The Wall

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Re-Thinking The Long Run

14 March

After months of training and focus, and race day is getting closer seemingly by the minute. You’ve put in countless miles and have one last hurdle to clear before you can tackle the marathon: the long run.

For many marathoners, the long run is a physical and mental test to make sure they are on track with their race day goals. Most chase an arbitrary mileage benchmark in their quest to confirm their preparation: for some it’s 20 miles, for others it’s 22.

Instead of just plodding along to rack up miles, the long run is a chance to put the finishing touches on your race execution strategy and build some final critical fitness. Here are a few pointers to make sure you get it right.

Your Body Doesn’t Think In Terms of Miles
A 2.5-hour run at long run pace is the same effort for Speedy Stan (7:00/miles) and Wandering Wally (12:00/miles). They are both running the same effort for the same time, it’s just that Stan can rack up 21+ miles while Wally covers 12.5 miles. They are doing the same work, it’s just that Stan’s output is much higher.

Inside Marathon Nation, the ultimate distance of our long runs is not built upon a fixed plan — your mileage is determined by how fast you have proven you can run. If you can run an 18:00 5k, for example, your long run will be capped at about 2.5 hours. If that same 5k takes you 36:00, then your long run will be capped at 3 hours.

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So How Far to Run?
This is the eternal marathon question. Ultimately, the length of your long run is determined by your training program. If you’ve built up to 18 miles by this point, jumping to anything longer than 21 will be a real challenge. If you’ve already hit 20 twice, another 20 might be enough while 22 could be too much.

While there are no set guidelines to how far a long run should be, there are guidelines around how long it shouldn’t be. For faster folks like Stan, make sure your longest run is no more than 10-15 percent longer than your previous longest effort. If you are more like Wally(athletes who plan to run 10:00/mile or slower on race day), your longest run should be capped at three hours.

Only Three Hours? How will I ever be ready?
At the end of the day, there really is no physical or aerobic benefit to running beyond three hours. At this point you’ll be doing more harm than good to your body. Per the effort example above, remember that at 3 hours you will have already run an extra 30 minutes longer than Stan — you are doing much more work!

If a three-hour run will “only” get you 15 miles, revisit your training schedule to incorporate two longer runs a week (e.g. Thursday and Sunday) into your training as soon as possible. This way you’ll be able to build up the durability you will need for race day over time without risking injury or burnout.

The Right Pace at the Right Time

The last thing you want to do is to leave your race on the training course, yet so many runners flirt with disaster when they do their long run. Repeat after me: Do not run your long run at your goal marathon pace! This is too much strain on your body and will result in deep fatigue that could persist until race day.

A better plan is to hold a comfortable long run pace (goal marathon pace plus 45 seconds to a minute slower) for three-fourths of the way. The last one-fourth of the run, increase the effort/pace to match goal marathon levels. If you can nail the last 25% of the run at your goal pace, then you are in good shape!

Putting this key element at the end of your long run will give you a sense of how your pacing will affect your body on race day and if you’ve picked the right pace without compromising your training.

Long Run Logistics
A large part of doing your long run revolves around creating ideal conditions for the effort. Don’t sell those months of training short by picking the wrong course or messing up your nutrition.

Most runners should consider a rolling course. “Rolling” means that you know that you are going up and down, but the work isn’t putting your body into overdrive. Slower runners will want to stick with a flat course to get more miles in for their allotted training time.

If the marathon you’re planning to run is hilly (most are pretty flat), you won’t gain any material benefits from punishing yourself on a similar course for this long run, especially when it will take you days–maybe even a week–to recover.

If you’re truly concerned about the hills, be sure to include hill work in your weekly regimen. Advanced runners might consider a long run that starts out rolling but ends up in the hills to prepare for race day.

Do the long run at the same time of day as the race. There’s a lot more to marathon day than just running, and learning how your body reacts to the early alarm, light breakfast and warm-up is key. Do your best to minimize the number of surprises come race day. Even if your “A” race is in another time zone, you can benefit from putting your race-day plan into action.

Plan on carrying your food and fluids with you (e.g. use a Fuel Belt). If you’re opposed to this, either plan on a quick pit stop at a convenience store or pre-arrange a bottle drop. Hopefully by this point in your training you have already developed an understanding of what type–and how much–fuel you need on your longer runs.

A quick rule of thumb in training is to practice drinking at every mile split so you’ll be accustomed to drinking at the intervals provided on the marathon course (that’s every eight minutes for an 8:00/mile hopeful). It’s also recommended that you take in some form of calories–most runners use energy gels–during your event. Don’t rely on the course to get you what you need; consider taking a gel (or some calories) at 45- to 60-minute intervals.

Long Run Recovery Protocol

* Wash your face and get out of your wet clothes into dry ones.
* Get some liquid calories. This can be a homemade shake or recovery drink, and must be consumed in the first 15 minutes after finishing and should contain a 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein.
* Take a shower.
* Lie down on the floor and put your legs up one minute for every 15 minutes run.
* Get up and make a meal. Be sure to include protein!
* Sit down to eat with legs up. Consider a nap if you have time.

After the Long Run
Your work is mostly done at this point. You have three or maybe four more weeks to go until race day. Your first priority is to make sure that you have recovered well from your long effort. I usually don’t run for three days afterwards (preferring to cross-train) and I usually get a light massage as well. Only a few key tempo sessions are left to keep the legs sharp and then it’s marathon day.

Remember, there is no single defining run that will make your marathon training right, even the long run. At the end of the day, it’s the miles covered on the way to this long training run–and the marathon–that truly count. Get out there, have fun, and be smart!


This article includes an excerpt from the Marathon Race Execution Guide, a free download from Marathon Nation. Head Coach Patrick McCrann has created a free resource outlining exactly how to pace the optimal marathon, including a video and a free pace calculation spreadsheet. Please download your FREE copy here.

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21 Responses to “Re-Thinking The Long Run”

  1. matthew September 6, 2010 at 2:46 am #

    some interesting info here indeed. I have incorporated a long run ( 16 miles or more) into my training schedule every other week. I run them at and easy pace (8:30). My goal time for a fall marathon is 8:00. Could I be over doing it? I plan on a 22 miler about 4 weeks before the actual marathon. Is that to early?

  2. Patrick August 2, 2010 at 2:41 pm #

    Linda, welcome! We have 12 week plans, so I suggest you use our Basic Week plan (on the training plan page) as your “maintenance” protocol, then we can work on transitioning you to a proper race plan as the events get closer!

  3. Linda August 2, 2010 at 3:05 am #

    Hi, just a new subscriber to the Marathon Nation here in New Zealand. I am currently training for my 3rd marathon in 4 December (our early summer). Bit slow though… question, can one keep up a “maintenance” programme of running 30 k’s a week, then begin the serious training 15 weeks prior to the event?? Cheers

  4. Patrick July 15, 2010 at 10:29 am #

    @BINH – Great! Please keep us posted on your progress!


  5. BINH July 14, 2010 at 4:36 am #

    Thank you for the advices. I will definitely try them out and will follow your pacing strategy of running first 5 miles slower and a little faster each mile for the next 15 miles as well.

  6. Patrick July 13, 2010 at 9:18 pm #

    Thanks for the comment. Based on the article, my main point is that if your 20-miler should take you 3:20 and you run 3:00 in training, not doing those last 20 miles will not be what hurts you on race day. Odds are over doing it with long runs, a beat down body and poor execution (pacing, nutrition, etc) all played a role in your previous race. Some options are:

    1. Run slightly harder for up to three hours. So cap the duration at 3hrs but run at 10:30 pace for the bulk of it.
      Break up your run into a 2.5 hr AM effort and a 1 hr PM effort.
      Or you could run walk as 10 mins run / 1′ walk, and continue that for the full distance. This will break up some of the pounding of the single session.
  • BINH July 13, 2010 at 7:05 pm #

    Thank you for the info coach Patrick. The problem is I am getting confuse with mixed info. Based on the Runner’s world Smart coach calculation with my goal of 4:30 for a 16 week marathon training, I need to put in three 20 milers @10:57, @10:50 & @10:44 pace so I am not going to be to do that in 3 hrs. I would like to run the whole 20 miler instead of splitting it up. I feel better if I do that in one run. This is my 2nd marathon. I finished my first one (2010 L.A. marathon) in 4:50. I got cramps probably around mile 15 or 16 and did most of the walking after that. I am training for the 2011 pasadena marathon. Should I just run for another 30 mins or so or just walk after 3 hrs?

  • Patrick July 1, 2010 at 10:43 am #

    @Patience — I think the plan itself sounds reasonable, I suggest you consider either breaking those runs up or adding walking breaks in to reduce the impact. Since you’ll cover 15 miles in about 3 hours, you will need to find a way to get in the remainder. One version could be a long morning run of 15, followed by a PM run of 5 miles. Or you could split the runs more evenly (2hrs/2hrs), and this can be done same day or Night before / Next morning. IF you were to walk, I’d consider 5′ of walking for every 30′ run @ pace for the whole deal. It will take longer but will help reduce the footprint on your training!

  • Patrick July 1, 2010 at 10:39 am #

    @Genevieve – The best thing to do is an actual fitness test, like a 5k time trial on a flat course. Once you have an average heart rate for that effort, then you can go about “calculating” what type of HR range is acceptable for you longer runs, etc! Good luck! ~Patrick

  • ROB June 30, 2010 at 8:33 pm #

    Bobby –

    I think there was an aspect to what Pat was saying that you didn’t capture in your OKC training. If you need to do more than 3 hours to get a “long run” in, he suggested instead
    doing 2 3-hour runs, rather than 1 5-hour run for instance.

    I can’t vouch for it, but it is a difference I thought worth noting.

    I agree though with the point that HayesS made, that you burn fat the whole time, however, it is the ratio of fat/glycogen that changes. The wall is a real and dramatic change, when the glycogen stores really are much more depleted. You still run on glucose, but only on what you consume, and less goes to your brain, as the body tries to conserve, and you start burning more fat. But it isn’t a switch over, just a gradual change in percentages.

  • Genevieve Pelissie June 30, 2010 at 5:19 am #

    This is really helpful as I’m training for my first marathon. Can anyone tell me a little about heart rate considerations? I try to really push myself, but I wonder if I’m sabotaging instead. For a woman in her early 30’s at 125 pounds, what’s a range of healthy heart rate guidelines? I’m up to about 8 to 9 mile long runs and try to keep my heart rate around 170. Am I pushing too hard? Thanks.

  • Patience June 29, 2010 at 9:31 pm #

    Very interesting, but now I am thoroughly confused.

    I am training for my first marathon and am definitely a back-of-the-packer. I finshed a half marathon this year in 2 hours 15 mins, which makes a reasonable marathon pace about 10:40/mile. If all goes well, I’m anticpating a finish time of 4:40 or there abouts.

    I have 2 twenty-milers on my schedule. Should I revise that??

  • Bobby June 13, 2010 at 10:34 pm #

    By experience as well as observation I’m going to respectfully disagree with the three hour limit for slower runners such as myself.

    If I get a couple of 20 to 22 miles in during my training I at least make it to the finish running (or run/walking consistently).

    But in April I ran the Oklahoma City Marathon and had only done two 16 mile longruns, which takes me three hours.

    During the marathon I felt very good up to the 16 mile mark. From there to mile 18 I felt the run, but not bad. Miles 18-20 I began struggling and at mile 20 my legs refused to run and I walked from there to mile 24. The last 2.20 miles I was able to kind of trot into the finish.

    There is no doubt in my mind that had I gotten a couple of 20 to 22 milers in as I usually do I would not have suffered quite so much. Next month I’m doing the San Francisco Marathon. I will have an 18, 20 and 22 miler completed three weeks prior to my marathon and I’m pretty confident I’ll at least feel better at SF than I did in OKC, even with the hills in SF.

    For faster marathon runners the three hour limit probably does work well, but for those of us in the back of the pack I’m not confident three hours will suffice to complete the marathon. I think it would be taking a chance to not only DNF but possibly need a medical tent before all is said and done.

    Your article was well written and gives a several good pointers.

  • HayesS April 11, 2010 at 9:07 pm #

    @Bill regarding “The purpose of the “long run” in marathon training is to train your body to deal with pushing beyond the point where you run out of glucose and glycogen stored in your muscles, blood and liver, about 1,500 calories worth. That’s about 15 miles. After that you have to switch to burning fat, which is much less efficient and requries more oxygen. That’s the psyiological definition of “hitting the wall.”

    You’re utilizing energy from stored fat the moment you take your first step in the marathon or any aerobic effort. There is no way to train your body to switch to a fat burning state once glycogen stores are depleted. The easier the effort the percentage of calories from fat is increased. The long run (entire training load) prepares the body for the pounding of the marathon.

  • Patrick March 25, 2010 at 6:14 pm #

    Bob –

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply, I just caught it now. I think I wasn’t exactly clear in my example. My issue is with simply targeting miles as a goal, assuming both runners are running at the same intensity level. What I should have said is that for slower runners following a mileage-based plan, a 17 mile run is a very different undertaking than it is for a speedy runner.

    For Wally running 17 miles at, say, his goal marathon pace of 9:53 min/mile pace for a total run time of 2 hrs 48 minutes is a great deal more work as compared to Stan running 17 miles at, his goal pace of 6:35 min/mile pace. When we quantify work as the training stress score of that effort, Wally earns 280 rTSS points to Stan’s 190 points. When they both run for 2.5 hours however, the run training stress scores are almost exactly the same.

    I am not saying that folks like Wally don’t need to train hard or long, but that these longer runs within the context of a regular marathon training plan are (A) not the best use of their time and (B) potentially incredibly harmful. If I can get Wally to “earn” the same training stress as an 18 mile long run (that would take him just under 3 hours at goal marathon pace) in 2.5 hours by running harder, then he will be physiologically ready for that longer run without the associated extra 30 minutes of pounding the pavement.

    This has really forced me to think…stay tuned for a blog post on this soon!

  • Bob Musselman March 25, 2010 at 3:13 pm #

    Patrick, I must disagree with much of what you have written about the strategy surrounding a long run. To start, you said:

    “They are both running the same effort for the same time, it’s just that Stan can rack up 21+ miles while Wally covers 12.5 miles. They are doing the same work…”

    They aren’t doing the same work. Stan burned over 2100 calories and Wallie only 1250. (Depends on their weight, of course.) But within 10% we burn the same calories per mile, regardless of speed.

    The purpose of the “long run” in marathon training is to train your body to deal with pushing beyond the point where you run out of glucose and glycogen stored in your muscles, blood and liver, about 1,500 calories worth. That’s about 15 miles. After that you have to switch to burning fat, which is much less efficient and requries more oxygen. That’s the psyiological definition of “hitting the wall.”

    That’s why, in my view, it is critical for marathoners of all speeds to exceed the “empty tank” point at least several times before a marathon. The physics of running (calories converted to work per mile) and biochemistry (glycogen, then glucose, then fat converted to ATP which moves muscle and burns calories) require that you exceed a distance, not a time, to reach the wall.

    You said “…at 3 hours you will have already run an extra 30 minutes longer than Stan — you are doing much more work.” Patrick, that just scientifically incorrect. Work is a funtion of mileage, not time. I could go into the physics of running… repeated falling forward and using muscle to lift your center of gravity back to its origin to fall again, and how fast and slow runners have to lift their body weight the same total distance (vertically) for an equivalent distance moved (horizontally) but I abstain… Ok, maybe I didn’t abstain.

    I do agree with many of your other points… never exceed your prior long run distance by more than 10% per week, pacing, etc. And I certainly agree that there is no aerobic benefit for runs exceeding 3 hours (or even two). But there is the benefit of teaching your body to burn fat after the sugar is depleted, and that comes after 15 miles or so, depending on the individual, regardless of how long it takes to get there. That’s why marathon training (distinctly different from training for a 10K or a half marathon) starts at 15 miles. All the workup to that 15 mile mark 4 to 8 weeks before the marathon is NOT marathon training… it just prepares your body for marathon training, and the required “marathon long runs” which take you beyond the wall.

  • Patrick March 24, 2010 at 3:36 pm #

    Susan – You are not alone in thinking that logging the miles = proper marathon preparation. Instead of just piling them on, be smart with your intensity. Depending on your goal pace per mile, I would look to run the first 1.5 hours at 15-30″ slower on average than what you hope to hold on race day (for avg overall split), then — get ready — run the next 1.5 hours at 15-30″ FASTER per mile. So if you are a 10:00 miler, this means 9 miles at 10:15-30/mi, then 9+ miles at 9:30-9:45s. That will be killer. Feel free to ask more in the discussions tab on our Facebook page.

  • Susan March 24, 2010 at 11:37 am #

    This is encouraging in that I may be able to complete my 2nd marathon based on this info – I became ill and was not able to run for 3 weeks in the middle of building toward my long run. Still not up to the mileage I “should” be at. So I’ll go with the time (max 3 hours) and hope to put in a good effort that day. My concern was that I would wear myself down and not have enough recovery time prior to the event. I will lower my expectations. Thanks for another perspective – we’ll see how this goes. Winter is TOUGH training time in the Northeast!

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