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Running Myth, Busted?

Exploring the 10 percent rule and the limits of conventional wisdom

Before I get to the meat of the article, I would like to take a moment to brag about the time that I spent out in beautiful Acadia, ME.

In the early 20th century John D. Rockefeller, lacking a site worthy enough for him to ride his carriages, created a recreational paradise crisscrossed by 55 miles of roads designed for that purpose.

The aesthetic of these paths is Maine wilderness meets Central Park. Magnificent stone arches cross the mountain streams. Gradual inclines wind gently up to wild vistas that reward the climb an expanse of trees and ocean water.  The fine gravel underfoot is like poetry to a runner’s soles.

Because I was camping on Mount Desert Island, not so far from the trails, and because one of the friends I was camping with is also a serious runner, I was eager to explore the trails.

With that in mind, my friend has been playing with 80-mile weeks, and I have been closer to the 40s and 50s. If I followed him on every run, I figured I might do myself in because I’d be kicking up the distance too quickly.

Like many who run, I’d heard that it is never a good idea to increase mileage by more than 10 percent a week. Per this wisdom, runners exceed this threshold at their peril—putting themselves in the path of injury. Still, if I ran Max’s miles, then I would get the most out those trails.

 As we were running down the slopes of one of those beautiful Acadia mountains, Max told me that the 10 percent rule had been debunked and that runners who increase miles slowly are at the same risk of getting hurt as anyone else.

Intrigued, by this I did some investigating later. I found a group of Dutch researchers from the brutally named University Of Groningen. Over the years, they have done research, which indicates that the 10 percent rule might not be all that it is cracked up to be.

One of their more recent studies, reported in the New York Times this June, concerned running-related injuries relative to the rate of training. I doubt that it is anywhere near definitive enough to be considered the last word, but it does cast doubt on the conventional wisdom.

Researchers split 532 runners who were new to the sport into two groups, one training for a 4-mile race gradually over 11 weeks, and the other training for the same distance over eight. No one ran more than three days a week.

While the first group upped the length of time that they ran in 10 percent weekly increments, the other group increased their time running more quickly, topping out at a 95-minute interval while the slow and steadies only went up to 90 minutes of running. Out of both groups, the injury rate was one in five—indicating that moderation hadn’t made a difference.

One thing that occurred to me in considering the differences between the slow and steadies and those who trained faster was that the slow and steadies had more time to injure themselves. While there were about the same number of injuries in both groups, the fast runners injured themselves more quickly, too. Also, plenty of runners (such as myself) run more than three days a week; the study doesn’t indicate whether the 10 percent rule holds true for people who run higher mileage.

Even if the study is less than definitive, there are other runners who will criticize the 10 percent rule as too conservative.

In 2002, The Running Times Published “Debunking The 10% Rule” by Kevin Beck, which states that runners thwart their own ambitions when they don’t do the mileage that they are capable of doing.

“What constitutes prudence is often misconstrued,” he writes.

 According to Beck, runners routinely ramp up their mileage at faster than 10 percent per week and often get away with it. He sites the example of newbies on a high-school cross-county team who might go from 0 to 40 in two months and college teams that might take runners from 30 miles to 70 miles.

Another way he suggests for runners to get around the 10 percent rule is to juggle high mileage weeks with lighter weeks in order to get acquainted with the longer distances.

Sure, runners get hurt, says Beck. But the satisfaction of being at your best and knowing that you couldn’t have been better is worth it.

“You can’t burn out if you’ve never caught fire,” he writes. Might have read that in a Kurt Cobain bio, but OK.

Not that Beck was prescribing that everyone should lace up their shoes and run out in a blaze of glory. Rather, he says, people should use what their bodies are telling them as a guide.

On that note, humans come in so many different types that universal guidelines like the 10 percent rule can only go so far. Runners have to deal with their uniqueness and find a regimen that works. Kind of liberating actually.

The “do it by feel” approach to running may not be as accessible to beginners who are just getting used to the sensations of running. In this context, guidelines make a lot of sense. If not the ten-percent rule, moderation is still a sensible way to start.

Common sense dictates that someone whose longest run was 6 miles shouldn’t go out and try a 12-miler the next week.

More experienced runners have greater latitude to fool around with training, but should be honest with themselves about limits. While some might think it heroic to plunge on through training, pain be damned, this attitude paves the road to stress fractures, torn ligaments and other catastrophes of the flesh. Many runners pop aspirin before runs and plunge into ice afterwards, reducing inflammation when they should be taking it as a warning sign of too much abuse.

In my own experience, if I feel something tweaking up, I usually back down the intensity and try some non-impact exercise like bicycling. I’d like to say this is one reason why I find myself saddled with fewer injuries than the average runner.

People should also have the freedom to evaluate what they want from their running. If they are in it for the long haul and not particularly concerned about times, than by all means they should go gradually. Even without the thrill of pushing limits, running is still a healthy lifestyle and an enjoyable pastime.

As for my week on the island, I didn’t end up going much over my usual mileage. Between hiking, kayaking and playing mandolin by the campfire, I had a lot of other things to keep me occupied. Yeah, sometimes life is hard that way. 

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