If you decided that a healthy lifestyle is the one you want, then congratulations! You’ve made the right choice. If running is the sport you chose to remain healthy, you’ve done yourself a great favor. Running is one of the best equipment-free sports that can keep your body in shape. It can be done anywhere, anytime, alone, or with a group.
However, the first thing you’d discover about this “easy” sport is that it is not easy. Running is a stressful, exhausting, and mentally draining process that can adversely affect your body if you’re not careful. It’s common knowledge that too much of everything is harmful but, on a different argument, running less than required will deprive you of most of the benefits.
This leaves us with several questions, particularly: How many miles should I run a week to stay healthy? The number of miles will always vary depending on your goals. If staying healthy is your goal and you’re not targeting long marathons, you should aim for a little less than 20 miles per week.
If we’re seeking the sweet spot for the average runner to stay healthy, we’re talking about approximately 18 miles per week distributed over 3 or 4 days. You may add or remove a few of those miles depending on your liking, but 18 miles seems to be a distance that most average runners can consistently do.
However, unless you have a specific goal in mind other than being healthy, it’s not recommended to run more than 30 miles a week.
So, why did we emphasize the “average runner” expression? That’s because people run for different reasons. If you’re a person who is thriving to have a healthy lifestyle and not competitively engaging in races and marathons, the aforementioned distance is great for you.
The average person can run somewhere around 1 mile without training, so you can see it may take a while to build up to 18 miles per week. You can divide those 18 miles over 3 days and run 6 miles a day, or over 4 days and run 4.5 miles a day. Those numbers aren’t set in stone; you could add or take a couple of miles off to suit your lifestyle or level of conditioning.
People who don’t have running in their lifestyles should be able to run 1–2 miles before running out of breath. Gradually building up your endurance and stamina to meet the 18 miles per week should stretch out your maximum distance exponentially. Marathoners and half marathoners should have their average per week bumped up a little. They’re no longer having a healthy lifestyle as their sole reason, they now run competitively.
To give you an estimate, the healthy amount of running for the average person is 3-5 miles per day over 4–5 days a week. This has more to do with how many days you run a week rather than how many miles. Depending on your physical fitness, age, and eating habits, the healthy amount of running per week could vary.
You might be wondering now, why not more, and why not less? Let’s break this down a little to understand why. The “healthy” amount of running per week is how much running you need to maintain your fitness, endurance, and breathing. Your running shouldn’t be painful, but it shouldn’t be easy to see optimal health benefits.
If you keep your running days in the recommended range, your body will get the most out of running while resting enough to go on. If the amount you run is less than 3 days a week, you’re not giving your body enough stimulation to raise its overall strength. On the other hand, if you consistently go over 5 running days a week, you subject your body and muscles to a condition known as muscle fatigue.
Imagine this scenario. You’re an avid runner who woke up one day to go for that daily run. You started taking those steps only to notice that your body simply isn’t keeping up. What’s going on? Why am I suddenly struggling to run? There could be many reasons, but physical and muscle fatigue are the cause of most cases. Inappropriate diet and bad habits like smoking are also major factors that could cause sudden physical exertion while running.
The healthiest distance to run is that distance you can consistently complete without having your muscles scream at you every single time. That distance should be easily repeatable, quick to finish, and easy on your muscles. Arguably, 6 kilometers or around 3.7 miles is the average distance that meets our criteria.
Let’s take a thought here, have you ever compared the physical appearance of a short distance runner like Usain Bolt with a marathoner like Robert Kiprono? The first thing your eyes would notice is the difference in muscle mass between the two. Before we explain why their bodies are like that, we need to emphasize that both of them are considered healthy. As long as your journey begins with the “run slow to run fast” concept (more on that soon) the path you take as a runner should almost always keep you healthy.
So, why do Bolt and Kiprono have different bodies? Bolt’s body is built for maximum speed, it has just muscle mass to cover those short distances as fast as possible. On the other hand, Kiprono’s body has adapted for long distances. The muscle mass is reduced to allow for less weight.
Most marathoners share Kiprono’s appearance. However, does it mean that they’re not healthy? Not necessarily. Marathoners look that way because constant running causes a physical breakdown of muscles called muscle catabolism. Without going too much into science, muscle catabolism is when the body breaks down the proteins of the muscles to gain energy. This happens when the body is under so much stress that it can’t find any more energy.
Does that mean that excessive running and marathon running are unhealthy? Not really, but they’re not exactly healthy either. Excessive running will cause your muscles to be much stronger despite having a small mass. There is, however, one aspect that could fall under the “unhealthy” category; heart health. Constant pressure on the heart muscle fibers leads to their weakening over time. You may or may not have heard about it, but many endurance runners suddenly pass away from heart failure.
That being said, the average distance that, if consistently repeated, can keep your health in shape without compromising your muscles is around 3.7 miles or 6 kilometers. Most runners, especially beginners, won’t be able to run that distance from the start. To get there, follow the “run slow to run fast” concept. Begin slowly with shorter distances then increase your pace as you advance. If your muscles aren’t strong enough, a stronger pace will hurt them. Gradually step up your speed until you can comfortably finish.
So, how many miles should I run a week to remain healthy? Your average should be anywhere around 18 miles. As long as you’re able to consistently maintain those runs without feeling that your muscles are aching too much, then you’ve found your sweet spot.
Keep in mind that the beginning of your journey to reach those weekly 18 miles will be full of aches and exhaustion. In that scenario, the body pain is fine. Stay healthy and keep running.