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Increasing running distance to nail that marathon

Many of us try to increase running mileage but are challenged by niggles or worse - so how can it be done well and consistently?

All too often, we come across someone who is training for perhaps a marathon, Ironman triathlon, or a standard triathlon, who just can't quite seem to get it right when it comes to upping their running mileage. They know they want to, know they need to, but no matter what they try, a niggle gets in the way and limits that long run from getting any longer! Whether it's too much too soon, work or studies taking up time or energy, or children disrupting sleep, there are many reasons why that niggle (or worse!) comes about.

So, how can it be done? Our physiotherapist, Bethan Birdsey, and physiologist Dr Laurence Birdsey, provide you the tips from working with high-performing athletes to increase your mileage and speed all the way to your event.

Tip #1 - Consistency, consistency, consistency

Often, people can run for a long time, maybe 10-15 km, but can't then run again for 4-5 days without soreness and risk of something pinging! Sound familiar?

"Sometimes you need to go backwards to go forwards"

If you want to increase volume, through running more often, or running longer, running more consistently is a great way to achieve this. If you want to run 3 times a week for example, then only run a distance than means you can run 3 times a week! Can you run 3 km 3 times a week? Great, now increase one of those runs to 4 km. All good? Bump up another to 4 km. And so on.

The same philosophy is true for higher mileage, even elite runners. Build up that tolerance, that consistency, the regular runs first, then lengthen them out. You'll be stronger, more resilient and able to tolerate the loads, ready to up the mileage.

So, look to run consistently, but ONLY a distance that enables you to run consistently. It may feel counter intuitive, but sometimes you need to go backwards to go forwards. If you're worried about fitness, then look to tag these sessions on to other endurance sessions; maybe swim or bike for example, to maintain fitness through this period.

Tip #2 - Drop the ego

I remember when I transitioned from rowing to triathlon. I was an international rower, used to training 15-20 h per week, my aerobic capacity was around 70 ml/kg/min, just under 5L, and I was strong from lifting 2-3 x a week for the previous 6-8 years. So, when I started running, I thought well I'm an international standard athlete, I'm fit so I'll run for as long as I'd row (60-90 min), I'm not going out for a 20 min run, that's not long enough! It didn't end well...

This is especially true if you've previously run a good amount, perhaps you're coming back from injury, or you're just not as young as you used to be! Don't think what should I be able to do, but think, what do I need to do. What you need to do, is to run more frequently, to take it easy, to approach it as a beginner. What you want to do is get back to your previous running training as quickly as possible!

So, let go of that ego, think about what you need to do, and think like a beginner.

"Think, what do I need to do?"

Tip #3 - Get creative

There's many ways to skin a cat when it comes to planning training. People often make this overly complicated, with lots of changes each week, and lots going on. This isn't what we mean by creative, and in fact, there's nothing more brilliant for endurance performance than repeating the same training for blocks; it allows you to get used to expending your energy, how to recover, when to go hard etc, and can really help. So, what do we mean, creative?

Well, have a play at moving training and recovery days around. View training in smaller, say 3 day blocks. Run, Run, Rest is different to Run, Rest, Run - I know it's obvious, but you can make huge changes to the stress on the body through organising training differently, through moving rest around without changing total weekly mileage.

Even just moving where your hard sessions are can be really effective For example, if you usually have 3 x steady or easy days between hard sessions, try reducing that to just 1 day for a week. No extra training, but that will be extra stress for your body to deal with and adapt to.

Take the below as example. You can see how if you break it in to 3 day blocks (1: Monday-Wednesday, 2: Thu-Sat, 3: Sun-Tue, 4: Wed-Fri, for example) they all have different loadings, different work, different amounts of recovery, even though the weekly totals are the same. That's great for the body! It moves the stimulus around, allows for more work, more recovery to stress the body in different ways.

Now look at week 1 and week 2. A simple switch of Tuesday and Wednesday will make a huge difference. Now, theres more recovery ahead of the tempo run. This will feel easier, but it means Thursday's hills is done with a little more running in the legs. If you're ready for that, that will be awesome, and create overload before increasing mileage. So, looking at training as density, as frequency, to get creative with your planning.

Double days are also a great way to achieve it. 5km in the morning and 5 km in the evening is a very different stress to a 10 km run. Want to increase that 10 km run? What about 7 km in the morning and 5 km in the evening. The total distance increases, but it's done in a way that permits your body to do the work without too much fatigue, recover a little, and go again, and still maintain consistency.

"Have a play at moving training and recovery days around"

So, look to get creative. It doesn't have to be more mileage, it might simply be varying when you run or when you rest, then density of training over a 3 day block, or perhaps double days to break runs down and increase mileage.

Tip #4 - How do you count?

How do you count your mileage? Monday to Sunday? If you use TrainingPeaks, then you probably use the summary on the right hand side to view your weekly totals. But this doesn't tell the whole story. Let's look at the example below...

In week 1 I run 10 km on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

The next week, I run 10 km on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday.

Using Monday-Sunday, each week I run 30 km - the same mileage. Yet, Saturday-Friday I run 50 km! That's a huge difference! Perhaps you didn't know you could do 50 km in 7 days, or perhaps you're wondering why you're sore?! Either way, looking at it too simply didn't tell you the whole story.

So, don't get hung on up viewing it as the distance covered in a given Monday-Sunday block. Look at the density across smaller or different blocks to really understand what you've done, or plan for what you'll do. This can be difficult to do using online software, which is why we use spreadhsheets to help view training as 7 and 28 day rolling averages to better understand what we plan, and what you do.

Tip #5 - Variety

Mixing it up is absolutely essential when it comes to getting that mileage up. But what?

Pretty much everything can, and should be, varied. Not every day can be hard, not every week can be hard, not every month can be hard! So, mix up each day, keep it varied for your body and your mind!

So, bigger days and shorter days, slower days and faster days. This will move the stress around and allow your body to be stressed, and recover to be stronger than before, and will also help you stay motivated and wanting to go out and do that run!

What route do you usually do? Mix it up! There's a great location in the Pyranees called Font Romeu where runners of all standards head for altitude training in a beautiful location. For almost every run you'll need to jump in the car and drive to a trail - yet at home we tend to want to run from the front door. So, mix up where you run - this isn't just for the mind - changing the surface you are running on will stress and strengthen different muscles and help you be more robust to tolerate those miles.

Tip #6 - You know, it isn't all about the running...

It's something we might know, yet try to shy away from. Sure, running more, in a gradual way, will enable you to tolerate doing more and get fitter and faster. But, there's plenty of work that can be done before you look to lift those miles (remember, what do I need to do, not what do I want to do).

Look at building 3 main areas to support your running training:

  1. Range of movement/Mobility

  2. Balance

  3. Strength

This is true for both as you start your training, and during your high mileage work. As always, there's many ways to achieve this, and working with your strength and conditioning coach or physiotherapist will mean it's as specific as possible.

So, look to build range of movement, as well as strength and balance as you start up, before you build your mileage, NOT when it's too late and that niggle has already set in!

Complex, not complicated

There's loads of smart ways that you can increase your running mileage safely and consistently to achieve your aims. It's not complicated, but it is complex. Hopefully the above gives you some ideas on how you can get going.

Interested in building your mileage, getting faster and achieving your aims in running or triathlon? Then take a look at our running plans, or email us at to discuss your requirements and how we can support you.

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