What Are Junk Miles

What Are Junk Miles – Are they worth it for Runners?

So, how can you tell if you’re accumulating “junk miles”? This article will provide criteria to help you refine your running routine and fully leverage the benefits of a polarized training approach. We’ll explore various aspects, from setting a clear purpose for your runs to understanding the significance of recovery runs, all while keeping your motivation and overall well-being in mind. Whether you’re a seasoned runner or just starting your journey, understanding the concept of “junk miles” will help you make the most of every stride.

What Are Junk Miles?

Each run should be purpose-driven, a principle well-recognized by seasoned runners who often recall a turning point in their training journey when they grasped the importance of adopting a two-pronged approach: running at an easy pace on designated easy days and pushing their limits on more demanding ones. This shift from what’s colloquially termed “junk miles” – runs lacking specific objectives and consistently moderate efforts – to a polarized training regimen has proven to be a transformative experience, enabling them to extract maximum benefits from their workouts. While “junk miles” are not inherently detrimental, they do fall short of optimizing overall performance.

The precise definition of “junk mileage” remains somewhat subjective and varies depending on coaching philosophies. Some categorize any run that is not explicitly designated as a quality session or a long run as “junk mileage,” while others argue that there is inherent value in every run. In my coaching philosophy, I align more with the latter perspective, emphasizing the importance of imbuing every run with a specific purpose. However, I do find the term “junk miles” to carry a somewhat negative connotation. Even a run that lacks a clearly defined objective can still yield general benefits, although it may impede long-term progress and elevate the risk of injury. Ultimately, even a seemingly aimless run remains a run.

The question then arises: How can you assess whether you are inadvertently accumulating “junk miles”? These criteria may offer insights into areas where you can refine your running routine, enabling you to fully leverage the advantages of a polarized training approach.


Are You Inflating Your Mileage Without A Clear Purpose?

Increasing the volume of your training can certainly be advantageous for most runners. However, it is crucial to understand that there is a point of diminishing returns, and this point varies significantly from one runner to another. For some, this point may come after running 35 miles per week, while for others, it might be at 50 miles or even 75 miles, with these thresholds evolving throughout an athlete’s career. Notably, certain athletes may not thrive on high-mileage training; instead, they could experience a decline in performance and, conversely, find greater benefits in low-volume, high-intensity training or engaging in cross-training activities.

For the majority of runners, the benefits of an easy run begin to diminish after about 75 minutes. Once you cross the 90-minute mark, your run transitions into a long run, triggering distinct physiological effects and recovery requirements. Arbitrarily increasing your daily mileage can alter the fundamental physiological purpose of your run. Furthermore, if you find yourself running excessively to the point of exhaustion, irritability, or a general sense of flatness during your runs, it’s likely that you are accumulating mileage without a clear purpose, potentially missing out on the benefits derived from a well-structured combination of stress, recovery, and adaptation.

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You might wonder, “Don’t elite runners routinely log 14 miles a day or 100 miles a week?” It’s essential to recognize that elite runners often split their daily mileage into two separate runs, such as covering 8-10 miles in the morning and 3-4 miles in the afternoon. The timing of these training sessions is also critical, typically involving a 60-75 minute run in the morning and a 30-minute run in the afternoon.

While the concept of “doubles” may initially seem like it contributes to junk mileage for some, in reality, a 60-minute morning run paired with a 30-minute evening run can offer more benefits than a continuous 90-minute morning run. The key lies in the reduced accumulation of fatigue and glycogen depletion, enabling both runs to genuinely remain easy and make a positive contribution to an athlete’s training regimen.


Are You Maintaining The Right Training Intensity?

Ironically, many runners discover that they amass superfluous miles during their race training endeavors, particularly when they adhere to a moderate pace. A common pitfall is the tendency to push a bit too hard on designated easy days, subsequently robbing themselves of the necessary energy to tackle rigorous workouts. This monotonous approach results in a homogenized running experience, yielding initial improvements followed by a vexing performance plateau. In stark contrast, the adoption of polarized training, characterized by the incorporation of both leisurely days and demanding high-intensity workouts, nurtures sustained growth and tangible achievements.

To embark on this transformative journey, it is imperative to master the art of slowing down during your designated easy days (here’s a comprehensive guide on the subject). Once you have cultivated the skill of genuinely easy runs, you can gradually escalate the intensity of your arduous training sessions.

An invaluable tool for gauging your current fitness level is a recent race or time trial. Armed with your performance data, you can make effective use of calculators like the McMillan or Jack Daniels VDOT to ascertain your training paces. Additionally, parameters such as perceived exertion, breathing rate, and heart rate offer alternative methods to accurately assess the intensity of your runs.

Crucially, it’s worth emphasizing that not all moderate-intensity runs should be hastily categorized as junk miles. When executed with precision and intent, aerobic threshold runs can emerge as exceptional quality sessions, particularly for half marathoners, marathoners, and ultra runners. The operative term here is “deliberate.” Such runs warrant a deliberate and strategic approach, including adequate warm-up and cool-down periods with easy runs or recovery days, thereby optimizing their efficacy.


Does Your Run Have A Clear Objective?

The presence of a well-defined purpose for each run plays a pivotal role in discerning between purposeful training and the accumulation of what is often referred to as “junk miles.” Within a meticulously structured training program, every run is assigned a distinct intention. For instance, when considering easy runs, a delicate equilibrium is sought, one that ensures comfort while simultaneously stimulating the aerobic system without the unwelcome encumbrance of excessive fatigue.

It is essential to underscore that miles tread the path to becoming “junk miles” when they venture beyond the intended scope of a workout. A common fallacy is the belief that swifter workouts universally translate into superior results. In actuality, pushing the pace beyond the workout’s designated purpose engages different energy systems and frequently elevates the session to an excessively taxing level. The manipulation of both volume and intensity within a workout necessitates meticulous calibration. To illustrate, contemplate the scenario of cruise intervals, a workout entailing 8 x 800m repetitions at a specified 10K pace, with a 1.5-minute recovery jog. Instead of adhering to the prescribed 10K pace, which maintains a fast yet controlled rhythm in line with the session’s objective, some runners opt to exert maximal effort during each interval. The brevity of the recovery period, inadequate for facilitating a comprehensive recuperation following high-intensity exertion, results in diminished adaptational potential. Such an approach not only undermines the intended training effect but also elevates the risk of overtraining.

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An additional dimension of purposeful runs relates to their context within event-specific preparation. What may be relegated to the category of junk miles within the confines of marathon training takes on an entirely distinct significance for a 100-mile ultra runner. The latter, owing to the distinctive demands of their event, often necessitates running under the duress of accumulated fatigue.

Variety, in and of itself, can also serve as a legitimate purpose for a run. By way of analogy, consider the act of consuming an identical combination of chicken, broccoli, and rice for every meal. While it might fulfill basic nutritional requirements, the absence of diversity can lead to a sense of monotony. Analogously, adhering to the same unvarying 5-mile route day in and day out can result in a palpable stagnation within your running regimen. Therefore, the objective of a run can encompass introducing minor variations in distance, whether slightly longer or shorter, even while sustaining a consistent and manageable effort level.


Recovery Runs Are Far From Junk Miles

Recovery runs, despite being occasionally marginalized as unwarranted mileage by critics of high-volume training, hold an unequivocally pivotal role in an athlete’s regimen. These deliberate sessions feature a significantly reduced pace and are typically scheduled for the day after a high-quality workout or a long run. It’s of paramount importance to grasp that the concept of “running too slowly” finds no relevance within the realm of recovery runs; any inclination toward increased pace during such sessions fundamentally contradicts their intended purpose.


The Quality Of Your Runs Rests Upon Your Recovery

As your training volume escalates to a level where your recuperative capacity becomes compromised, there’s an increased probability of involuntarily accumulating what might be aptly labeled as unproductive mileage. It’s imperative to comprehend that the very foundation of training progression hinges on the concept of adaptation, a process primarily fostered during the restorative phase that ensues after the physical stress induced by training. Inadequate recovery, conversely, results in a detriment to the adaptation process.

As discussed earlier, the simple accumulation of mileage for the sole purpose of quantity can inadvertently give rise to what is conventionally termed as “junk miles.” If your training regimen aligns with this description, it’s judicious to undertake a candid self-assessment of your approach. This introspective evaluation should encompass considerations such as the incorporation of dedicated rest days within your weekly training schedule, an assessment of the duration of your daily training sessions, and the deliberate inclusion of variations in both training volume and intensity on a day-to-day basis.


Identify Your Motivation And Be Mindful Of Exercise Bulimia

The motivation behind your pursuit of high mileage in running can be attributed to a variety of factors, each carrying its own level of significance. Aspirations linked to performance improvement, stress alleviation, and personal gratification are all commendable driving forces. Nonetheless, it is prudent to exercise caution when these motivations are tainted by an underlying issue of disordered eating, which is characterized by a fear of weight gain and an overwhelming compulsion to “burn off” calories consumed through running.

Within the running community, a growing concern revolves around the phenomenon known as exercise bulimia, a condition characterized by excessive exercise as a means to control body weight and counterbalance the intake of what may be perceived as “unhealthy” foods. Many experts in the fields of running and health now classify exercise bulimia as a variant of an eating disorder. Drawing a distinct line between high mileage pursued for legitimate purposes, such as establishing a robust aerobic foundation or preparing for a long-distance race, and high mileage engaged in primarily for calorie expenditure is of utmost importance. Consequently, diagnosing exercise bulimia necessitates a personalized assessment rather than adhering to a one-size-fits-all criterion. What qualifies as a healthy high mileage threshold varies significantly among individuals; while some runners thrive on weekly volumes exceeding 80 miles, others may exhibit signs of compulsive or binge exercising behaviors even with considerably lower mileage.

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It is crucial to recognize that the mere act of calorie burning, in isolation, does not inherently embody a valid training objective. Junk miles manifest when an excessive volume of running lacks a clearly defined training purpose, whether it be the construction of a solid foundational base, the pursuit of a personal record in a marathon, or preparation for an ultra marathon. In such cases, concerns related to junk miles should take a back seat to the more pressing issues of overtraining, the female athlete triad, stress fractures, and other potentially severe health problems. If you suspect that you may be grappling with exercise bulimia, it is highly advisable to seek assistance from a sports medicine specialist or another qualified healthcare professional, as this condition may signal an underlying health issue or a broader mental health concern that extends beyond the scope of a running coach.


Final Words – What Are Junk Miles?

The concept of “junk miles” is a nuanced and multifaceted one in the world of running. Seasoned runners understand the importance of structuring their training with a clear purpose for each run. This approach often entails balancing easy-paced days with more strenuous workouts, leading to the realization of sustainable progress and tangible results. While “junk miles” are not inherently detrimental, they may fall short of optimizing an athlete’s overall performance.

Defining “junk mileage” varies among individuals and coaching philosophies, making it somewhat subjective. The choice between categorizing all non-quality or non-long runs as “junk miles” or acknowledging the value in every run remains a point of contention. In this context, the term “junk miles” carries a somewhat negative connotation, yet even runs lacking specific objectives can offer general benefits, despite their potential to hinder long-term progress and increase the risk of injury. Ultimately, every run, even if it seems purposeless, remains a run.

To discern if you might be accumulating “junk miles,” evaluate your training regimen’s purpose. Increasing your mileage should be approached with caution, considering that each runner has a unique threshold for mileage that balances the benefits and risks. Recovery is crucial for adaptation, and inadequate recovery can hinder your progress.

Incorporating a polarized training approach by varying intensity can also lead to improvements. The fine line between junk miles and valuable runs often lies in adhering to the intended training purpose, even in events requiring different approaches.

The motivation behind your running goals is essential. Pursuing high mileage for performance, stress relief, or enjoyment is commendable. However, caution is advised when disordered eating or the need to “burn off” calories drives your training. Exercise bulimia, a growing concern among runners, necessitates individualized diagnosis and can have serious health implications.

Remember, there are exceptions to the rule. Running can be about much more than structured training and exercise. It can be a source of emotional release, companionship, and social connection, sometimes outweighing a strict training objective. So, while “junk miles” may be a consideration, they should not overshadow the broader benefits and joys that running can bring to your life.

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