Quality vs quantity training

Nov 22, 2019

Are my long runs long enough? Isn’t my mileage too low? How’s this speed stuff going to help me?  During marathon and ultra marathon seasons, my athletes ask me these questions often, so here goes! Let’s start with Quantity.


Weekly Mileage

So you’re looking to run a marathon. Great. So it stands to reason that you should start packing on the kilometres, right? I mean you have to get your body used to running 42.2km for a marathon or 90km for a Comrades, right? Well a lot of experts would agree with you but the tide is beginning to change. There is more and more of a lean towards lower mileage over higher mileage, and this is not just because some of us want to be difficult but because the research has been done.

In a scientific study at the University of Northern Iowa, 51 college aged males and females were selected for an 18-week marathon training program. Group one ran 37 to 77kms per week over 6 days and group two ran 29-63kms per week over 4 days. At the end of the 18-week period both groups were tested and ran their marathon. Everyone improved and the results were absolutely equivalent. So what can we take from this? Don’t think that by merely lifting your mileage you are going to improve your marathon times. Rather add intensity to your training plan before hitting the road for more kms. This we will discuss in the Quality section of this article.

Traditional Long Runs

There is a common tendency for a marathoner to bang out a traditional long run every weekend. This is not always necessary. In fact, knocking out these 30 to 35km long runs actually raises the risk of injury and also steals from the quality of work that needs to be carried out in the following week. When training my marathon and ultra marathon athletes, I use periodisation to gradually increase their weekly mileage, along with their long run distance. This keeps the load light and the ability remains to knock out some great quality workouts.


Marathon runners have the habit of foregoing the quality training required for improved marathon running. So the question remains, what are they missing out on and why is the quality work so despised? Well let’s go through the list and see what these workouts are and what they would do for you to improve your marathon time.

Lung Busting Speed workouts

Yes those arduous interval, fartlek, variable pace and blended sessions are part of many speed sessions that you can do to improve your marathon running performances. These workouts are sub-maximal and are done at varying velocities, from 800m pace up to 10km pace, depending on the adaption you want to train. Some of the benefits of speed work are improvements in cruising speed, injury prevention, fatigue resistance and pacing improvements. There are, of course, improvements in threshold velocity and VO2 & vVO2  as well. Speed workouts also bolster your psychological hardiness. Navy SEAL, David Goggins, talks about what he calls the 40% Rule. “When you feel like you are totally tapped out and feel like you have absolutely nothing left in the tank, you’ve actually only used about 40% of your capacity. There’s ALWAYS more left in the tank.” If you have done these track sessions, you know that feeling and you know how it feels to finish a track session despite feeling it was impossible to do. This is the mind set you need to run a marathon or ultra marathon.

Hill Repeats or as we call them – Hell Repeats

We all know hill repeats and the majority of us dislike them but they are incredibly important to improving leg power, which would improve stride rate and stride length.

So how would this help in a marathon besides making you more comfortable on the hills? You have a higher stride rate which equals less time on the ground with each foot strike, and a longer stride which equals more ground covered between foot strikes. This is all thanks to the leg muscles contracting more forcefully, more explosively and more quickly. Just these improvements could give you huge improvements on your marathon time. There are other reasons that hill training is so beneficial i.e. lactic threshold improvements, VO2 & vVO2 enhancements, fatigue resistance and injury prevention.

Threshold Training

Running at threshold paces, or more commonly known as tempo running, is what I like to call running on the edge of fatigue. The science behind this is that, as you run at higher velocities, lactate starts to accumulate in the blood and a proverbial bottle neck is caused. In simple terms, the more lactate in the blood the more fatigue sets in. Think of a bottle of water. As you tip it to empty it, the water runs out unhindered at first. As you tip it more and more a bottle neck is created, causing the bottle to empty at a slower rate. This is what is happening in your blood stream once you cross the threshold. The average heart rate of threshold pace it approximately 80-85% max heart rate. The most beneficial improvement of threshold runs is the increase of velocity at lactate threshold which is simply fatigue resistance. New research reveals that tempo runs have more of a moderate training affect and are more suited to longer distances from 15km to ultra marathons, though it is an important addition to any training plan.

Strength Training, the middle child of distance running 

When the coach adds strength training to the athlete’s training plan, the reaction is usually a sigh and body language that screams ‘do I have to?’ The answer is a resounding YES. Strength training for runners is divided into two facets.

  • General Strength workouts improve body control and enhance running economy by having to devote less energy to stabilising mechanics. General strength also enhances the muscles’ ability to work longer before fatigue sets in. Emphasis on upper body training should also not be set aside because failure in upper body posture will directly cause poor lower body kinematics.
  • Specific Strength workouts train precise neuro-muscular patterns and movements related to running from foot strike to foot strike. Running specific training is designed to mimic the running related movements during a strength exercise. For instance, a walking lunge is the exaggerated form of a running stride, so it will affect the strength of the legs during the running movement. The leg extension on the other hand does not in any way mimic the running stride but it is a great specific strength exercise for soccer players. Explosive strength training also falls under the purview of specific strength as this improves power and running economy.

So, the quality training you get out of strength training is invaluable and adds enormous benefits to your training plan and will optimise your performances during training and racing.

In conclusion

Quality is more beneficial than quantity but running volume and frequency has its place and should be in your training plan, just not in the volumes that you may be used to. Add quality workouts to you plan, and if you don’t know how to structure them get yourself a coach. Your coach will make sure you have a balanced plan with all the necessary components to help you to become a faster more economical runner.

Clinton Hunter

Coach Clint is a qualified running coach based in Johannesburg. He trains athletes of all levels from complete beginners to top athletes in disciplines from track athletics to ultra running on road and trail. He is also passionate about Running form & Posture, training the mind,  functional and sport conditioning and fitness training. Read more about Coach Clint here


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