By Ed Eyestone
There was a time in my life when, if given a choice between quantity and quality, I’d inevitably choose the former. The all-you-can-eat buffet would win over the fancy restaurant every time - and yet for some reason my wife still married me!
Similarly, runners often face the quantity-versus-quality conundrum: “Is it better to get in that extra 15 kilometres so I can hit a certain weekly mileage goal, or should I do the interval session that would give me two hard workouts this week?”
In other words, is it better to run longer (quantity) or faster (quality)? Luckily, bigger brains than mine have grappled with this question.
A study at the University of Northern Iowa in the USA examined the quantity part of this dilemma. In the study, 51 university-aged men and women volunteered to be part of an 18-week marathon-training programme. Although the participants were reasonably fit at the start of the study, none of them had successfully completed a marathon. In fact, most weren’t even running 15km a week before beginning the programme.
The students were divided into a high-mileage group and a low-mileage group. The high-mileage group began running an average of 40km a week and progressed to 80km a week by the end of the 18-week programme. The low-mileage group ran 20 percent less mileage, starting at 32km per week and maxing out at 64km. Both groups ran identical weekend long runs, starting with an hour and advancing to 2.5 hours. The quality of training for the two groups was also identical. Both groups trained at 75 percent of their maximum heart rate, a pace that quality-wise could be considered moderate.
The key difference between the two groups: The high-mileage group trained six days a week, while the low-mileage group only trained four days a week. On Mondays and Wednesdays the low-mileage group didn’t run while the high-mileage group ran for 45 minutes.
At the end of the 18 weeks, the runners in both groups had nearly identical stats: Exact same reduction in percentage of body fat (10 percent), equivalent gain in muscle mass (3 to 5 percent), and similar improvement in max V02.
And when it came to the most important stat of all marathon-finishing time the two groups were equally similar: The men in both groups averaged 4:17, and the women averaged 4:51. So despite taking two extra days off per week, the low-mileage runners performed just as well as the high-mileage runners during the marathon.
With results like these, will we soon see elite runners cutting their training to four days a week? Will running at a moderate pace become the ideal training rate? Not a chance! But there are a few important training lessons to be gleaned from this study:
1. Less is more for beginners. The study shows that novices can successfully complete a marathon by running four days a week and doing one weekly long run. And it doesn’t take years of training either. Just 18 weeks of minimal training (both quantity and quality) puts the marathon within the reach of most runners.
2. Less can be more for others, too. This study provides proof that the strength of your cardiovascular system will not spiral downward to that of a sloth just because you miss an occasional workout. This is especially true if you miss a moderate day of training. So when you’re feeling run-down or are nursing an injury, take a day off with a clear conscience.
3. Quantity and quality are a team, yet this study only examined quantity. Once you add quality workouts to the equation, the possibilities are endless for those who want to get faster. Just think: Novice runners completed a marathon running as little as four days a week. If you add another day or two of running, mix in a weekly tempo run, and liven things up with some track repeats… what’s the current world record again?