increase running mileage

5 Ways to Increase Running Mileage Fast and Safely

Last Updated on May 20, 2020 by Alex

You can increase running mileage much faster than you’ve been led to believe without increasing your risk of injury. Yes, yes, I know—the 10% rule. Whether you’re new to running or a veteran, you’ve probably heard that you can’t increase your weekly mileage by more than 10% without risking injury. This is bunk. Before we go over the ways to increase running mileage much faster than that let’s get this discredited old rule out of the way first.

The 10% rule looms over the running world like natural law. Break it and you will pay the price—in bodily injury and time away from running to recover. 

Seriously—break it.

First, the 10% rule makes just about zero common sense for the average new runner or runner who is running low to moderate miles. Let’s say you are just starting out and in your first week you run 3 times for 2, 2, and 1 mile respectively, for 5 miles.

How long will it take you to get to a modest 10 miles per week? In 8 weeks you will hit 10.7 miles if you follow the 10% rule precisely. Nearly 2 months and you have added a mere 5.7 miles to your weekly run. It’s ridiculous. 

On the one hand, the 10% rule is far too strict for novice and low mileage runners. And for advanced runners running high mileage it is way, way too ambitious.

Take the opposite of the first example: a runner is putting in 60 miles a week. Follow the 10% rule for 8 weeks and this runner is running 128.6 miles a week—and that would be crazy. That would almost certainly lead to serious injury. 

Science backs up the obsolescence of the 10% rule and shows us that we can increase our running mileage quickly and safely—so long as we are in the lower to middle mileage range, which describes most runners.

This study broke 532 novice runners into two groups in training for a 4 mile race. The first group followed the 10% rule and the second group followed a more aggressive training schedule. Guess what? Both groups had exactly the same injury rate.

The 10% rule is arbitrary and smart runners will ignore it and look at the underlying principle: You need to avoid overuse injuries from running by not increasing the stress on your body faster than your body can adapt to it. 

So be smart and design a progressive running program that challenges your body to grow and adapt without over stressing it. 

Here’s how:

1. Slow Down, Go Long

Coach Phil Maffetone coached triathlon legend Mark Allen to Ironman victories by instructing him to slow way, way down. It turns out slowing down not only shields your body from injury but paradoxically it also builds a more efficient aerobic base that in time will allow you to run faster. 

It works like this: run 80-95% of your miles at a slow enough pace that you can comfortably talk. In Maffetone’s system this would be 180 heartbeats per minute minus your age. And if you are a newbie or had a recent injury or illness, drop another 5 beats per minute. 

For older runners, this can be very slow—that’s fine. Over time, you will run faster at the same heart rate, and then faster still. Just be patient and let the aerobic base built. If you need to slow to a walk on hills, so be it. 

If you don’t want to use a heart rate monitor, no problem. Just remember that you should be able to hold a steady, normal conversation. 

Maffetone wants you to spend some time exclusively running at this pace but in my experience and according to many coaches anywhere from 80-95% of your running total is sufficient. However, if your main goal is to increase mileage, stick to the upper range—90-95%. 

The magic of running slowly is that even while you are building up your heart and lung system without over stressing your body, you can increase your running mileage quickly without risking injury. 

I was able to go from around 20 miles a week to over 45 miles a week in 4 weeks last winter. The 10% rule would have had me at 29 miles a week.

2. Include One Short but Very Hard Workout Each Week

Your VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can consume during exercise. The  more oxygen your body can utilize, the easier the running will be, the faster you can run at the same effort.

You want to increase your VO2 max.

The good news is that VO2 max improves through any kind of running—just run and it will go up. However, the most efficient way to increase VO2 max is through high intensity training.

This is where you want your 5-20% non-slow miles to go. 

If you are relatively new to running, budget just one workout each week for high intensity training, or even one every other week. And the newer you are to running the fewer miles you should run hard. It’s safest to stick to 5% of the weekly total. 

That means if you are running 20 miles a week just 1 mile should be high intensity.

What kind of high intensity training is best? Pretty much any kind. There are a lot of workouts designed to optimize VO2 but the truth is that you can mix it up.

My favorite high intensity workouts are running hill repeats. I run either 1, 2 or 3 minute repeats on a very steep hill near my house. The 3 minute repeats are a lot slower than the 1 minute ones. I will often push it up to 100% of my maximum heart rate—if you aren’t using a heart rate monitor this is just the point where you literally are about to collapse and are forced to stop. 

Going that hard is not necessary. But make it hard. 

If you don’t like hills you can do track intervals for 200-800 meters. Newer runners should choose the lower range. 

Rest in between the intervals. How long you rest can also be variable, but a reasonable rule of thumb to begin with is that you can rest for about as long as the interval lasted. 

The number of repeats can be variable—your body will tell you what you can take. My rule of thumb is to always start with 4 repeats even for short intervals to give my body plenty of opportunity to safely adapt. Four 200 meter repeats can turn into 12 over the course of 4 once weekly workouts if you don’t experience any pain. Just as gradually you can increase speed. 

Increase your VO2 max with one brief high intensity workout a week and your capacity to increase running mileage on your other runs goes up because you will tire more slowly. Don’t do more than one high intensity workout a week when you are increasing mileage significantly because it’s counterproductive and will increase your chance of injury. If you want more intensity, don’t push the mileage.

3. Warm Up Right and Stretch 

Warming up is absolutely essential to safely increase running miles. A lot of injuries occur because runners just dive in—don’t do that.

Instead, when you head out first jog 15 minutes very slowly—starting barely faster than a walk. Gradually you can settle into a slow jog that is at least 20% slower than your slow running pace. So if your slow Maffetone type of pace is 10 minutes a mile, warm up at a 12 minute per mile pace.

After 15 minutes stretch for 10 minutes, limbering up all major leg muscle groups including thighs, hamstrings, calves and hip flexors. Stretching will increase your range of motion, allowing your muscles to work more efficiently, and efficiency translates into an increase in running mileage.

After stretching run at a warmup pace again for 5 minutes before beginning the workout at the workout pace. Notice that you have just added 20 more minutes of running to your weekly mileage, with even less risk of injury.

Stretching for running

4. Food and Supplements

The more efficiently you utilize oxygen, the faster and longer you will be able to run safely. Certain foods and supplements can help you.

Foods high in nitrates will boost your oxygen uptake, or VO2 max. There are many such foods in the plant kingdom, including dark green leaves like spinach and kale as well as celery and watercress. However, science has proven that beets, especially in the form of beetroot juice consumed about 2.5 hours before exercise, is most effective in boosting VO2 max.

For long term effects just make dark leafy greens and beets a regular part of your diet. 

Quercetin, a substance found in green vegetables, has been proven to improve VO2 max. You can buy it in supplement form from Amazon. Another supplement proven to increase VO2 max is the Indian herb ashwagandha. I use it in powder form, a half teaspoon in the morning and a half teaspoon in the evening. In addition to boosting VO2 max it promotes good sleep and recovery from exercise. 

5. Lose Extra Weight

One of the easiest as well as most health promoting ways to increase running mileage is to shed excess body fat. 

It goes without saying that the heavier you are, the harder it is to run. You just have to work more and the more you work, the faster you tire out, and the most stress you put on your joints and muscles. 

Lighter runners are not invincible, they are just better runners. No top runner carries excess body fat. They can’t afford it as they are fighting for every possible advantage over their competitors. They are strong, not heavy.

Lose weight, run more, it’s that simple.

Final Thoughts

You must tailor your running program to fit your body and your life. If you are a new or low mileage runner you most likely can increase running miles significantly more than 10% week on week, provided you are otherwise healthy and not severely overweight. 

The most important building block to increase your running mileage is running slowly. Add in a small amount of intensive running to increase VO2 max and you will quickly see your capacity to add miles go up. Most recreational runners run either too fast (on most days) or too slow (on high intensity days)—don’t do that. Instead run more slowly most of the time and really, really hard a small amount fo the time.

When you add in a good warmup and stretching routine as well as a diet with more greens and especially beets (and do try beetroot juice 2.5 hours before workouts for a couple of weeks and see how it affects you), and also lose weight, you will have taken the most direct route to increase running mileage. You will be not only a better runner but you will be healthier and feel stronger and more energetic.

This is a holistic approach. It works. And should any sign of injury come along do what too many runners don’t do: back way off and let it heal before it sidelines you. 

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