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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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