high-quality sessions within my training? Or perhaps I’ve spent a lot more time on the trails where one’s mileage will naturally decrease due to the slower pace of the terrain.
So; see mileage for what it’s worth, but don’t give it more importance than that. It shouldn’t be something that dictates your training, but rather something that can be used to show consistency and gradual progression within a well-balanced training plan.