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Making the Most of Your Final Long Run: A Marathoner’s Dilemma

18 September

Your Last Long Run

Getting ready to run — or race — a marathon is an undertaking of significant effort. The marathon isn’t transformative for 26.2 miles; it’s the final capstone in a months-long project. It’s the “reward” for doing all the hard work to prepare.

While you might not know how many miles you run a week, or the goal behind Tuesday’s strides session, everyone knows the distances of their long runs. For some runners these runs are rites of passage. For others they are a hint of the true challenge that the marathon will hold.

If your marathon represents a journey into the fitness unknown, then the long run is your opportunity to prepare.

But just running long isn’t enough. Having miles in your legs isn’t the final arbiter of race day success — or performance. Here are some critical points to consider as you prepare for the final push to your marathon.

Run No Longer Than Required To Be Ready

#1 — Identifying Your Long Run Limits

Some folks just run long with their friends. Some just “do what the training plan says.” Veteran runners have learned through trial and error what long run distance is best for them.

Ultimately the goal of the long run, from a distance perspective, is to bring your right up to the edge of your fitness cliff. You can see the abyss (or wall), but you safely retreat to run another day.

Instead of focusing on the actual mileage number, remember that your body only takes in terms of intensity and time.

Intensity: Your long run is meant to be run at a pace that is 15 to 30 seconds slower, per mile, than your target race pace.

Time: Any run over two hours is legitimate; the fatigue from this run doubles at the two-and-a-half hour mark. For most runners, I recommend stopping around the 2.5 hour mark; it’s at this point that the cost of the run begins to exceed the value created. For those of you who run slower than 10 minutes per mile, you can go as long as three hours.

Here are a few more tips:

  • Don’t run longer than three hours in one session.
  • Don’t run more than 30 minutes / 3 miles than you have in this training build up.
  • Consider a loop course that gives you multiple stop options for fueling, bailing, etc.
  • If you are concerned about getting in enough miles but are limited by the three-hour rule above, consider splitting your long run using this guidance.

No Bib, No Starting Line, No Medals…Your Long Run Isn’t A Race!

#2 — A Training Exercise, Not a Race

Some of my worst marathons have come on the heels of my best long runs. Months of training and staying healthy, gone in just under three hours. Don’t make my mistake!!

Turns out I was racing. I had a goal for race day, and I was putting it to the test during my long run (instead of doing a race simulation). As a result, the fatigue I racked up was simply too much for me to recover from in time for race day.

Here are some ways you can avoid ruining your race via your long run:

  • Don’t do the long run with others who will push or test you. Save that for a track or speed session!
  • Be cautious if you are running on the race course itself — the temptation will be high to run as if you are racing!
  • Set a specific pace “cap” — a speed you will not exceed — and follow it closely.
  • Start slowly! Use the first three to six miles as a chance to get warmed up and build into your run.
  • Avoid overly hilly terrain for the entire run. If your race will be hilly, then make the last few miles of the long run reflect the course.

26.2 Miles Requires Just As Much Calories as Courage

#3 — Mastering Your Nutrition

While everyone things about time and pace during the long run, there’s very little return on that on race day. After all, your pace and final time will be dictated by how you perform on race day itself. However, how you run on race day is directly affected by your nutrition.

Your few key long run sessions are an excellent opportunity to test out your pre-race and in-race nutrition. Of course you can’t replicate the nerves you’ll be experiencing, but you can lock in the right things to do.

  • Hydrate the day before as if a race was coming; don’t show up low on fluids!
  • Wake up to eat 2.5 hours prior to your long run, following your nutrition plan.
  • Have your pre-race gel.
  • Use something like a fuelbelt to transport your fluids. If required, plan a loop run or out/back so that you can refuel.
  • Monitor how you felt the whole run when you are done, and make notes soon after finishing so you can improve!

Bonk, Bounce or Break? Can You Handle the Long Run?

#4 — Accelerated Recovery for Continued Training

Even though the long run is an important session, there are quite a few runs remaining in your marathon preparation. Most long runs are done by approximately four weeks out, leaving you between 21 and 28 days to recover and sharpen up for the race.

Assuming you held the proper paces, didn’t race and fueled well, then all that’s left to do now is recover!

Over the short term, you have to act quickly to mitigate the damage of this peak session. Steps include:

  • Protein recovery shake, carbs to protein ration of 4:1.
  • Rehydrate to pre-run levels over the course of the next two to three hours.
  • Elevate your feet, ideally one to two minutes for every mile run. An 18 miler should give you 18 to 36 minutes of elevation (Bonus: you might nap!).
  • Plan on one, perhaps two days off. Use this time to walk to stay loose and do some stretching.

From a long term perspective, a quicker recovery means you can move on to the tapering process. This is where we consolidate your training using a schedule with frequent, short runs at race-pace or faster. I prefer to call this sharpening, not tapering, as many runners consider taper time to be about NOT doing something, whereas you actually do need to be in the driver’s seat.

  • Return to running after two days, but resist the tempation to run fast/hard until your legs have recovered.
  • Plan on two more runs that are semi-long, usually under two hours, where you can finish the last 25% to 30% at goal race pace
  • Implement the nutritional lessons learned from your last long run into your remaining sessions — every run is a chance to practice!


The long run component of your marathon training plan is important for many reasons. Don’t miss out on the chance to make the most of these critical workouts en route to your marathon. Capture all of your learning to improve your actual race as well as your next training cycle (you’ll be back!).

Have any other long run tips? Please leave them in the comments below!

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