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Junk Miles: What They Are, And Why You Should Avoid Them

Training for endurance sports is tough, because you need to balance intensity and duration in your training plan. Too little duration, you won’t be able to complete longer races. Too much duration, leads to too much volume, and the extra recovery time means you can’t fit in as much intensity. With too little intensity, you’ll get dropped if the pace picks up temporarily.

With it being so hard to find the perfect balance, and intense training being rather uncomfortable, athletes err on the side of too much duration. This is especially true in cycling (relatively speaking, cyclists put in a lot more miles than runners, swimmers, etc.) As such, the term “junk miles” was born…

What Are “Junk Miles?”

Here is my definition:

  • Junk miles: Miles added into your training plan with no purpose other than to increase your mileage count.

The time spent on junk miles is usually some moderate pace riding, typically too hard to serve as a recovery ride, but not hard enough to really spark increased fitness.

It might seem like a good idea to be on your bike no matter what (especially if you follow the “ride lots” training philosophy,) but you really don’t gain anything from junk miles. They do nothing but waste your energy.

Exceptions To The “Junk”

Before you get too worked up, don’t confuse junk miles with endurance training and long rides. If you have a purpose for a particular long ride, then the extra miles would not be considered “junk miles.”

Here are a few exceptions to the rule:

  • Base training. Base training is a vital part of the periodized training plan where you do rather long rides on a consistent basis to condition your legs to the bike.
  • The endurance ride. Even during intense training, it’s useful to do a long ride once every week or two to maintain the endurance your built during base training.
  • Getting your butt ready. As well as building endurance, sometimes you need to put in some long rides to get your butt conditioned to sitting on a saddle.
  • Fun. If you want to go out on a long joy ride, it’s perfectly acceptable to make “have fun” the purpose of your ride!

I should also point out mileage is relative. A cyclo-cross racer who competes in 60 minute races on weekends may have some junk miles in their program if they are doing six hour rides every day. On the other hand, a stage racer needs to get used to riding six hours a day for weeks on end, so they would have a purpose behind each of their six hour rides.

There are no junk miles if you’re having fun.

The term “junk miles” is part of the lingo among racing cyclists who are not just racing, but racing to win. When you have specific performance goals, and you’re competing against others with those goals, you have to be concerned with this stuff.

But I fear the terminology (I’ll admit, it is sort of catchy) has trickled down to recreational riders. And it doesn’t apply.

If you’re riding for fun, describing a ride as “junk miles” is almost an insult to yourself!

Ask yourself, “why?”

I think it boils down to asking yourself, “Why am I doing this?”

If you have an answer, whether it’s “because I want to” or “because I’m having the time of my life” or even “because this workout is going to put me one step closer to winning Nationals,” you have nothing to worry about.

If someone can’t come up with an answer as to why they’re riding their bike, that’s the only time I see a problem.  (But at the same time, that might force them to reevaluate their true goals and passions, making it a useful experience, and therefore it can’t be junk!) 😉

Why Junk Miles Are So Prevalent

Most riders naturally gravitate toward junk miles when they’re looking to improve fitness. Here’s why…

Doing recovery rides, which are very beneficial to all cyclists, are so slow and boring most people don’t have the willpower to relax and go easy. It just doesn’t feel beneficial because it’s so easy.

Cruising along, itching to speed up, they’ll think, “oh I can go a little bit faster and it will still be fine.” But it’s a slippery slope. Next thing you know, you spot someone who’s out for a training ride and your ego gets in the way, and your recovery goes out the window!

On the other hand, intense rides that boost your muscular endurance, lactate threshold, etc. are hard! You need to be physically and mentally rested, and motivated! So if you’re not dedicated, it’s easy to skip them and just go “kinda hard.”

These moderate paced rides that are “kinda hard” are the most common form of junk miles. These rides are hard enough to make you feel like you’re working, but easy enough that you don’t feel the urge to vomit. In other words, they’re comfortably painful.

Why You Should Avoid Junk Miles

Do junk miles still sound good to you? They wear you out, so you must be improving fitness, right?

Wrong. The allure of junk miles is like getting roped in by a snake oil salesman. They feel great at the time, but eventually you’ll look back and realize you got no benefit. You’ll finish the season at the same fitness level as where you started.

A typical junk mile ride is hard enough to make you feel like you’re working (so you’re getting worn out instead of recovered,) but easy enough that you don’t feel the urge to vomit (so you’re probably not working hard enough to improve any aspect of your fitness.)

Unfortunately, if you actually want to accomplish something and maybe win a bike race, you have to step out of your comfort zone!

To recover, you need easy rides that are truly easy.

To improve, your hard rides should truly be hard.

If you keep doing junk miles, you’ll just plateau (at best) or burn out from overtraining (at worst.)

Two Steps to Avoid Junk Miles

Here’s my two step plan to avoid junk miles:

  1. Get dedicated. You have to want to improve, and be willing to sacrifice to reach your goals.
  2. Structured training. Get a structured training plan and stick to it. Resist the urge to add in extra miles. If you can’t do it alone, hire a coach.

It’s that simple!

Simple in theory at least. Quite hard to be motivated and disciplined enough to put this into practice!

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  1. My average heart rate when I’m “sort of going for it” is around 75%MHR, would you consider those junk miles? When I do interval training my average is around 88% I hope I didn’t do all that for nothing!

  2. @Sam

    It all depends what you’re training for.

    For typical road racing, it looks like you’re doing fine, with good endurance training (70-75% MHR) plus some hard efforts.

  3. I did another race last night, got dropped after 2 laps again :-(

    I dropped my water bottle on the first lap, so had nothing to drink for the first 2 laps, so I had to drop off the back and go and collect my water bottle from the side of the road 😛

    • @Sam

      Sounds like you’re racing crits. You’ll need to look at the heart rate and power demands of the fast starts and make sure you’re prepared for that. It’s safe to say it’s going to require lots of training intensity!

      Also, keep working on your skills! There are no junk miles during skills training!

  4. The idea of junk miles has been blown out of proportion lately.

    I don’t think it was until 2008 or 2009 that I first heard the term being used, but it’s been picking up steam ever since.  Especially with the idea of interval training becoming mainstream. I’m sure you’ve noticed the mainstream news reports about how short, intense training burns fat faster than long runs and walks. That, and CrossFit.

    Then you have trends like “lifehacking” where people want to get the most results with the least effort, further motivating them to stay far away from “junk miles.”

    Hopefully it doesn’t go the way of the barefoot running trend, where people throw caution to the wind, avoiding long endurance rides like they avoid shoes!

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coach levi
Hi, I'm Coach Levi. I'm a USA Cycling Certified Level 3 Coach as well as Level 1 Certified with Precision Nutrition. Want to feel better, ride faster, and look great? Let's work together!

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