Increasing Mileage for Marathon Training – Make a Plan!

Woo hoo! You’re running a marathon!

You may have a marathon training plan, or a coach, or both. Most training plans have a baseline recommendation for starting in terms of miles per week and will incorporate safe increases in mileage through the weeks leading up to your race. Follow the plan, everything goes without a hitch, right? 

Why a Marathon Training Plan is Important

The reality is in running, as in life, things rarely go entirely according to plan. What if you are jumping into the training a few weeks after the “start” of the plan? Or had to take time off due to an injury? Maybe you missed some of the scheduled workouts due to work or family commitments, travel, or illness. You feel ready to get back into running… but how do you increase your mileage safely?

As anyone who’s done it knows, running is a high-impact activity. That sets it apart from other types of exercise such as cycling, swimming, or weight training that increase your fitness but don’t necessarily put the same stress on your bones, joints, and soft tissue that running does. Your body has the ability to adapt to this stress, but it takes time. One widely recommended guideline is not to increase your mileage by more than 10% per week. In other words, if you generally run 10 miles per week, you can add one mile per week. It’s a useful starting point but like all things running, everybody is unique! How much you can vary from that 10% depends a lot on where you’re starting from. Some questions to ask yourself: 

How old are you? Younger people generally have the ability to adapt to stress more quickly. 

How active are you? If you’re already doing some type of exercise, your cardiovascular fitness may be great – but your bones and joints still need time to adapt. Be careful not to do too much, too fast, too soon. 

How experienced are you? Maybe you’re coming back to running after significant time off, or have done a lot of running but not at longer distances. Consider all your previous running as miles in the bank- your body will already be primed to re-adapt. And, experience gives you more confidence in listening to your body and knowing when it’s ok to push a little farther or take it easy.

What is your daily routine like? If you spend the majority of your time sitting (either at work or commuting or in class), this affects your entire core strength and skeletal alignment. You’ll need to pay attention to developing a well-balanced and flexible kinetic chain, including your shoulders, spine, core, and hips, and only increase your mileage as long as you can maintain good running form.

What type of body structure do you have? Being either significantly above or below your recommended weight can make you more prone to injury, so it’s important to build your mileage more conservatively in both these situations. 

Do you have a history of bone or soft tissue injury? It can be frustrating, but sometimes “less is more” when increasing mileage after an injury. But remember, it’s better to reach the starting line of your marathon slightly under-trained than not at all!

Finally, as you increase your mileage, here are some suggestions for staying healthy and happy:

  • It’s better to add another day to your schedule than to drastically increase a single day’s mileage. For example, if you are running 3 miles a day on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday you could add a run on Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday of 1-2 miles. And then another day of 1-2 miles before increasing any of your runs to 5 or 6 miles.
  • You can also walk to add miles. For example, if you’re running 3 miles a day, add 1-2 miles of walking on each of those days before transitioning to running all 5 miles. A lot of distance running is just about “time on feet” not necessarily the speed at which you’re moving.
  • Alternate running with cross-training and especially strength training – weight-bearing activities will help the adaptation process of building stronger bones and joints. Focus on core strength so that you can maintain good running form as you fatigue.
  • Don’t be a slave to your schedule! If you feel unusual aches or pains, take a rest day and reassess the next day. 

Enjoy your training and see you at the start line!