How much running should you do?

Running is a sport that's often associated with injuries and the key to getting fitter safely, says coach Phillip Hatzis, lies with doing as little as necessary. Here he explains more...

How much running should you do

Running is a sport that’s often associated with injuries. Depending on the source you read, anywhere between 60-80% of runners will have an injury of some description over a 12-month training period. Though some of those injuries are acute, like from a twisted ankle, most are overuse injuries due to an increase in training load or doing too much too soon. Therefore, doing as little training as necessary to achieve the desired training effect is critical.

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How much running should you do?

The simple answer to ‘How much running should you do?’ is: ‘as little as possible!’ But what is ‘as little as possible’? It will be different for different people and their goals. We have to consider the relative training goals of the individual and the distances they’re racing. Suppose an athlete is just starting, then ‘as little as possible’ may be a plan to get them round the distance. The ‘Couch to 5k’ programme is an excellent example of that.

The reality is that ‘how much running’ is relative. Triathletes can get away with less training since they already have some of the training effects from other sports that runners don’t have. Triathletes can build their endurance through cycling and get rid of the long run that’s famously found in most running plans. In comparison, pure runners need longer, steady efforts to build their aerobic endurance and, as a result, will spend more time running.

How can I increase my running?

Relatively, the other consideration is ‘How can I increase my running?’ Literature and tradition suggest the 10% Rule: ‘Don’t increase your long run or your training week volume by more than 10%.’ Is this correct? No one really has an answer to that. For most beginners, I’d drop that closer to 5%. I’d ignore it for triathletes and look at the total training load. Generally, the focus should be less on increasing mileage and more on improving form; furthermore, I’d consider the overall training picture for athletes looking to perform. As a general guideline for someone stepping up a distance or returning to running after injury, building slowly is the critical takeaway. If you’re prone to injury, build at 5% or less; if you’re less likely to pick up injuries, perhaps you can be more aggressive with that build-up to maybe 10%, or maybe more. Everyone is an individual.

Strength and conditioning

Strength and conditioning plays an essential part for runners, both in performance as well as reducing the likelihood of injury. It may even be the critical factor to successful running. So any answer to the question ‘how much running should I do?’ must include strength and conditioning in the dialogue. A good rule of thumb is to ensure that 20% of your time is spent doing S&C. Therefore, for every 4 hours of running, you want to be doing 1 hour of strength work. Don’t be afraid to add a little more into the programme in activation and warming up. Most people can run very fast; the problem is their form degrades, and they can’t sustain those quicker speeds. Most of the time that’s a strength-based solution rather than a pure mileage one. In other words, spend time working on good conditioning and strength work to support your running. As a result, you’ll likely see your running times improving (with less time actually running!).

How much running should a triathlete do?

As mentioned above, a triathlete can make some physiological gains through swimming and cycling, which will cross over into running fitness gains. Therefore, a triathlete runner can get away with a lower overall volume of running than a pure runner. A common mistake is for a triathlete to adopt a runner’s plan into a triathlon build leading to too much training load and usually an injury. Just as the physiological gains carry over into running for the swim and the bike, so does the fatigue.

How much running should a triathlete do depends a lot on the duration of their race. Ironman athletes may disproportionality favour the bike due to the impact that bike times have on overall performance. After all, they won’t run successfully off the bike if the cycle ride pushes their endurance limit. Whereas over shorter distances, the ratio may be more evenly split. The ‘answer’ lies with the individual, and for a triathlete, running less is usually always better for them. So the idea would be to find times that work for you to gain consistency in running. Five-10 minutes of running after your long ride will be beneficial and help keep the overall volume low but the frequency of running high.

How much running should a non-triathlete do?

Here is where things get a little tricker. If you’re only running (and doing your strength and conditioning), you must ensure that you are doing just enough. Getting carried away with running usually leads to injury. Therefore, using a ‘percentage’ rule may be wise when looking to increase your running load, and you may pick something for you… anywhere between a 1-10% increase each week!

Looking across most athletes in triathlon and single disciplines, here are a few of my observations that could be used as general guidance:

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  • Increasing the running frequency is always a better way to go than the overall volume per week: 3 x 30min runs is better than two 45-minute ones. It allows a better building point. In fact, I’d rather see someone do 6 x 10mins if they’re trying to build mileage as the first step rather than 2 x 45mins!
  • Running consecutive days is often a milestone to aim for rather than the norm. Athletes can look to build to running every day if they need to.
  • Running twice in a day is a great way to break up a long run and ensure better form for the same duration.
  • Triathletes need to run less and can build frequency with short brick runs. If they’re doing three bike sessions a week, then running for 10-15mins off the bike leads to an extra 30-45mins of running – that could be an additional 5-10km of mileage without even doing a ‘session’!
  • There’s no such thing as an ‘easy’ run on your body. It will still need to recover from it!
  • Consistency is the only way to really improve. To be consistent, you have to be running. Less running, more consistently, is always going to be faster than lots of running unsystematically due to injury.