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Dr K - What Do You Think About Three?

What Do You Think About Three?
Ed Kornoelje DO, Metro Health Sports Medicine

 Last time we reviewed the 80/20 method of training and how to run safely 5 or 6 days a week.  This time I want to revisit a question posed to me several years ago:  Can running only three days a week be an acceptable or even better way to train?  This is an ongoing discussion—the balance between running enough to get in shape and perform well and running too many miles which may put too much stress on your body.  In this article we will look at why and how three days per week of running may be the way to go for some, and what EVERYONE can do if injuries are starting to pop up or time is becoming an issue no matter what type of program is being used.

 Here are a few questions to get us started:

1.  Is running less (3-4 days a week) a good idea, and possibly better for most of us?

2.  If you are following a training program, is it OK to miss a few runs?

3.  If exercising 5-6 days a week is ideal, are swimming, biking and rowing good alternatives?

Proponents of three day a week running believe this:  you do not need to run a lot of miles or many days a week in order to prepare for a race, and run it well.  In over 17 years of practicing sports medicine, one thing I have noticed is that most training programs are typically 5-6 days a week, with mileage ranging from 30 to 40 miles a week in beginner programs, to 60, 70 or even 80! miles a week in advanced programs.  For most of us (and there is a good chance you are “most of us”), this may be too many days and too many miles to run.  Injury rates go up as miles and days increase, and I often see runners who develop small aches and pains become more seriously injured trying to keep up with their programs.  (And just to be clear I am NOT advocating coming into any event unprepared—that will lead to its own set of problems). 

 For years I have suggested to many of my patients (and followed this advice myself) running three days a week and cross training two days a week is likely the best way to go when training for races of any distance.  The three runs include speed work, a tempo run, and a long run each week (more on these in a future newsletter).  Good cross training activities include swimming, biking, and rowing.  Weight training, while also a great thing to so, does not count as cross training.  This type of program allows a runner to be active five days a week—many of us feel better if we are active more than three days a week, and looking at it from a health perspective five days of activity is better than three—while cutting down on injuries that may come from running too much.  I realize that many elite athletes do run six or seven days a week, but they have regular access to many things we do not—massages, nutritionists, and naps! to name a few.  They also push their bodies right to the edge of injury in order to perform at an elite level.  When we do this we often don’t know when we are going over the edge until it is too late.  While I love to see runners, I would rather see you all out for a run, not in my office!  And a confession here:  while my goal is to follow the run three days/cross train two program, due to time constraints I often only get in the three runs, and have done many half and full marathons running “only” three days a week.

Based on discussions with many runners, keeping abreast of the running literature, and talking to running coaches, I am sure that there are more than a few skeptics out there.  “We were taught the only way to become a better runner, is to run more.  If you want to play the piano better, play more.”  Well, good evidence suggests just the opposite.  Jeff Galloway and the FIRST program by Bill Pierce both have high mileage weeks for marathon distance races in the 30-35 miles per week range, and both programs have high finish rates, even high PR rates.  These are just a couple of programs—there are others out there (check out the book Run Less Run Faster and the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of Running Times magazine for a couple of good ones).

Finally, when it comes to training programs please remember these are guides, not “set in stone and if I miss a run I might as well give up” documents.  Of course with whatever type of program you choose to follow it is better if you can follow it as closely as possible.  Just remember that if you are doing a five or six day a week program you have a little leeway if you cannot get all of your weekly runs in (and less leeway if you are following a three or four day a week program).  Also, if you are ill or busy and miss a week of training your body will not lose a lot of fitness, just be smart about starting up again—use the next two weeks to catch up to your program.

So, how should our questions be answered?

1.  Running less (3-4 days a week) may be a good idea, and possibly better for many of us.

2.  If you are following a training program, it is OK to miss a few runs.

3.  Exercising 5-6 days a week is good—in place of running, try swimming, biking or rowing.

 If you do find yourself injured (or wondering whether you are or what you should do next), we have locations with sports med docs and physical therapists all over town—check us out for more information.  We are also seeing patients at the Metro Health Sports Medicine Center inside the Spartan Stores YMCA at the Metro Health Village.  Call 252-SPRT (7778) for more information or to schedule an appointment.  And don’t forget about Injury Wise at Gazelle Sports Grand Rapids every Wednesday night from 6-8 PM.   These are brief one on one sessions open to active individuals of all ages and sports.  Contact Gazelle for more information.

 Be active!

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