When you’re putting in endless hours running effort-packed miles in preparation for a race, the last thing you want someone to call those miles is “junk.”
Which is why before you lace up for spring race season, there’s an important factor to keep in mind: quality versus quantity.
If you haven’t heard it before, the concept of “junk running” or “junk miles” refers to when runners tack extra miles onto their training plans that don’t necessarily further the ultimate goal: to get to the finish line faster.
“When people attach purely a mileage metric to their training, they think, ‘If I hit a certain mile, I will be better.’ That’s not the case,” says former Olympic runner and Mile High Run Club senior coach Michael Stember.
Want some further clarification about what junk running is so you avoid it? We tapped the experts to explain, so that none of your hard-earned miles go to waste.
When is a mile “junk”?
Like most technical concepts in the running world, there’s confusion and disagreement about when junk miles happen (and even whether they definitely exist).
“Runners can confuse junk miles with extra miles that have a purpose,” says competitive marathoner and RunWestin concierge Christopher Heuisler. “If the training plan calls for easy-day miles or to throw in some extras to get your mileage up, then I wouldn’t classify them as junk because there’s a purpose, and I’d assume that the extra miles are increasing at a safe and effective rate.”
On the other hand, if you’re adding miles onto your training plan aimlessly, to impress your ego or because you’ve got an extra hour to spare, they’re probably junk miles.
Okay, but isn’t racking up distance something to be proud of, or at least isn’t it a healthy pastime, we asked? “You have to measure the intention of the extra miles,” says Stember.
Why is running junk miles a problem?
So why should you cut back on miles if you’ve been told running more will make you faster and build endurance?
“I don’t think junk miles can make you slower,” Heuisler says, referring to things like muscle exhaustion. “But I do think you are putting your body at risk for injury by repeatedly running them.”
Stember agrees. “There’s a breaking point where adding stuff to a program is detrimental. It puts you at risk for classic running injuries like fatigue and bone stress fractures,” he says. Obviously, you’re not going to make it to the finish line (or even the starting line) with a fracture.
How to avoid junk running
So what to do? Stember recommends staying within the general guidelines of your training program and keeping a precise log of how much you’re actually running, so you don’t overextend your mileage.
In addition, no matter what pace you’re running, you should never lose good posture or foot strike position. Pay attention, and if that happens, it’s probably time to call it a day.
“As long as your form isn’t breaking down, I’m not opposed to running longer and slower, but you have to check in with your intention,” Stember says. “It could be a visualization exercise, a spiritual and mental practice, or a confidence-building exercise, but running more without intention or purpose does not equal a better race time.”
Tell that to your running buddy the next time she brags about tacking three extra miles onto last weekend’s long run. —Jamie McKillop