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Minimalist Training for Distance Runners: Why more isn’t always better

What Is Minimalist Training?

In this post, I’m going to share with you why more mileage isn’t always better. I’ll tell you how you can use minimal, targeted amounts of training to optimize your training and reduce injuries.

My Experience with Minimalist Training

By taking a minimalist approach to running, I’ve been able to match or improve all of my times from 5k to Marathon. Paces that I previously thought required months of high-mileage preparation have come easily by taking a minimalist approach to training.

In the past, I trained as much as 60 miles per week and suffered from constant injuries. When I was near my highest mileage, I ran a 1:18 Half-Marathon and became convinced the reason I ran fast was because of my increased mileage. Several weeks later I started struggling with a severe Achilles problem that took months to resolve. 

Since then, I’ve surpassed my old time and ran a 1:17 Half-Marathon on 25 miles per week.

We aren’t all elite athletes

The idea that more mileage is always better probably comes from looking at how elite athletes train, and trying to emulate what they do.


Elite athletes are a highly skewed segment of the population. Their genetics lay on the tail end of athletic performance. What works for elite athletes may not work for the rest of us in the middle of the genetic lottery.

Status Quo Bias

Elite athletes often follow the status quo. Some call this a “rational preference for the status quo”. Why reinvent the wheel when you can follow the tried and true?

This may make sense for those at the top, but sometimes we need to experiment and see what works on an individual basis.

Survivorship Bias

In his book, Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Taleb gives the example of looking at the personality traits of millionaires to see how we can become richer. We find that most millionaires are people willing to take risks. 

Should we conclude that we should start taking more risks? Those who are in bankruptcy are also types of people who take risks.

With running, we tend to ignore those who’ve tried higher mileage programs and failed. Rather than trying different training methods, they may simply stop running altogether.

Correlation vs. Causation

Whenever there is a fire I see firemen at the scene. The bigger the fire, the more firemen. Does this mean that firemen cause fires?
Studies often point out a correlation between running performance and mileage. The problem is that these studies involve correlations. There is often a third factor that confounds the data.
It could be that the higher mileage runners have genetics that are more conducive to running (they don’t get injured often) and therefore they tend to run more miles. It could be that those who run on a daily basis (and therefore higher mileage) are actually optimizing circadian rhythms which leads to enhanced performance.

Intensity Is Key

In my training, I’ve found that intensity is the key factor in performance. By running regular time trials, intervals, or tempo runs, I can compare my pace with that of a previous effort. Time trials never lie. They tell me exactly what kind of shape I am in. It doesn’t matter if I’ve been running 50 miles per week, if I can’t run at sub 6:00/mile for a 10 mile time trial, there’s no way I’ll hold that pace for an upcoming half-marathon.

How To Get Started

If you are interested in taking a minimalist approach to your running, begin by cutting back on some of your slower “junk” miles. Save most of your efforts for 1 or 2 workouts per week that mimic race conditions. This could be a time trial, a tempo run, or an interval session. The pace for these faster workouts should closely approximates the pace you wish to run in an upcoming race. 

Keep your training simple. When you feel good, schedule a faster workout. When you are not up for running fast, don’t!

Between faster workouts, I’ve found that I need up to 1 day of recovery per fast mile run. Leading up to my fastest 10 mile of 57:29, I kept things really simple and did one 10 mile time trial per week, with easy running on the others days.

In my next post I will tell you how I ran a 2:55 marathon while training 25 miles per week.

If minimalist training has helped your running, let me know by posting your comments below.

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Paleo lifestyle enthusiast, Minimalist runner

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