27 January 2014

much ado about junk

they're often referred to as 'junk miles', and many times come with a warning.  too many junk miles and you risk overtraining.  or at least unspecified, undisciplined training.  numerous articles have been written about the perils of tossing in junk miles into one's training regimen - and interestingly enough, various rebuttals offering a different point of view on what actually constitutes these 'junk miles'.

in essence, i've come to understand 'junk miles' to be additional or extended workouts without any real perceived workout purpose that interfere with the athlete's ability to successfully tackle prescribed training tasks.  

the problem that junk miles present is that they are often used to pad not only a weekly mileage total but the runner's ego.  while races create the situation for a competition for the fastest time, training cycles can create the situation where individuals compete for the most miles (or in my case kilometres) logged.  online trackers like dailymile, runkeeper and strava can feed that competitive nature by posting analytics on your social media outlets as a means of teasing, taunting or challenging your friends.  while good 'king/queen of the mountain' feelings may result, the collateral damage is that when it comes to hard, speed-based workouts the energy and effort may not be there because resources were deployed to satisfy inflated distances.

now coming from a loosey-goosey, stream-of-thought kind of person like me you might be surprised to hear that i'm a fan of structured training.  having used training plans from the hansons and ryan hall i've now found that i like to have a program to outline the different types of workouts (e.g. tempo runs, easy/recovery days, speed intervals, hill sprints, race pace) that i need to build into my cycle.  however, also having read matt fitzgerald's book run i've come to believe that there's nothing wrong (and everything right) with listening carefully to feedback from your body and adjusting any training plan on the fly.  
since i feel like i have the freedom to tinker, and having gained a sense that i do flourish under higher-mileage training conditions, i do tend to add the odd kilometre here and there as well as tossing in the occasional double (aka second training run in a day) or workout on a scheduled off-day.

rationale?  (or in a more declaratory tense, "irrational!"?)

two reasons:
  1. one of the primary principles driving the hansons marathon method is that of cumulative fatigue, which suggests that (successfully) executing hard workouts on tired legs not only nets greater muscle/aerobic/mitochondrial gains but also simulates the late stages of the marathon - thereby preparing you to be able to overcome the dreaded 'wall'.
  2. in run (and other articles) matt fitzgerald alludes to the fact that time spent practicing the running motion improves communication between the brain and the muscles - this is all about developing skill through repetition.  appreciating this helps me to see that the more kilometres (over months and years) that i log will refine my muscle memory for efficient running form - as long as i'm not running in such a fatigued state that my running form breaks down.
so while some might consider these 'junk miles' for me since they are not included on the 'printed' plan, in my estimation the extra kilometres and/or easy runs are not entirely without purpose.  

if you'd like to check out more on this junky debate, here are a few resources worth reviewing:



  1. Excellent post Patrick. I used to subscribe to the notion of junk miles the same way I used to think that drinking 2 litres of water every day instead of simply listening to my body is healthy.

    One thing I learned through the years is that added mileage, if done properly, can only help. Basically, run intervals, time trials, easy, recoveries, etc at the speed and pace in which they are meant to be run.

    My sense is that what most people refer to as 'junk' miles are those run at very slow and easy paces. I refer to these as recovery runs, which, as Fitzgerald, Pfitz, Hanson, Daniels, Hudson, etc, all agree is very helpful in adding to a runner's endurance. They become junk miles when, in my opinion, we go too hard on easy runs that the miles become medium effort. Not hard enough to bring any real tangible benefits to speed or endurance and not easy enough that it affects our next workout and overall weekly distance.

    Bottom line for me is if I really feel like running an extra 3 k during a session or the weather is really nice and I want to go for a very easy 6 km just because, I would go for it. I just need to make sure that it doesn't negatively affect my scheduled runs.

    1. thanks stan! i'm always reassured when i get some backup from a keen scientific mind like yours ...!

      definitely, the question is not whether or not the extra miles are intrinsically good or bad but whether or not they narrow the bandwidth of training intensities for various workouts. like you, i'm finding it to be as much of a discipline to keep my easy runs easy as it to put out on the speedwork and tempo runs.

    2. They should not call these easy miles...I agree that it's so tough to run them slowly. for me, as long as these "junk" miles do not affect the essential elements of your training plan then they aren't junk. In other words, if performed properly, not only will they not affect your training intensities at all but they will also add to your endurance base so it becomes a win-win situation. This really is why I cant bring myself to follow the run less, run faster type of program.

  2. I'm a junk miler as well...I often find myself having loose distances when I set out on a run, basically giving my body the chance to tell me if we are going to run a bit further that day or not. I don't think there has been a negative impact on me as I have stayed injury-free while improving my speed. Very thought-provoking post Patrick!

    1. junk milers unite! for me it's a real maturing process to listen more to my body than to be handcuffed by a written training plan. i'm also blessed to have been able to run injury-free for these past four-and-a-half years, and i have to believe for people like you and me that has to factor into it.