Hundred Mile Weeks

Hundred mile weeks. Have you ever heard this phrase? For many folks who have explored the history of running and training the phrase "hundred mile weeks" is sort of a catch phrase for the budding "elite" runners. Yet, what do "hundred mile weeks" have to do with becoming an "elite" runner? As with anything related to running it is important to know what's really behind the clever label. In this article, we will explore the concept of high-mileage running and try to understand what really helps build your abilities as a runner.

The phrase "hundred mile weeks" stems from a New Zealand coach named Arthur Lydiard. Lydiard, who is still alive and coaching today, started running in the early 1950's to regain the lost fitness of his youth. Through a difficult set of trial-and-error experiments Lydiard performed on himself-such as running up to 250 miles a week-Lydiard developed into one of New Zealand's fastest marathoners at the age of 38 years old. Eventually, Lydiard began coaching some local athletes, several of whom became Olympic champions. Throughout his coaching career Lydiard advocated long-term, aerobic development to the tune of 100 miles per week for up to six months at a time.

Now, let me be perfectly clear about one thing. No one should ever just start running 100 miles a week because some coach has said it worked for others. I had to learn this error at the heart of this mistake for myself. During the summer between my junior and senior year in high school I called a runner from California by the name of Jeff Atkinson. At the time, Jeff Atkinson was an Olympic 1500m runner. I thought, "if I do what this guy does, I will become a great runner too." Well, guess what...he did 100 mile weeks. So began my experience with high mileage.

I spent thirteen weeks running, at times, up to five times a day. At the end of the summer my mileage totals were over 1100 miles. That total put me second on the list of mileage leaders for the all-time summer volume list at my high school. I thought, "Man, it's going to be a great year." However, my body had different plans. The first six races of the year that year, I barely broke into the top seven on my team. My coach tried to explain to me that at the time I had run too much and over trained. He suggested that I back off the distance take it easy and get some rest. But I would not hear it. In the end, my efforts to run "hundred mile weeks" proved disastrous.

After the season was over, something interesting happened though. Once my season had closed out and my body began to recover from the enormous amount of stress I put on it over the summer. A few weeks passed from the state cross country meet and we had a team time trial to see what kind of shape everyone was in. I ended up running thirty seconds faster than I ever had before for three miles. Had I run the time I did that day at state, I would have probably been near the all-state team. Something good had happened, only at the wrong time. I wanted to know why.

My running experiment had failed...or at least I thought it did. I had begun with the idea that running hundred mile weeks would make me a champion. The miles came and went, as did the races, but, I never reached my goal. However, it was not because I did not become better; my post-season time trial clearly showed I had improved. It was because the timing was off. I did too much mileage, too soon in my career and I failed to take the time I needed to recover from what I did to my body. But, I did learn that running more had helped me get faster.

Now, what in the world does this story have to do with anyone else?
If you are a younger or a new runner it could have quite a lot to do with what you are starting.

One key lesson almost any elite or college coach knows is this: for most runners, increasing the volume-mileage or time-a runner trains will usually improve and refine their abilities to race faster. "Okay, great," you might say. "How?" should be the very next question you might ask.

Here's a little science about how. When most Americans start running they begin in either late middle school or early high school. More often than not, high school programs begin with lower-mileage programs that focus on finding out whether young runners are more naturally sprinters or long-distance runners. Once this tendency is identified coaches begin training their athletes accordingly. Sprinters do lots of shorter, fast runs to focus on their speed while long-distance runners often do easier, long runs to build their bodies with small amounts of faster running spread out throughout the season.

After high school runners have mastered the basics of a training program, they move onto the college ranks where more and more time and distance are expected. The reason these expectations come about arises from a few basic facts: 1) once basic muscular strength is developed, the improvement of runners comes more in terms of how efficiently they perform their basic running movements; 2) aside from muscular development, cardiovascular development is the single most important aspect of training; without a well-developed cardiovascular system, no runner will ever reach their full potential; and 3) the energy systems trained and developed by running change the most in the first weeks, months and years of training; what extra development occurs happens only after exponentially larger amounts of training take place.

Let's look at these one by one.

Efficiency is the name of the game. In recent years, sports scientists have concluded that improving efficiency is the most trainable aspect of a runner's ability. What exactly is it? Efficiency is a measure of how much energy is required to perform movements. When running, for example, some runners might burn 100 calories to run a mile. With more training, the learn to swing their arms a little less widely...they learn to lift their knees a little differently...not run on their toes so much...and, after a few months, they get to where they can run a mile and only spend 95 calories. By repeating this process efficiency improves and athletes get faster through continued training. One major goal of increasing mileage is to force athletes to naturally learn how to run more efficiently so the energy they spend can be used running faster, not making needless motions.

As you run more mileage, you muscles, tendons and ligaments grow stronger. You become more efficient. And, your heart gets stronger and can work harder. These enlarged organs are a huge result of increased mileage for many runners. As you run longer, your body is forced to create more red blood cells. To make room for the new blood cells, your body builds new capillaries and arteries in order to extend the capillary bed of your vascular system. Lastly, your heart chambers actually get bigger and your heart rate drops as you become fitter. While you may not "feel" these changes, the fact that you get "fitter" and "faster" throughout the season are indicators of these unseen changes. All these changes occur through extended, easy or aerobic running.

Lastly, the way your body fuels your actions relies on several key biochemical systems. Your improvement depends not only on how strong your muscles are and not only on how big your heart is, but also on how well your body handles the chemical, hormonal and metabolic reactions that occur while running. Several changes that happen are:

  • Your body begins storing fat supplies (that are later converted into energy) closer to the mitochondria for quicker usage
  • Your body creates larger a larger blood volume by creating more plasma
  • With more plasma your body is better able to quicken the process of glucose (energy) into the muscles
  • Increases VO2 Max

While some of these changes may not be every day lunch room conversation topics, when you run more these things are happening, whether you are aware or it or not. The good thing is that running more helps to strengthen your body in ways that are not obvious. In essence, you need to be aware that running mileage at the right effort builds more than heart and legs.

Doing more distance builds your body's ability to run harder through increasing your physical endurance. One interesting aspect of Arthur Lydiard's program is that he advocated "a strong aerobic" pace on his high mileage weeks. His athletes were not racing every run, but, they were not jogging either. Over time, they found the ability to run solid efforts after they reached their peak mileage loads. As a result they were able to train their legs to run at slower and faster speeds. There are more complex physiology concepts related to this process, however, contrary to popular opinion, it is good to know that running longer does not necessarily make you slower.

These key points about the changes that occur scientifically are good to have as a background for understanding what happens when you run farther than have in the past. However, there is more to increasing your mileage than just the science behind it. When I did my "hundred mile weeks" experiment I had none of this basic information. So I ended up doing a lot of hard work without a clear method in mind. The process worked, to a point, but, I did not know enough about what I was doing to cut back at the right time to reach my goal. To help you increase your mileage you need to be aware that running higher mileage is more than just doing it. There are also mental and emotional aspects of higher mileage to deal with when working up the athletic ladder.

Mentally younger runners should be aware that running more requires more time, more patience and more focus. How so? Well, it takes longer because you run further. That's pretty simple. However, if you start getting tired, running slowly starts to wear on your mind. You get bored. You start thinking about other things you could be doing. And, at some point, even the best runners in the world, occasionally start feeling the nagging sense of becoming unmotivated about running. Understand going into higher mileage that it does take a new attitude and mental outlook to do what you hope to do, but also realize that the goal is worth it. If you believe that the work is worth it, you will be more likely to deal with the mental discomfort that comes from running the trials of miles.

The truth is running higher mileage is harder on your body and your mind, but here is the good thing: if you run carefully, your body will recover and grow stronger. If you stay focused and determined, the time will pass and you will finish you runs in spite of boredom. However, there is a third element, the emotional aspect of running more mileage. Emotionally, you must accept that you will get tired, you will get bored, you will get frustrated and you may want to quit. However, once you accept these things, come to terms with them and choose to make it through the longer runs. They are never pretty but the longer runs are often the basic backbone of a distance runner's success. Preparing yourself emotionally for increased mileage requires resolve, determination and tenacity to do the hard, boring work of becoming better.

Coach and exercise physiologist Greg McMillan, M. S. discusses the spectrum of endurance workouts on his website: . As he speaks of building endurance, Greg writes of the three major goals endurance runs hope to accomplish:

While Endurance is the overriding theme behind endurance training, there are actually three distinct purposes for endurance workouts. The first is to recovery from a previous workout or race. The second is to improve your endurance - the ability to run for longer and longer, and the third is to maintain your aerobic fitness level and maximize your aerobic capacity. g%204.htm

After outlining these three major aspects of what endurance training is for, Greg then touches on three key types of training are discussed: recovery runs, long runs and easy runs.

Recovery runs usually last between 15 and 45 minutes. The purpose of these runs is to maintain fitness while giving the body to rest after a race or a hard workout the day before. An easy pair of guidelines for running at a recovery pace is 1) run one and a half to two minutes slower than race pace and 2) keep your heart rate below 65% for most of the run, while allowing it to reach a maximum of 70% at the end of the run. Australian coach Tony Benson suggests in his book, Run with the Best, that anything over 45 minutes is no longer a recovery run, but rather an easy or aerobic effort. Be sure to really keep these easy.

Long runs can be as short as 45 minutes, for newer runners, or may be as long at 2 hours and 30 minutes. In either case, Greg recommends running between one and two minute slower than race pace. He also recommends staying around 70% of your max heart rate. He is quick to point out that long runs are not necessary every week. Some marathoners can get away with running a long run once every two or three weeks since they are doing such long runs. Although Greg does not say this, it is often a good idea to limit your long run to a maximum of 25% of your weekly mileage or 22 miles.

Easy runs generally last between 45 and 90 minutes for older or more experienced runners. They generally fall between 75 and 80% maximum heart rate, while they may climb as high as 85% in the last few minutes of the run. Greg notes, "Again, one of the common mistakes we make is running our easy runs too fast. Keep them steady but don't get into a pace where your breathing becomes noticeably faster. g%204.htm While running a comfortable pace is important, do not let the pace be the driving factor of the run. Most of your runs will be in this effort zone, so, being sure to not do too much too hard.

A good guideline for running the right effort on your endurance runs is to consider your breathing pattern. To do this, count the number of times your feet hit the ground as you run. If it takes you three steps to breathe in and three steps to breath out, you are most likely running aerobically. A three steps in-two steps out pattern is often pushing the envelope for aerobic running. A two-two pattern is often reserved for tempo running or the early and middle stages of races. Any faster than that and you are clearly not building endurance, but, rather your speed or stamina. Listen to your breathing and you can literally hear what your body is doing.

Here are some practical tips about increasing mileage:

  • Don't increase your weekly mileage by more than 10%
  • Take easy weeks. This is sometimes called high-low mileage. You run one week high, then, take the following week low to allow your body to benefit from the hard work by giving it time to rebuild and grow stronger. For example, as you build the mileage, you might run 50 miles one week, 40 the next, then, sticking with the 10% rule, you might then run 55 miles the next week and 44 the next, then, the pattern continues, 61.5, 48.4, 68, 55, etc.
  • Another alternative to the mileage building is to build in terms of time, not distance. For instance, run 300 minutes one week, then, 240 the next. Follow that with 330 minutes, then, 264, etc. Try to stay with 10% increases.
  • Once you start reducing mileage, if you feel you are getting to fast too soon in the season, an occasional long run will help slow down the tendency many runners have to start running to fast too soon.
  • In Louisiana, the summers are hot. Try to drink water every 15-20 minutes while doing mileage. You may feel fine while you are running, but, by the time you begin to "feel" thirsty, the damage is already done. More often than not, dehydration has taken its toll by the time thirst kicks in.
  • Drink during the winter too. Your body is 70-75% water. If you lose 5% of your body weight in water, it will create significant fatigue. You body does not care if the temperature is 25 or 95. It sweats just the same.
  • Also, don't be afraid to drink sports drinks as well as water. You body loses sugar and electrolytes as well as water.
  • Take easy days after longer runs. Even though running slow does not seem hard, the fatigue you experience from running longer than you normally do may take a few days to catch up with you. If you are new to longer mileage, be more diligent about taking it easy for a day or two after a long run.
  • Once you hit 50 miles a week, consider doing 2 runs a day occasionally.
  • If you feel excessively tired for more than three days, back off your mileage. Do not be afraid to take a day off or to consider doing something riding a bike, swimming or playing Play Station 2. As you walk into the unknown territory of higher mileage, be sure to be okay with taking a step back if you feel uncomfortable...sometimes this can prevent you from falling off a cliff.
  • If you are new to higher mileage, train under a coach or find a confidante who preferably has more experience than you with running. They can often offer advice, insights, suggestions and experience that will help you stay smart in your training.
  • Writing out your weekly goal in terms of miles on a calendar often helps you to spell out the workouts and see if a certain number is realistic and attainable. Try to vary the distances you run each day and be flexible in your approach...remember, life happens. Never let numbers on a piece of paper dictate your life.

While running "hundred mile weeks" definitely helps some people make it to the next level, it is not necessary for everyone to run their very best. Nonetheless, most people can make improvements by doing more. Hopefully you will not go out and try to see how many "hundred mile weeks" you can stack together, but, being a little more enlightened, will approach your running with some wisdom about trying to get the most out of your God-given abilities. Running more distance can be safe, effective and enjoyable for getting faster so long as you use good sense and learn to pay attention to your body. Keep an open mind and be sure other people know what you are doing. As was once said, "Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed."

Happy running and best wishes.

Suggested Reading:

  • The Daniels Running Formula, Jack Daniels
  • Run with the Best, Tony Benson and Irv Ray
  • The Competitive Runners Handbook, Bill Dellinger and Bill Freeman
  • Better Training for Distance Runners, Peter Coe and David Martin

Interested in writing an article for Louisiana Contact Patrick Gavin at