How to Think About the Long Runs – Marathon Training

Well, I am at it again…over-analyzing my running.  This time the focus is the long training runs.  Most training schedules have a long run, usually on Saturday or Sunday.  Most marathon training schedules build up to two 20-milers late in the schedule.

The questions I have had about the long run of the week are these:

1)  How fast?

2)  How far?

They seem relatively simple, but there is a lot going on in there.  The root of my questions comes from my marathon performances.  For me, the weakness in my marathon racing has been the last miles.  In my first, I cramped up at mile 17 and ended up walking the last 7 miles.  In my second, I slowed down at 17 but didn’t cramp up until 22.  I ran the whole way, but I faded from mile 17 gradually until the last mile.  This, of course, was a great improvement over the first marathon.  Still, 9 miles of gradually slowing down was not what I had planned.  In my third marathon, I the fading was at the same point.  This time, thankfully, the fade was much more gradual.  I kept a very good pace until mile 22.  The last 2 miles are kind of foggy.  I don’t remember every detail, but I know I was moving very slowly compared to the rest of the race.

If I am to meet the goal of not fading, then I must change my training.  I must learn how to maintain when I feel weak. I must get used to running that long AND not fading.  My thought was to extend my longest training runs to marathon length or beyond.  If I schedule a couple of 30-milers, then 26.2 will seem like taking a break.  A small percent of marathoners take this approach.  Those that do it, claim that it solved their fading issue.  Problem solved, right?  Wrong!

The vast majority of marathon experts claim that the longest you should need to run on your longest training runs would be 20 miles.  Awesome people that consistently finish under 2:20 do this.  It works for the experts.  Why wouldn’t it work for me.  Easy answer:  I’m not an elite athlete.  I am a relative newbie when it comes to marathoning.  That is why I am still working these issues out.  I can’t compare myself to them.   At the same time, there is something there for me to learn from.  Why does running less than the full 26.2 miles work for them?

The answer to that question came to me via friends on Twitter.  They said that the time you spend on the longest training runs matters more than the distance.  “Hmmm,”  I thought.  “Maybe for you, but…”  Then I remembered what Hal Higdon said about the long runs.  He agreed with them.  Its more about the time than the distance.  It is about getting your body ready to be constantly active for that amount of time.  Okay, there must be something to this idea of a timed long run.

Another issue to throw into this mix before making a final decision is intensity level.  Experts agree that you should never run your longest run at full marathon pace.  It would be like running an all-out marathon, which might prepare you mentally but it wears you out physically.  You might actually run a faster marathon in your training run than in the race.  Not what we have in mind.  So how fast, how intense, should your long run be?  Experts vary on this one, between 30 seconds above marathon pace up to as much as 90 seconds above marathon pace.  That is a wide range!

How do you make sense out of this?  How fast? How far? How much time?  How should I know?

After reading a lot of experts and hearing lots of experiences from my friends on Twitter, here is what I think:

For the Novice:

If it is your first marathon, stick to the training schedule of a full-fledged expert.  Do not stray from the plan.  It should max out at 20 miles for the longest training run.  As for intensity, by that point in the schedule, you should know what your goal marathon pace will be.  Run the long run at least a full minute per mile slower.  Stick with the program.  Learn the lessons of experience within the safety of those expert recommendations.  It will keep you healthier and happier.  The goal of the first marathon should be to finish healthy.

For the more experienced marathoners:

After your second or third marathon, you will begin to understand your body’s personal preferences and limitations.  For some, going beyond 20 more than once or twice a year may be hazardous to your health. If you think you might be in that category, limit your longest training runs to 20 miles. It works for most runners and it works for elite athletes.  If you are making good progress and meeting your goals, there is no reason to try running more than 20 miles in a training run.

For others, however, we need a little more.  Some of us actually enjoy running distances over 20 miles.   Some marathoners feel the need to try runs longer than 20 in order to solve problems and meet their goals.

If you are sure that you are one of those that must train beyond 20 miles, then go ahead and try it out.  Just like your prior long runs there are some important guidelines to follow:

1)  Gradual Increase:  Just as in your previous training, you must continue to increase your mileage slowly.  You must have a strong base to gradually build up to 26 or 30 miles on training runs.  If you aren’t running 15 miles near the beginning of your 18 week training schedule, then you probably cannot safely increase your mileage to 30 by the end.  Plan it out and limit yourself.  Try to remember that it is more about the amount of time you are continuously running rather than the distance.  With that in mind, you find that the longest you need to run is less than you originally thought.

2)  Low Intensity:  Your pace on these marathon distances and beyond, should never be anywhere near marathon pace, EVEN IF YOU FEEL GREAT!  Just don’t do it.  Remember what the experts said, it is more about the time spent.  Hence, it is okay to take your time on these really long runs.

What will I do on my current training schedule?

My short answer:  I will switch to a time goal rather than a distance goal.

My long answer:  I originally planned two 30-milers.  I may or may not stick to that.  What I will focus on is time.  My goal time for the next marathon is 3 hours.  I want to train to avoid the fade, so I plan to run a little longer than that.  I will run for 3.5 hours on my longest training runs.  If it takes me 30 miles to do that, that is what I will run.  It will most likely take less than 30 miles to run for that amount of time.  Whatever that distance I have run after three and a half hours, that is my distance for the day.  I will walk it in from that point.  I will not run another step for any reason.  I may be crazy, but I ain’t no fool.  I want to heal up and run a fast marathon after this run!  The training run should help, not hurt.

As for the intensity of those long runs, I intend to take the first 3 hours very slowly.  My focus is on finishing the last 30 minutes well.  Remember, I am working on the fade.  I will speed up in the last 30 minutes of my 3.5 hour runs.  I will not run fast, just faster than the first three hours.  I want to mentally and physically prepare to run the last part well… not blazing fast…just not slow.  This is how every long run will be for me.  Slow on the front end, and faster in the last 30 minutes.

Be wise.  Be Safe.  Run long.

 

“Train hard, race easy, & enjoy the run!”  — P. Mark Taylor

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  1. You hit all the key points! For first timers, going beyond 20 can hinder them – but if you have done the distance already and want to see your time decrease, running 20+ might be the best option.
    The other technique I’m going to try for next race is: a 20 miler on Saturday and then a 10-12 miler at race pace on Sunday (I am going to build to this distance). What this does is train your legs to run at the pace you want when they are tired.
    Great post – and great blog!!

  2. ok, so I have completed many marathons, and I’m still trying to avoid the fade (slow learner) . I finally made a huge leap this fall, instead of fading at mile 18-20, this time I made it to 23 before I faded. This time, the fade was due to 4 sporadic fast miles, & the weather a little warmer than my personal best weather. I 100% believe had the weather been colder, I wouldn’t have faded at all this time (but I can’t be 100% sure, just my opinion).

    I used the Advanced Marathoning, 55-70 mile plan which has a LOT of 17 milers. During the training, 17 started feeling like 10-12 milers, easy. In addition, I had multiple 70 mile wks, which was new to me. (last fall I went up to 75 miles, but for 1 wk only). The plan also has a weekly med long run 12-15 miles, which I think helped too. I personally added Supreme 90 day, which is similar to P90X. I also dropped some lbs. I also ran a Sept. and Oct. marathon, as a training run (slow). I’m pleased with the progress. While like you, I think many runners, can’t handle the extra volume, I have been fortunate that I can handle the high mileage, and longer than normal training runs. I like the idea of a marathon goal + 30 min training run. I may add that into my mix next time. (I’m an BIG analyzer too, but I love it)

  3. Ginny – Thanks for sharing! Like you, I am planning to drop a few pounds to help out with my next marathon. I hope it makes a difference for me like it did for you. As far as analyzing… I think I love the marathon because it is a really big puzzle to solve.

  4. Great post! This helps tremendously!

  5. Your first marathon sounds exactly like my first!! I had completed 2 20 milers and felt tired but OK after those. Then on my actual marathon it was about 20 degrees warmer than expected and I started cramping at mile 17 and it went downhill from there. Hoping my second marathon will be different. Focusing on hydration and fueling properly during my runs now… think I should have been taking in more calories to help offset the deficit. Will be interested to hear how your plan goes!

  6. My problem is I have run out of time. My first marathon is this coming Sunday (Dec 18) and I only got in a 17 miler. I felt good at that point except, I probably should have refueled more. I’m not worried about time. I’ll be happy just finishing, but am I risking too much to try it without completing a full training plan?

  7. Jim: I would say that you are not taking a huge risk, but you do need to be careful. Keep your expectations low. Be okay with walking some.

    You might actually try breaking it up into two runs: Run the first 17. Then walk, eat, and drink for while. Stop to stretch, and then see what you can do. Do not wait until you are struggling mightily to stop. Take your break while you still feel okay. It will give you a much better shot of finishing well.

    Most important is to not push too hard on the first try. Enjoy the scenery. Smile and thank the volunteers. Stay within what you can do and finish healthy & happy.

  8. after years of counting miles I only run for time now

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