As a runner, we do a lot of different workouts to get faster. And over time, we run log lots and LOTS of miles. Typically, there’s a goal for your training. This doesn’t always mean a race (although it can!), but there’s usually something that we’re working towards, whether that’s hitting a certain pace consistently, adding distance to our long runs, keeping up with a running group, etc.
However, there comes a point where training can reach a plateau, and at that point, we need to reevaluate and asses our training plan. This plateau often leads to what runners call “junk miles”. Today I’m talking about what junk miles are, why we often (unknowingly!) run them, and how to avoid them!
If you google “what are junk miles” you’ll find that most runners define junk miles as any miles you run that don’t add any physiological benefit to your body. This means miles that aren’t making you faster and also aren’t helping your recovery (which in turn, makes you faster) Not only are junk miles not adding any physiological benefits, but they can also negatively affect your training because they can lead to burnout, injuries, and a slower all around pace.
Many runners think more miles = faster runners, but this isn’t necessarily true. Here are a few ways to diagnose if you’re loading up on junk miles or not:
Are you super tired and starting to feel rough around the edges? You are probably running too many miles without real recovery. This can happen when you have too many tempo runs or speed workouts back to back. Or, if all your runs are pushing the pace and not run at a truly easy pace. Remember, a good training plan will only have tempo runs every 10-14 days. While it’s important to stay mentally conditioned to long hard runs, too much of that will overwork your body. Yes, you should be sore and tired during intense periods of training but you shouldn’t feel that way every single day.
If you no longer look forward to your runs or you dread looking at your training plan, that’s another sign that you’ve been logging too many junk miles. Feeling burnout during training can actually be a sign of too much running without enough recovery. Take a few days off completely. Or, if you do run, make it short, easy and fun.
If your legs will heavy or clunky with no obvious reason, it’s possible that your body’s muscles have been in breakdown mode for too long. Your muscles breakdown on hard efforts and then your body repairs and gets stronger on rest and recovery days. If running just doesn’t feel normal or your body feels off for some reason, that might be your body’s way of asking for some time to repair itself.
If your training plans says you should be running 3 miles at a recovery pace, stick to that. If all your recovery runs turn into tempo or progression runs, you’re training wrong and interfering with your recovery which means you won’t be able to push hard on your important workouts. And that will limit your potential to improve. Running hard all the time does not make you a faster runner. Even if you feel great, recovery runs are essential. Besides limiting your progress, not running slowly on recovery days increases your chance of injury.
Variation and rest are both KEY. Variation in speed and surfaces is not only great for your body but also your mind. Adding in variation to your workouts prevents burnout and also results in stronger, faster runners. Here are a few practical ways to avoid junk miles.
Interval training is variation on it’s own! Some training plans have very structured intervals (like the ones I wrote for my running program members), but you can also just do fartleks (informal speedplay) or do something as simple as 1:3. Pick up your pace for 1 minute and then run slowly for 3 minutes. “The higher intensity results in greater improvements in your maximum aerobic capacity and works more muscle fibers overall compared to longer, slower jogs.” (source)
Running hills is HARD work but a great workout. Instead of putting useless miles on your legs to check off a box, running hills builds strength to make you a better runner overall. You don’t need to do these too often – just add in a few hill repeats every 10 runs or so. This is fun to do with friends. You can race up the hills and then walk or jog down them.
The number one thing you can do for your body to avoid junk miles is NOT run everyday. I know this is hard for lots of runners (I was one of them), but my running coach talked about recovery days so much that I started to understand how important they are. You should be giving yourself enough time to recover, and taking your recovery runs SO seriously, like running way slower than you think.
To sum it all up: work smarter, not harder. Instead of adding countless miles to your training plan and legs, run miles that MATTER. Work hard during your workouts, run long on your long runs, and recover during your recovery runs. This will make you a better, less injured, enthusiastic runner, which is what we all wish we could be! if you want more help improving your running, join the Rookie Runner Program! I’d love to help you reach your next goal.