Quality vs Quantity – Ultra Marathon – Marathon Running Racing and Training


The Age Old Debate.

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Is it better to be great at one thing or good at a number of things.  Is it better to have one great love of your life or to have experienced love with a number of people.  Is it better to be a master of one trade or a handy man at a number of skills.

And finally a little closer to home for us runners.  Would it be better to focus solely on and dedicate all your training to qualify for Boston.  Or train for a number of different race lengths but never zeroing in on one goal race?

I’ve asked a few of my new followers on Twitter this very question to get their differing perspectives.

Paul, @paulrunslong
For me one quality goal race per year aiming for peak performance. The other races I use as training runs or time trials to see where I’m at. I enjoy racing & race goals & PBs/PRs is what motivates me. Personally, I don’t think I could stay motivated to train for one goal race over many years as my main running goal(i.e. Boston).

Joshua, @bayou of Run It Fast® http://runitfast.com
I’ve never set a goal to run the Boston Marathon, there are many “Boston’s.” My long-term goal has always been to run the Badwater 135. I’ll finally, after many races and years of hard work, get that chance in July this year.

The Marathon Maniacs, focuses on quantity, quantity, and more quantity. Most Maniacs are slower marathoners that do insane numbers of marathons every year. It’s all about racking up the most number of marathons and earning different levels of stars within the club. After about 15 marathons I wondered what else was out there. After a while they are like running on a track.  Numbers are nice, but I enjoy seeing how well I can do every race and distance I attempt. I believe being around similarly minded people only helps to become better and challenge myself.

It led me to create Run It Fast® – The Club which is open to runners of all levels. It created an amazing community of runners from all over the globe that wanted to go further, faster, and find out what they were actually capable of. It’s been a joy to watch so many that were 5K’ers run their first half, full, ultra and 100.

In my case, quantity has led to quality. It made me amazingly tough by doing 35 races a year that averaged 50 miles in distance. Finishing and surviving the Vol State 500K three times has made me extremely tough overall and that has improved me as a runner and ultra marathoner.  Every runner is different and must find out along the way whether they enjoy being able to race several times a year or if training extremely hard for a chance at Boston is more rewarding.

Sara, @LovingOnTheRun http://www.lovingontherun.com/
I really love this question and have done a lot of thinking on this topic actually.  I look at it in two different ways.

1. If you are talking specifically about races, right now I am focused on one main race to hopefully Boston Qualify. While that is the main race that I am working towards, I do throw other races into it because I think that helps get you very valuable practice in a racing environment as well as to see where you are at. I use smaller, varying length, races almost as a “test run” for the big day.

2. I also look at this question in the long term.  When you are working hard to get faster specifically that causes a lot of wear and tear on the body.  If you asked me 7 months ago (before I got diagnosed with a femoral stress fracture) I would have told you that I don’t care about anything else all I want to do is get that Boston Qualifier. However, now even though I will still work hard towards getting my BQ if I knew that I had to give up that dream in order to have many many years of healthy running I would.  To me even though quality is important, my health is first and foremost.  I would rather run slower and various distances if it meant keeping me healthy.

For now, as long as I feel my body is strong enough to handle it I am still aiming for the Boston Qualifying marathon!

I’ve wrestled with this question throughout my life.  I have had many different hobbies, I’ve built scale models, flew R/C airplanes, collected comics and NFL game used football gear. And I’ve been a motor head collecting muscle cars most of my life.  Do I really want to be good at one sport or play them all.  Do I want to know everything about one subject or have a wider scope of knowledge?

With running and racing I struggled with the same question for a number of years.  Qualify for Boston (Quality) or run every race no matter what the length or location just because I want to without (Quantity) regard to reaching maximum performance.  I finally came to terms that I want to run races of varying lengths and location to gain the Quality and quantity of experiences over one outstanding run.

I’m not saying that this is the right answer for everyone, this a deeply personal question and answer.  And I don’t believe there is a right or wrong answer, I respect everyone’s personal answer.

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I would rather run races of varying lengths and locations as they become available vs. concentrating all my efforts on one run at one location for one goal.  I’ve accepted that I may never reach my maximum potential in anyone race distance.  In trade I’ll accept slower race times at all race lengths over varying terrain.  I will race 5k, 10k and half marathons at local events.  I’ll run the big city marathons around the United States while on vacation with my family.  I will set my sights on running the JFK 50 miler, the Graveyard 100k, and maybe one day the Leadville 100 and the Western States 100.  I also look forward to one day running the Grand Canyon rim 2 rim 2 rim and the Tahoe rim race.

I’m not saying I won’t try to get faster and run my best, I just won’t focus so much on one race to miss out on another.  For me it’s not about giving up on what I could achieve but gaining 100s of experiences that will make me who I am.

How about you quality vs. quantity…what is best for you?


  • Shaun Byrne

    I go with quality! I would rather pick and choose my races even though it may be a few and try to get a good time or try to set a new PR for myself.

    • Brian Burk

      Understand, I see both sides of the question. And have trained for both sides, but now I want to do “well” on alot of stages (race lengths) not just one stage, one day. But there is not right or wrong.

      Brian

  • Steph Jeffries

    I shift my racing goals each season. One season I worked hard on my half marathon goal. But I can’t focus on the same goal all the time (short attention span), and a speed goal isn’t always realistic for my varying fitness levels. I also love doing races with friends, so I tend to sign on for more than I should. I’ve had goals like negative or even splits (great for long-term pacing), which really helped me figure out marathon pacing. Also I do a lot of trail runs and the courses are so variable that you can’t really focus on time. Ultimately, I want to enjoy running for a long time and use running to see and experience new things on my own two feet, while speed is secondary.

    • Brian Burk

      “I want to enjoy running for a long time and use running to see and experience new things on my own two feet, while speed is secondary.”

      As the years click by…I’m feeling more and more like this.

      Brian

  • Laura Anderson

    I’ve always been more of a quality kind of girl than quantity- my body tolerates that better than higher mileage. I was going to try and work in some higher miles this year but due to injury- sticking with quality is better for me to maintain fitness but not let my leg get worse.

    • Brian Burk

      Understand…I think it’s different for all of us. The one time I really went after speed, I blew up my thigh. And was down for 6+ months. I still want to be able to run fast times, but I know I’m not really giving 100% on that front.

      It’s really not fair there are so many cool races to run!

      Brian

  • Mike Bailey

    Brian, great topic. Having wrestled with this idea, and knowing others who have as well, it comes down to healthy moderation. Vague answer, right?. But, I know many runners who don’t care about times and would rather casually run/jog/walk tons of races every year. However, I find many of these people end up burnt out, physically injured, and enjoy running less, even though the whole mindset that got them to that point was to pursue casual enjoyment. I also know folks who run an ultra or marathon every week and have literally fallen apart before my eyes in the last 7 years. It’s not sustainable, nor wise, and I think very unhealthy from all standpoints no matter how slow you run. Also, I have found that the races I really want to do, it makes them all that more fulfilling to be able to run them at the best of your ability. If you get into Western States some day, don’t take it for granted and goof around, because you may never run it again. If you know you can run a particular race any given year, then it’s okay to have a few years you just have fun with it. Otherwise, I would choose a handful of races, maybe 3 or 4, where you want to put out a high effort, and another 3 or 4 where you just enjoy the event. People don’t always associate high effort with enjoyable, but the fact is one can enjoy a race just as much at high intensity as low, and who knows you may even come away with a PR, which is an added bonus to any event.

    In regards to training, the same applies. Not everyone is built to run 100 mile weeks, nor has the time in their schedule. Some elite runners manage to run 50-70 miles per week and still find success at marathon and ultra distances. I’ve known Olympic time trials marathoners who train 120+ mpw, subside off borderline eating disorder diets, and always end up hurt, and inversely, I know people with busy family lives that can only fit in 30-40 mpw, but also run 100 mile races incredibly well. Which of these runners do you think has a more balanced and healthy relationship with running?

    -Mike

    • Brian Burk

      All very good points….and agree a year from now my focus may switch. My life style has moved more towards the ultra front but next year it may be speed/PR. One benefit of training for the 100, I PR’d every race I ran since getting in Umstead…resetting all my PRs from 8 years ago.

      Thanks
      Brian

  • SKORA Running

    There’s a lot that goes into this question.

    For many seasoned athletes, they can forego high quantity and focus on lower volume quality and continue to improve, because they’ve already built their aerobic base.

    When it comes to new athletes it depends a lot on what they can fit into their schedules. Running more will be the best way to improve, but if available time is an issue then quality over quantity is probably the best bet.

    • Brian Burk

      Your so right, I posed this question not to answer it, but to get people (runners) thinking about what is correct for them.

      Thanks for the input.
      Brian