The ‘Trial of Miles’ and Individual Needs

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

The ‘trial of miles’: a term coined by fictional elite college runner, Quenton Cassidy in John L. Parker’s novel Once a Runner. In this famous running novel, Cassidy is a sub-4 minute miler, and Olympic Gold Medal contender who professes a ’secret’ to high performance running: The secret is that there is no secret. There is simply a trial of miles and miles of trials.

“You don't become a runner by winning a morning workout. The only true way is to marshal the ferocity of your ambition over the course of many day, weeks, months, and (if you could finally come to accept it) years. The Trial of Miles; Miles of Trials.”

- John L. Parker

This concept is extremely valid in portraying the fact that there are no secrets to elevating performance (besides super shoes, doping, etc. but that’s a different story). The concept emphasises that fitness takes time and the trial is consistency and belief. In the recent 10000m British Championships and Olympic trials, Marc Scott mentioned 17 years of running to reach the point of making the games. Running is evidently a long haul sport.

The ‘trial of miles‘ symbolizes the reality that it is the process that count and during the process it is easy to make excuses. However, many high performance athletes have demanding work schedules and family commitments. They find ways to do the work; it might not be easy, but they do things that many are not prepared to do. As Arthur Lydiard once emphasised: we can be soft on things but running isn't a soft option.

However, despite being a huge Lydiard advocate, running 100 mile weeks is perhaps not the optimal framework for many working athletes. This is because we now live in a high stress and largely sedentary society that impacts on athletic performance dramatically. Runners are working in unnatural environments and postures for hours on end and are often constantly in a mild stress state through constant emails and pressures from social media. This all impacts on movement capability and recovery from training.

Lydiard argued against strength training for runners saying runners “need the muscles of a stag, not a lion”. But when Lydiard was coaching Snell and the High Performance New Zealand runners of that generation, they were all working in manual jobs and lived much simpler lives than today. They had naturally developed more robustness and durability and therefore more advanced movement skills - much like the British runners of the 1980s - one could argue. From this perspective, of course they could handle consistent 100 mile weeks without ancillary work such as weight training, mobility work, and cross training.

However, today’s typical runner may need to take a different approach for optimal performance and longevity. Rather than running an extra 10-20 minutes a day on a general training run, today’s runner may be better off doing mobility, core, or weight training. Rather than doubling up and slogging through a second run after a long day at work, swapping for a swim might promote recovery mentally and physically.

This is perhaps best illustrated in recent months by Steph Davis and her coach Phil Kissi. Kissi looks to the philosophy of ‘running free’ of Rolf Haikkola who guided the great Lasse Viren to four Olympic gold medals in the 1970s but takes a hollistic approach, recognising that for Davis, he must “minimize volume on the road” due to his awareness that Steph could incur hip, achilles, hamstring or IT band injuries if her mileage exceeds her robustness to cope with it. Davis reportedly has ‘non-impact’ Mondays to allow her body to freshen up from constant pounding. It must be emphasised however that she accumulates a great amount of aerobic volume and Kissi points out that “we can learn much from triathlon in this respect”. Recent running exploits by Beth Potter and Alex Yee emphasise this.

Additional examples include fell running legend, Rob Jebb, who supplements his running with a large amount of cycling and has enjoyed a lengthy and successful fell running career. Additionally, the best trail runners in Europe often spent their winter ski mountaineering accumulating low impact but high volume aerobic training. British ultra runner Tom Evans is renowned for including a lot of cycling and strength training and elite ultra running coach, David Roche, includes a rest or non-running day in all of his programs for some of the best runners in the world. Despite these differrent frameworks which emphasise cross-training and rest more than traditional approaches, it is without saying, that there is still a huge emphasis on aerobic volume. These are not 'less is more' approaches, as with endurance sport (despite what many popular magazines preach), more is generally more.

Therefore, it’s clear that we still have a lot to learn on the overarching message of the ‘trial of miles’ and it is up to the runner to explore, seek advise, learn, experiment and repeat to find the optimal dosages for performance and longevity. Since I have been upping my running volume I have tried to listen to my body and often swap an easy run for a swim or cycle if I feel my body needs a change. I am hoping that this will allow for greater longevity, absorbtion of hard training, and a more robust athlete going forwards.

The 'Trial of Miles' - a term that perhaps should be coined 'The Trial of Consistent Training for longevity, enjoyment and performance' (Yes, a less catchy name).