It's always been a bit of a runners' trait to brag about weekly mileage, but research is piling up that challenges the point of doing high volume, low intensity training.
To get fast and lose fat (and who wouldn't want that?), all the signs are that high intensity, short duration workouts are time-efficient and effective.
A study in The Journal of Applied Physiology in 2009 found that a minute could be knocked off a 10 kilometre race when runners reduced their volume of training 25 per cent and did up to 12, 30-second sprints, three to four times a week for six to nine weeks.
Commonwealth marathon silver medallist and personal trainer Tani Ruckle is a big fan of high-intensity workouts and incorporates them into her group training sessions and her spin classes.
“Runners have to get themselves out of that 'more is better' mindset. It's all about quality over quantity now.”
She should know. “My average weekly mileage was 82 kilometres when I did my first marathon in a time of 2:49:00. By the time I was at maximum training I was running between 160 and 200 kilometres per week, yet my time had only got down to 2:31:00,” she says.
“If I had my time again I would do more cross-training and less volume, and I recommend it to runners now, especially as they are so prone to overuse injuries.”
So if the secret to nailing a PB is as simple as running less, what's the catch?
No catch, only a caveat. You must be honest with yourself. For this session to be truly effective, you need to push yourself to reach and try to hold your maximum heart rate. That's when things get really sweaty, your muscles protest and you start complaining: "This hurts; why am I doing this? I'm not sure I can hold on."
But therein lies the value. It's in embracing the discomfort. And it's only discomfort for a controlled time period, unlike pain which is triggered by an injury and can't be managed so easily. I find this is a useful distinction to make.
“If something is uncomfortable and if we allow ourselves to give in to that discomfort, we are actually creating a habit of giving up,” Ruckle says. “Every time we give up, we reinforce the habit. Likewise, every time we challenge that feeling of discomfort, we create a new habit of being able to push through.”
And the benefits of that carry over to work, relationships - all aspects of life.
Here's an example of a workout that can replace a low-intensity run each week. It can be done as a fartlek run on the road, or on an oval. Doing it with a group makes timing easier.
Warm up for 10 minutes. Run flat out for between 8 and 20 seconds, then jog easy for about the same length of time. Do this continuously - build up to 20 minutes. “If you can't jog between the pushing segments, it's OK to walk,” Ruckle advises. “And it's better to sit one out than get in the habit of allowing yourself to go moderate when you're supposed to be pushing.”
By training in a systematically progressive way, you will notice your fitness improving. That is, you will notice that your discomfort threshold rises and you will be able to run faster for longer.
You might even start a trend by boasting about how little mileage you got away with to nail a PB.
Where do you stand on the quantity vs quality debate?