The Benefits of High Mileage Training for Short Races

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Photo credit: Gasparilla Distance Classic 2011 5k Race from Flickr user Gordon Tarpley, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

I don’t typically believe in writing race reports for races less than, perhaps, 10 miles in length.  Such races are generally “B” events for me, and the strategy and dynamics of the race are often a bit less interesting to share.  However, the Aurora Turkey Trot 4-Miler on Thanksgiving Day (obviously) holds some valuable lessons on preparing for a shorter race, as well as a good bookend on my training season, so I thought I’d sit down and gather some thoughts.

First, as a baseline, I had run a few early-season 5K’s – both a “time trial” in the predawn on a local track in April, and a more formally organized local 5K in June – to establish my VDOT and set targets for race goals and workouts this season.  The results of the time trial (18:20 – 5:54/mile pace) suggested a VDOT of 55, establishing workout goals as described in a prior post on the marathon-training plan, and an uncannily accurate marathon prediction of 2:56:01 (Daniels approach).  This VDOT was re-validated through the season at the Towpath Ten-Ten 10-Miler and the River Run Half Marathon, and of course the Towpath Marathon itself.

The Solon Yates 5K, however, held a different lesson – that going out too fast can kill your performance even in the shorter races. That experience, in which I walked part of the third mile on the way to an 18:54 finish, after clocking a 5:20 pace in the opening half-mile, was humbling, reminding me that all races require a strategy.

This training season was pretty light on VO2max-specific training, as Pfitzinger believes that VO2max is a lower priority for the marathoner.  Thus, there weren’t the workouts you’d expect to see one perform in preparation for a shorter race – 400 to 800m intervals, or perhaps short tempo interval workouts.  There were a lot of strides (at least weekly), and the tempo runs for increasing lactate threshold were almost always of a length longer than four miles.  Thus, when combined with the six weeks of over 70 miles, and even the stepback weeks being in the 60’s, I knew my overall fitness would be solid heading into this race, and I was well recovered from the Towpath Marathon.  However, I had no idea how this would translate into specific race performance.

I had set a goal of 23:30 for this race, a 5:52/mile pace.  I assumed that my short-race performance would have improved somewhat from April, though I wasn’t sure to what extent. Additionally, since the race had a roughly quarter-mile hill at the three-mile mark, I knew I’d need to be a bit conservative early (even running down the same hill just a quarter-mile into the race) to have a chance to meet this goal.  Conditions were perfect; I was geared up in a heavier (and bright yellow) UnderArmour technical tee, shorts, and arm sleeves, in addition to my Saucony Kinvara 2’s, which I love for races of half-marathon length or under.

After a 3-mile warm-up, with some strides near the end, and lunges and the standing portion of the myrtl routine, I settled into the front of the starting area, and notice I was largely surrounded by high-school and college kids who were probably in top shape from their cross-country seasons.  I knew heading in to the race that such would be the situation, so an overall win was out, and I judged from past results that a 23:30 finish would put me in the mid-teens overall.

The start was delayed five minutes, but we were soon off.  As expected, the kids took off quickly, including one 12 year old whose mother had promised him $50 if he finished top-3 in his age group (practically a gimme).  Advice – if you want to ensure someone young blows themselves out early in a race, offer a financial reward for a high finish.  I tried to stay patient, as I was maybe 20 back from the lead heading into the downhill.  A quick and perhaps inaccurate glance at my Garmin indicated a pace of 7:11(?), and the patience quickly faded.  I kicked it up a bit on the downhill, and at the next glimpse, my pace was 5:30.  I steady out at the bottom of the hill, and was able to hold this pace steady for the remainder of the first mile.

Early in the second mile, we reached a turnaround cone, so I got a gauge of my position – looked to be 11th, but I quickly passed a younger runner to move into 10th.  This portion was flat, and we passed the local football team practicing on Thanksgiving Day for the state semifinals.  My pace slipped a bit – intentionally, but was still held below goal, coming in at 5:44 for the second mile.  This was not easy, but not particularly uncomfortable, and felt sustainable – on flat terrain.

At this point I heard another runner coming up on me, but I didn’t turn to look.  Additionally, we were rapidly gaining on a runner, so my focus was on staying relaxed and patient until we passed him about a quarter-mile into mile three.  We also started closing on another runner – a bit of an older hippie wearing minimalist footwear, and passed him after the third turnaround of the race, at the base of the key hill.

As we started up the hill, I could sense my breathing and heart rate start to spike, so tried to balance holding a steady effort and staying relaxed.  The runner behind seemed to be gaining on me judging by the volume of his footfalls, but I passed the three-mile marker midway up the hill, at a 5:44 split, still ahead.  As we reached the top of the hill, I saw that my pace had slipped to 6:10, so I focused on pushing the pace again.  I soon noticed the runner’s footfalls fading away – he may well have been trying a make-or-break approach on the hill, and it appears he broke.

I got a confirmation of that about midway through the last mile; the race finishes with a loop of the Aurora Farms Factory Outlets, so I could catch a reflection in the window of the runners behind me and see them as we turned corners.  No one was particularly close.  So I settled in again and started pushing what I could into the slightly uphill finish, thrilled to see the race clock showing 22:xx with just one hundred meters to go.  I passed the finish and, after a few seconds of neglect, stopped my Garmin, with a time of 22:42, knowing I was in eighth overall.

On gathering with the other finishers, it was pretty obvious I had won the age group.  One runner approached me and, with a rather bewildered voice, asked, “how old ARE you?”  When I replied “38” (no, I am not a masters runner yet, for those who may have assumed I am), he said “wow, I’m 31 and was thrilled to keep up with these guys, I don’t know how you do it.”  The sentiment was echoed by another gentleman, wearing an Ohio University shirt, who stated he was 24 and hadn’t been training that much yet. Since it was Thanksgiving, I quickly got in my car and squeezed by the final turn of the race to head home to join my family.

Let’s go back to the point of the post.  In one season, seven months long, my VDOT, now at 56, improved by a point, with no real specific focus on VO2max training.  As others have reported, high mileage training works wonders for shorter race distances.  If you have read Once a Runner, you may recall that, even for the mile, Quenton Cassidy was putting in nearly 100 miles per week of training (yes, it is a work of fiction, but it is based on real experience).

So if you want to go for a lifetime PR in the 5K, consider training for a 10K or more.  If a 10K, go for a half-marathon training plan.  If a half-marathon, look into marathon plans.  Or plan to make a shorter race an A race soon after recovering from a longer race.  You may be surprised with the result.

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  • Mark U.

    I’ve made many similar pacing mistakes!  I believe that a runner who never errs is someone who never tests their full envelope of performance.

    That being said, I wonder if your initial potentially incorrect glance at your Forerunner’s pace may have been the result of its setting?  At our coach’s advice we set our Forerunner’s pace *not* at instantaneous, but rather at the average for that lap (which we manually tap at each identified mile marker).  Thus the displayed pace is far more likely to be correct than the far more volatile (and frequently inaccurate) instantaneous pace.

  • Greg Strosaker

    Mark, thanks for your comment, my Forerunner is set for average at the lap. I honestly suspect I misread it, as it was only a quick glimpse. Not sure how I picked up “7:11″ from such a glimpse, maybe the mileage was 0.11 at that point and that’s what jumped at me – not sure. Or perhaps the satellite coverage was lacking at that point.

  • Aric

    I believe competitive 5k racers train at 75 miles per week, give or take. Most likely that’s what it takes to wring out the last bit of performance from every mile.

  • Greg Strosaker

    Hi Aric, I have no doubt you are right on that – I imagine the true elites may train even more.

  • J (morning runner)

    I agree! Since I have started training for half marathons and increased my weekly mileage I have dropped over a minute in my 5k time. 

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks Joanne – I think I forgot to mention in the post that I ran this same race 2 years ago, and my time dropped 2:40 since then. I was really just getting back into running at the time, but had been doing low (25-30 / week) mileage.

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  • BC

    I also have experienced this.

    In 2009 when I started go “compete” in races, I got this crazy idea to run 10 km in 45 minutes. At that time I had ran my first 10 km race in 56:xx min.

    Well, I spent most of 2010 chasing that goal without no real sucess. I quickly got to do 50/49 minutes, but then I was stuck there for a while and even got worse times like 52 min(although on hilly courses / hot days). My training was not very “formal”, I just ran whenever I felt like it, mostly smallish distances (7-10 km). I would do time trials from time to time, but most of my “speedwork” was done on actual races.

    Then, near the end of 2010 I decided I would race a Half-Marathon and, as such, I bumped up the distances I used to do in training, although I kept it mostly informal, without an actual training plan. I ran “a lot” (for my standards) in November and December (HM month). I got a 10km PR later in December: 48:46 min.

    I kept that higher volume in January and, in that month, I got my PB time down to 46:16 min. I kept training for longer races.

    Then, in February, I ran a 10 Km race in 44:56 (min) and it was a crazy hilly course. That was my first time below 45 minutes. Then in March I did a little less than 1h09m in a 15 km race (flat course) which was even sweeter than the sub-45 10 km :).

    I think the higher distance in training (and maybe also the longer races) helped *a lot* in bringing my 10 km time to sub-45. Could I do it without the bump in distance ? Maybe, specially if I had given more emphasis to speed training.

    I also lost some weight with the higher distance training , and also think it was a relevant factor for the speed gain.

    Also, my HM PR was pulled off during Marathon training (that time with a training plan). This was not a big PR (just 9 seconds less than the previous one) but I hadn’t tapered and it was a really hot day.

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks for providing even more evidence. The weight loss helps a lot, and in the long run running longer nearly always seems to provide a better return on investment than speed work (though obviously being able to do both helps). I too set my half-marathon PR in my peak week of marathon training while putting in my highest weekly mileage ever. Hope you find the benefits of that period of higher volume training carries over, even if you ultimately reduce your volume again.

  • Timothy Horan

    This is a great post. I am currently putting in around 70 MPW and have already PR’ed at the marathon, 5 mile, and 10K distances in the early part of the season. Keep up the great work!!

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks Timothy, those miles will pay dividends not just now but in future years, even if you cut back to focus on shorter races.

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  • BC

    With each season, my believe in the higher-milleage scholl of though is increasing.

    I’m currently training for my second Marathon, using Higdon’s Int 1 plan. This plan features almost no speed work (there’s a MP run in most weeks, but my target MP – 9:07 min/mile – does not qualify as fast running) and most runs are slow (> 9:40 pace).

    I’ve doing this plan for 3 months, plus another two months of similar slow running. All my race times before starting the plan were plain sucky (I did my worst HM ever (by 4 minutes) back in May).

    Last week I took 6min45s min from my previous HM personal best. I’m now at 1h44m09s for the HM. This was a huge improvement for me, specially taking in consideration the bad results from the first semester.

    There is probably some limit where I’ll have to do some speed work in order to improve, but running intervals and the likes is not something that I enjoy (I think it adds a lot of stress to running – and running is something that I use as a stress reducer).

  • Greg Strosaker

    Congrats on the big PR – for many distances, especially the half-marathon and beyond, aerobic capacity is the most significant driver of performance, so it’s no surprise that high easy mileage is delivering good results for you. Like any type of training, though, there is a law of diminishing returns, and eventually it will get harder to see such gains strictly through mileage, as you suggest. One way to add a bit of speed development without the intimidation of intervals or faster tempo runs is to run strides, something on the order of 100m or 20 seconds, 6 to 10 reps, with adequate/full recovery in between. Or you can incorporate fartleks, which involve short (maybe 30 seconds to a minute) bursts of intensity.
    Personally, I like incorporating some faster running into my training on as regular basis as possible, if only to provide some variety and mental stimulation.

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