Research Says You Need to Run Less Than You'd Think to See Benefits
As my feet shuffle along Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River trail, the dreary January chill reddening my face, I’m reminded of when I used to do this a hell of a lot more. I would lay down 90-mile weeks, month after month, like train tracks on my route to an Olympic Track & Field Trials qualifier in the 1500 meter run—a dream dashed by Covid.
Three years removed from two-a-days and Sunday 18ers, I now restrict my weekly running to a wholesome 20-some—depending on companionship, sickness, and the weather. Mainly the weather. With today’s chill, two-point-something miles is plenty. Maybe tomorrow I’ll hit six miles, or maybe—gasp—I’ll take a day off.
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Research shows that regular running is great for you. But at my peak, I was constantly creaky, sore, and tired, no matter how much I foam rolled my zapped calves or hammered my aching quads with a Theragun. Nowadays, I’m fit, motivated, and energized—feelings that inconsistently flickered on and off during my high volume years. I wondered, as the river lazed by, where’s the point where your miles become too much?
According to Aaron Baggish, M.D., FACSM, FACC, professor of medicine and sports science at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and avid runner, it depends.
“The more running you do up to a certain point, the more benefit you get,” he tells Men’s Journal. “Above five to six hours of running per week, you’re not getting any more return on your investment from a health perspective.” That puts the high-end around 35 to 40 miles per week for a runner averaging a 9:00 mile pace.
That doesn’t mean that running is bad for you past a certain volume, Baggish notes—though a recent study published in Missouri Medicine did discover that high volumes of strenuous exercise aren’t optimal for longevity. In fact, the good news is that a healthy, sustainable dose of cardio doesn’t take as long as you’d think. My 20 to 30 miles per week is more than enough. But I’ve been running for 14 years. If you’ve never run before, you shouldn’t jump into running that much. In fact, to see health benefits, you don’t even need to run that much.
“[If you’re] a non-runner doing zero minutes of aerobic activity per week, going from doing nothing to as little as 10 minutes a day can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease by 15 to 20 percent,” Baggish says.
For us regular runners, he points to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Physical Activity Guide for Americans, which recommends 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity per week, ideally spread over five days.
The CDC guide defines moderate intensity aerobic activity as “anything that gets your heart beating faster than usual,” referring to activities like brisk walking or playing doubles tennis. But we’re talking about the CDC’s definition of vigorous activity—running or other aerobic exercise. Therefore, to meet the minimum guidelines, you only need to squeeze in a couple miles per day, five days a week.
This minimal recommendation can be a shock to many runners—certainly me—who default to a “more is better” training mindset, which is a fallacy Baggish notices all the time.
“I’ve worked with lots of the best runners around the world, and I can tell you the single most useful thing that I ever do for them is convince them to rest more,” he says. “It’s almost never about changing the training plan or increasing intensity.” Multiple studies agree with Baggish—recovery is just as important as the training itself, as it reduces risk of injury and illness and boosts athletic performance.
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I’ve certainly felt more comfortable in day-to-day life since I dropped my mileage. I’m more energized during the day, sleep better, and have more time to spend with friends and family. It’s difficult to self-regulate, though. A study published in the International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching found that everyday athletes had worse recovery habits compared to “expert” athletes, who add dedicated recovery techniques to their routines. The paper concludes that “developing self-regulation skills can benefit athletes’ physical and mental recovery from training and competition, and ultimately, can have positive effects on long-term health, well-being, and performance.” Because the average person doesn’t live the life of a pro athlete with afternoon hours dedicated to napping, recovery might take the form of days off or shorter runs.
So next time you want to tack on an extra mile or add another run to your week, take a step back. Think about whether it’s worth the extra effort. And encourage yourself to take days off. I’ll be right there with you, dubiously looking out the window on a sunny Saturday morning, choosing to leave my running shoes in the closet.