How to Run Well Off Low Mileage
Despite what you may have heard, you do not need mega-mile weeks to thrive as a runner. Three elites offer advice on how to run your best with less volume.
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Contrary to popular belief, triple-digit weeks are not a prerequisite for long-distance success. Sure, big miles can be satisfying and confidence-boosting, and some people do thrive off that approach. But there are plenty of circumstances in which high volume is not possible, not sustainable, or not in a runner’s best interest.
Take Laura Thweatt, Mia Behm, and Scott Hawker. Their training styles, lifestyles, and specialty events may differ, but there’s one major thing they have in common: All three have run very well off what many of their competitors would consider low volume. Here’s how they maximize their mileage, stay confident, and believe in the work that they’re doing.
History Lessons Heeded
Easily missed from Boulder-based Laura Thweatt’s resume — which includes a 2:25 marathon, 3 national cross country titles, and 5th place finishes in two Olympic Trials — are the career-threatening injuries she’s sustained along the way. Between the 2017 London Marathon and the 2019 Chicago Marathon, Thweatt was stuck in an injury cycle that began with Osteitis Pubis and ended with a grade 4 calcareous stress fracture. Committed to getting to Chicago in one piece, she significantly reduced her typical 85–95 miles a week and managed an impressive 8th place finish.
“It took me a long time before I realized that I don’t have to run 110-mile weeks to run great at the marathon,” Thweatt says. “In order to be great, I first need to figure out how to stay healthy.” Heeding that lesson, Thweatt averaged 65 miles of running per week in her 2020 Marathon Trials buildup and finished in 5th — just 16 seconds shy of an Olympic berth.
Mia Behm, a 2:33 marathoner and former NCAA runner-up while at the University of Texas who lives in New York, also learned the perils of high mileage the hard way. She suffered her first major injury as a junior in college: a stress fracture that resulted in a mid-race ankle break and “just opened up the [injury] floodgates,” she says. “I think it kind of clicked that my load was just a bit beyond what my body personally could handle.”
In response, Behm dropped her mileage and spread out her hard efforts, and has subscribed to a conservative approach ever since. It appears to be working: off of just 50–60 miles and 5 days of running per week, Behm ran a 5-minute PR at the 2019 Chicago Marathon and made it to the 2020 Marathon Trials healthy and fit, where she placed in the top 20% of all finishers.
Some people may be surprised to learn that low mileage can produce big ultrarunning success too. New Zealand native Scott Hawker is a perfect example, having averaged just 45–50 miles per week in the 3 months leading up to the 2019 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, a prestigious 100-miler in the European Alps. His volume proved sufficient, to say the least; Hawker finished in 3rd place over a distance that doubled his weekly load.
Knowing what he’s capable of with limited mileage, he’s now free to enjoy what he considers the biggest advantage of a low-volume system: long-term health. “Too many people, I think, are looking for the fast route to their best, and tend to have multiple hiccups and injuries on the way,” Hawker says. “I want to be doing this in my 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and beyond.” The prospect of his daughter someday joining him in the mountains is all the incentive he needs to stick with a conservative approach.
The One-Pitcher-of-Energy Law
She can’t remember where she heard it, but there’s a metaphor that helps Behm keep perspective on the demands of training and beyond. The general idea is that every person has one “pitcher of energy” that fuels her work, social life, household duties, commutes, exercise, relationships, hobbies, and so on.
“You don’t get one pitcher for each thing,” Behm explains, meaning that when she pours herself into a long work week, or has several social obligations another week, those things draw from the same well that running does. Acknowledging that she has a finite amount of energy keeps Behm from taking on too much or risking burnout.
As all three athletes have learned and proven, running is not the only way to get and stay fit. Before her Chicago Marathon breakthrough, Behm biked to work three days per week, covering about 12 miles total on those days. She also did strength work once a week, choosing exercises that sounded good on the day and that she hoped would make her more durable. Hawker, too, incorporates cycling into his routine. He biked 25–30 miles per week during his 2019 breakthrough season, and also did his coach David Roche’s Mountain Legs routine a few times a week.
Thweatt prefers water jogging without a flotation belt. During her 2020 Marathon Trials buildup, she supplemented her 65 miles of running per week with an estimated 30 or more “miles” in the pool and roughly two hours in the weight room. “I was astounded by how quickly the pool helped me recover after a hard ground session,” she says. Thweatt believes that cross-training roughly a third of her “miles” not only keeps her healthy, but allows her to get more out of her land sessions too.
Confidence from Coaches and Workouts
Mileage is just one of many variables from which runners build confidence. Rather than fixating on numbers, Behm, Thweatt, and Hawker look at their training as a whole, plus the people that are guiding them, to know when they’re ready to go. Behm calls her husband and coach Mark Feigen “a big, big believer in under-training.” His confidence in her training is contagious. Similarly, Thweatt credits her coach Joe Bosshard: “A lot of my confidence [in the 2020 Marathon Trials] came from Joe and his belief that if I could show up to that start line healthy and strong, then anything was certainly possible.”
Hawker calls his 2019 start with coach David Roche a turning point in his career. The sustainable volume they landed on was big. But even bigger, Hawker says, “was that David helped me process that what I was doing was enough to be competitive, to not worry about the weekly miles that my competition was running per week.”
Of course, the training has to be there, too. Past achievements and well-executed workouts allow Behm and Hawker to believe they have more great races in store. And as Thweatt alluded earlier, the fact that she was running workouts harder and more frequently than in past buildups infused her with the confidence she needed to lead much of the hilly course in Atlanta.
Multiple Paths to Success
If there’s one lesson from Thweatt’s, Behm’s, and Hawker’s unique journeys that bears remembering, it’s this, expressed by Thweatt: “There are thousands of different ways to get from point A to point B, and we all have to find the right one for us. And once we find what works, what keeps us healthy, and what we respond best to, we need to take confidence in that and believe in what we’re doing 100%.”