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The 10% Rule Of Running And Increasing Mileage: Training Fact Or Lore?

training tips for runnersThere is an interesting article posted on the New York Times discussing whether or not increasing weekly mileage by 10% each week is a good idea. Most runners have heard the “10% rule” when it comes to running. It has been a part of running for many years. The article even goes as far as stating that the origin of the 10% rule appears to be lost in history.

The basic concept of the 10% rule is that in order to help prevent the risk of overuse injury, runners should not increase their weekly mileage more than 10%. This allows the body to adapt to the stresses of running slowly and potentially, safer way.

 

But is there any research behind any of this?

Not really. There are “some” studies in process but not at any significant level. There is an ongoing study being conducted by Dr. Ida Buist, Dr. Steef W. Bredeweg, Dr. Ron L. Diercks and their colleagues at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. The article states that they followed 532 “novice” runners who averaged 40 years of age as they trained for a four mile race. One group trained in 12 weeks using the 10% rule up to 90 minutes per week, while the other group trained in just 8 weeks up to 95 minutes. The latter group obviously not using the 10% rule. The result? Both groups had the same injury rate.

Now I typically do not argue the merits of a study, and I won’t in this case either as it tests a specific population (novice runners, average age 40, running short 4 mile distance), following a specific plan (10% rule, increasing each week, 3 runs per week). And I agree with the article and researcher’s in that no significant studies have been conducted on the 10% rule, at a population size and at a wide demographic base(young, old, beginner, experienced) that could be applied to all runners. So therefore, it is always been inconclusive at best if the 10% rule even works or not. After all, both groups did have the same injury rate.

There are more factors than just mileage that contribute to injuries. The 10% rule at best can only be considered a “guide”, just like any training schedule. What it lacks is the other factor’s that fall into place, such as the individual runner themselves. Other factor’s that play into injury are:

1. Age
2. Experience
3. Proper shoes and condition
4. Ability of the athlete to properly recover
5. Preexisting conditions
6. Improper training
7. Proper or improper hydration and nutrition

and so on…

The 10% rule can be an effective way to gradually increase distance. But can it alone, prevent injury? That would be a big, fat, NO. As a coach, there are some elements of the 10% rule that make sense. I do believe gradually increasing distance is a good thing rather than making huge increases. But I have always held the opinion that training schedules are “guides”, not “contracts”. That is why I try to get to know each runner I work with, because each runner is unique. Both in goals and in their training needs.

Following a training schedule in and of itself does not always work. In fact, I would estimate that for most people, 99.9% of the time, they have to vary from the training schedule due to illness, work, travel, family, weather, and so on. So how do most people adapt? They miss training days, or try to make it up with their long run, or jump right back in the following week which typically has progressed in mileage. In some cases this works out. In other cases it does not. Training should be personalized as much as possible and training plans should allow time to account for any of the above situations. Adjustments should be made throughout the duration. The article states,

Most people who take up running, Dr. Diercks says, think it will be easy — all they need is a pair of shoes. But in fact, running is a difficult sport, and most people quit before it becomes fun, often because they are injured. Experienced runners know how to adjust and return to the sport. Novices usually do not, he says.

This is where coaching comes in as well as the benefits of running with a running club. With coaching, I work on the overall “plan”. A plan is more than just a schedule of what to run and when. It includes hydration and nutritional strategies, runner’s goals, what motivates a runner and keeps them engaged in their sport. It includes training principles that work for that runner and so much more. With a running club, we try to fit in as much of the education of the “plan” as we can, but it is more of a support mechanism for runners and provides the guidelines, basic schedule, trail support, and social aspects of running while the details of the “plan” are pretty much left to the runner to implement.

When it comes to creating group schedules, the 10% rule (or some variation) typically comes into play. At the group level, you are training as a “group” and therefore your training schedule becomes slightly more generic to meet the training goals of the entire group. Its comes down to how to build a schedule that gets the group to its end goal. When training in groups, you typically have a mix of beginning and experienced runners so addressing the needs of each individual becomes a lot more difficult. Therefore, it becomes important to educate and work with each runner as much as possible so that they learn to make their own adjustments to their plan. When questions arise, having the coach available is critical.

At Run Fit Running Club, we do not follow the 10% rule exactly. We do not increase miles each and every week. We may increase miles one week or hold at the same level for a few weeks to allow the body to adapt. We build a certain amount of “flexible” time into our schedule where possible depending on the goal race. We spread our plans out over a longer period in most cases. Other weeks we may even cut back. You have all seen the marketing hype of some only plans, or books that suggest you can train for a marathon in 8 weeks, 10 weeks or whatever. You may be able to get through it and be successful. If your body allows it. Although, I can almost guarantee it will be a miserable experience and your more likely to be injured than not.
Therefore, we take a conservative approach to increasing mileage. We want running to be as safe as possible and as enjoyable as possible. But with any activity, the risk is always there and there is no way to guarantee that someone won’t experience an injury, regardless of whether it is running or even walking. All physical activity comes with some risk.

I do not see anything wrong with using the 10% rule as a guide, but keep in mind that 10% is an arbitrary number. Why not 5% or 15%? No research has proven why it should be 10%. Therefore, understanding each runner, and helping runner’s adjust mileage based on their goals and bodies ability to adapt far outweighs any specific training schedule.

I am curious, if you follow or not, the 10% rule. Why or why not?

Happy Running

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Steve is a RRCA and USA Track and Field certified running coach and club director for Run Fit Running Club in Central Ohio.

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