I “overheard” a debate on Boards on the age-old topic of “junk miles” and it dawned on me that there is a very clear answer to the question of whether these have any value or not.
Part of the difficulty in arriving at a consensus on whether these “junk miles” have benefits or not stem from the fact that the term is not precisely defined (e.g. “what constitutes a “junk mile”).
Usually it seems to refer to mileage run at a very slow pace or outside of scheduled workouts, in some ways “target-less training” but let’s waste no more time on what it is usually referred to as and have a look at what it “junk miles” really are.
The great Lorraine Moller really captures the essence of training in a single sentence of her obscenely well-written autobiography “On the Wings of Mercury” when faced with the elaborate program designing of her then coach and husband, the late Ron Daws: I thought it was all rather tedious, after all marathon training had to be fairly simple: run long and run hard enough to get stronger, but not long and hard enough to get weaker.
There is nothing more to running training than this, however complicated it might be sometimes portrayed. Junk miles are simply the miles that make you weaker, miles that have nothing to contribute. Miles that do not even contribute a recuperative effect to your overall scheme, all they do is break you down and interfere with your recovery and the performance of your remaining training.
Now, Lorraine had learned from the master, and while Arthur believed in high mileage, he was not a believer in junk miles as he said “my runners never ran slow” and “it was not only that I ran hard, it was that I ran long and hard.” He also says “miles makes champions” and “American coaches underestimate the value of distance work”. Some may interpret this as a contradiction, but there is none, rather you balance your workload and the quality of it so you can ensure that you absorb your training and that you can keep running strongly day in and day out, again to paraphrase Arthur: “You don’t see any rest days on the schedule do you?”
When making a lot of these statements, he was being a bit fastidious for there was a trend in the West towards fearing “high mileage” which he sought to counter with strong statements. There is a journey to the point where you can run strongly almost every day. For some people just jogging a mile is a struggle. For them these miles are not junk and if they do more then even better, as long as they can recuperate in between. There are no hard and fast answers to be had on the details – it’s a fine line between training so much that you cannot adapt and so conservatively that you don’t stress your body to adapt. Only learning to listen to your own signals and, if you can, working with an experienced coach, can help you perfect this.
But don’t ever be fooled into thinking there’s no junk in mile. If the negative effect of something outweighs the positives, it’s junk and your energy is better invested somewhere else.
What about Lydiard mornings jogs, are they junk? If you are strong enough to jog around without it interfering with your primary training, they are not, as they will then aid recovery and add to your aerobic development. If you don’t, don’t do it as it will contribute nothing positive.
My morning jogs last year was an example. While they are recommended by Lydiard, they did not work for me at the time with the extensive hill running I was doing. I was not ready and did not recover during the jogs. All it did was interfere with my recovery time and my real runs. This was largely because my other running was too long and too slow too, so even the jog required strength. For a properly developed runner, it will be like walking. But until you reach that points, then it’s junk, or poison, for your training.