“There’s a huge benefit to the 30-minute run,” says Mary Johnson, a 3:06 marathoner, coach and founder of Lift, Run, Perform, and USATF Level 1 certified trainer. “Running for 30 minutes gives you a considerable amount of benefits, including making your body more efficient, increasing blood flow to help with active recovery, and developing your heart and lungs. You get a lot of bang for your buck in 30 minutes.”
“So many runners ask me how many miles they should run. But it’s not about miles—it’s about minutes.”
But when it comes to the effectiveness of your workout, there’s really no “run size fits all” solution. Instead, determining how long your run should be comes down to your goals and what you’re hoping to gain from your time on the road, treadmill, track, or trails.
“So many runners ask me how many miles they should run,” says Johnson. “But it’s not about miles—it’s about minutes. There’s no set number of miles you should run every day. It’s about minutes and time on your feet, which is so much more important, whether you’re a beginner or an experienced runner training for a marathon.”
So, how do you figure out your magic number? Keep reading for the running coach’s recs for every situation—whether you’re a newbie or a competitive racer.
New runners should start slow and gradually increase their distance
Even if you’re a regular on the Pilates Reformer or you cozy up to the barre more than you hit happy hour, running is a different beast—and it can beat up your body in a totally new way. So Johnson says it’s crucial to start slowly to avoid injury. “If you have a difficult time running to the end of your driveway, that’s where you start,” she says. “Start with what you can do, and then pick an achievable goal.”
“Start with what you can do, and then pick an achievable goal.”
To get comfortable spending more time on your feet, Johnson suggests employing a walk-run strategy. “Do three minutes of running followed by a minute of walking, and repeat that for 20 to 25 minutes,” she says.
Make sure to get in a good warm-up before pounding the pavement. These stretches for runners are a great place to start (and finish). And adding these yoga poses for runners into your fitness routine is a good idea as well as they can help speed recovery. The first mile tends to be the toughest to get through, whether you’re a beginner or veteran. Having a killer playlist can help you power through in stride. But if you need more fitspo, try some of the mental strategies all runners need to know.
Runners who want to build endurance must up their mileage
Whether you’ve signed up for a half-marathon or you just want to be able to hang with your friends for weekend long runs, the key is to spend more time on your feet. “If you’re only running three times per week, consider adding a fourth day to your routine,” says Johnson. “Just be mindful about not overloading your system, and increase your mileage gradually.”
So if you’re running for 20 minutes three days per week, bump that up to 25 minutes three days a week, or add a fourth 20-minute run to your schedule. “This is a good way to add a bit more stress and time to your body, and to increase your endurance over time,” Johnson says.
Even if you’re an experienced runner, you want to be gradual about it so that you don’t overtax your system. “For example, if I’m pretty comfortable running 50–53 miles per week, then I’ll want to start getting into 55–58 for 3 or so weeks before I cross into the 60-plus miles-per-week zone,” she says. “The adjustment period is crucial, and you’re much more likely to successfully adapt to bigger mileage if your body has progressively and consistently built into that mileage.”
If you’re training for a marathon, the quality of your run matters more than the distance
Just like every body is different, every marathon training plan is unique. The most important thing when you’re training for a 26.2-mile race, Johnson says, is cumulative fatigue, the idea that you’re incrementally more tired with every run you log and that the effect of all your physical exertion is carried with you over the course of your training.
And while many popular training plans have runners peaking with a 20- or 22-mile long run, Johnson says that may not be necessary—and you could be better off adding easy miles throughout the week. “People are too risky and tend to run too long, in my opinion,” Johnson says. “I like to pad the week with easy miles around quality efforts, which are usually speed and longer runs.”
If you’re going for your first marathon and aren’t concerned about your pace, Johnson says to try and keep your long run to no more than 30 percent of your weekly mileage. (So for many runners, that means peaking around 16–18 miles for a long run.) “Going above that can put you at greater risk for injury and, quite frankly, can make you feel like crap,” she says. “It’s important to stay safe so you can make it to that start line.”
If you want to run in order to improve your physical or mental health
“Honestly, if your goal is strictly weight loss, running probably isn’t your best bet,” says Johnson. “Instead, I would recommend a combination of running and weight training, which will be much more effective in reaching your weight-loss goals.”
A strength-training regimen that includes exercises like squats, lunges, and rows—“Ones that recruit the most number of muscles at a time,” she says—will amp up your calorie burn.
And if you’re hoping that a runner’s high will help boost your mood and reduce stress, science is on your side for this one: Studies have shown that one of the most effective ways to help de-stress is to break a sweat. To help ward off stress and depression, researchers suggest exercising for 45–60 minutes 3 to 5 times per week, and aiming to reach 50 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate. Don’t have an hour to spare? “Just doing something is better than nothing,” Johnson says. “If you only have 15 minutes, get out for 15 minutes. You’ll probably feel better afterward.” Coupled with some gut-healthy vitamin D from the sun’s rays, a quick outdoor jaunt could be the ultimate heart-pounding daily pick-me-up. Race you down to the sidewalk?
This story was originally published on May 24, 2017; it was updated on June 23, 2018.
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