Monday, September 20, 2010

The Long Run

For the last few years, I've been under the impression that a 20+ mile long run was the key workout for marathon training. Indeed, I thought the 20+ mile long run to a marathoner was like Sunday church to a southern baptist; we'd rot in hell before missing it. But reading the Running Times article on the Hansons' marathon training turned me into a a long run atheist.

The article (and many threads on convinced me that the long run is not the key workout. It's important, but not as important as the MP runs and the speed/strength intervals (intensity!) and far less important than total weekly mileage (volume!).

I've heard a couple of reasons to do 20 or 22 mile long runs:
1) 20 miles is where you hit the wall so running 20+ miles trains your body to not bonk or hit the wall (or variants of this). Indeed, 20 miles is about the distance that our muscles run out of glycogen but we avoid this in a race by taking gels during the race, not by running 20+ miles during training.
2) 20+ mile runs get us mentally prepared for the distance and allows our legs to adapt. But we're not doing the 20+ mile runs at race pace during training so how does a long, slow 20+ miler prepare us for anything other than long, slow runs? From all I've read and heard, it's the last 6 miles that make the race, not the first 20. Adding 10 miles of MP to our long run is a good training strategy but how close does these come to preparing us mentally and physically for racing those last 6 miles (and what is the toll on our bodies during the next week)?

I suppose if one's goal were to simply finish a marathon, a 20+ mile run may be useful mental preparation, but that's not my goal. Rather, it's to run it as fast as I can. And to run it as fast as I can, I need to have my legs prepared for the other weekly workouts. And if I'm tired and sore from a 22 mile long run, I cannot do these workouts as they should be done.

20+ mile runs do have their place on a marathon training schedule...if you run 80+ miles per week. A good rule of thumb is that the long run should be about 20% of your weekly training volume. Or 25% maximum. For our sub 2:30 marathoners running 120 miles a week, a 22 mile long run is nothing; these guys are running 20 miles most days of the week (but in doubles). As a percentage of weekly volume, it's equivalent to a 7.5 mile run for someone running 40 miles per week. But a 20 mile run for someone running 40 miles per week seems crazy. If you throw in a proper interval day and a MP day, you've pretty much exhausted your mileage total and you'd have to rest the other days. I don't think 3-4 days of running is going to get you your fastest marathon.

Many coaches combine a 6-10 mile MP run with the long run. I've followed the Hanson's schedule and separated these. I don't disagree with the combination, I've just not done it. So my long runs have all been easy pace and generally <=16 miles. I did one 18 miler just because. My weekly mileage is about 15% more than the Hanson's advanced schedule but those miles have been added to the other weekly runs and not the long run. Most of my long runs have been on trails. This has kept me out of traffic (like) and added much more hill work, which is good for maintaining strength. Plus its much easier to keep it at an easy pace on trails than on the road. I've run only two long runs on the road. Two of my long runs have been mountain runs (Mahoosuc and Pemi loops). Both of these runs included significant walking sections and both short (Mahoosuc) and long (Pemi) rest breaks. But both were significantly harder than a 16 miler on the road.

There are many, many reasons that I might limp in 5-30 minutes slower than my goal time, but not running a 20+ miler is not one of them.

P.S. a good question is why not do a 20+ mile long run if it is >> 20% of weekly volume. My decisions rested on two reasons:
1) recovery time. 20+ mile runs, especially if they are on the road and at a decent pace, are hard and recovery can be long. I didn't want my long runs to compromise my midweek workouts (intervals and MP runs)
2) risk of injury. Given my increased weekly mileage, which by itself increases my risk of injury, I didn't want to further increase this risk by running 20+ mile long runs.

We all vary in our ability to recover and resist injury. If you recover quickly from a 20+ mile run (or you don't care about midweek workouts) and if 20+ mile runs don't seem to increase your rate of injury, then a 20+ mile long run is a great tool to have in your running toolkit, regardless of your weekly mileage.


  1. I think too many people get hung up on the mileage of long runs. My theory (which I have little to no data to support it)is the long run is just used to get my body used to running 3hrs. Period. I go fairly slow and easy. It is mentally challenging to run for 3hrs (long run or race). In fact, I rarely run that long. My 'long runs' are closer to 2 1/2 hrs (18-20 miles for those of you hung up on mileage). I do believe in the 'time on your feet' theory. My personal data seems to indicate I ran better marathons when I ran longer more often. Of course it's entirely possible that I ran longer more often because I was just in better shape :-)

    Heck, don't even listen to me...I don't follow any training program. I enjoy running. I rarely 'train' specifically for anything. Good luck with your marathon.

  2. Steve - this is the first time in my life that I've trained "for" a race rather than to just get faster. I'm glad I'm not doing this for a living! I'd rather just run baby. Your not following a schedule doesn't seem to have slowed (slown?) you at all. Hope the RtB was fun. Maybe we'll try to get a road monster team together next year.

  3. This post sounds like Jeff is tapering so his mind is racing and he's fretting about the marathon, so he's attempting to rationalize his training thus far to make himself feel better going into his race.

    You're going to rock it, so don't sweat it.

    That being said, very interesting post. If I ever train for a road marathon (again), I'm definitely going to follow this outline.

  4. Nooooo! - I threw my dog in this fight long ago, which is why Jamie teased me on FB about my 18 mile run. I've simply wanted to write a few posts about my training philosophy (this and the MP post from last week). If I were to change anything in my next (?) marathon cycle, it would probably be combining MP and long runs 2-3 times. Yeh, lots of experimenting....

  5. Lot of logic on either side of the argument for 20 milers for marathon-specific training. Personally, I think the real truth lies in the shades of gray as determined by an individual's mental and physical state.

    Even at a slower than MP pace the point is aerobic training, helping the muscles develop the slow twitch fibers and further a network of capillaries in the muscle tissue. This especially comes into play when you do a long run after a week of tough training and the legs are tired... the speed work done days earlier.

    That being said, I agree in there is great value at doing a good chunk of the long run at MP.. but not necessarily every run.

    Bottom line though, experiment of one. I don't have a doubt in my mind you're going to rock it in two weeks and nail your goal, so that's all that matters. Best of luck in the taper!

  6. I've run marathons with long runs of 50k and with long runs of only 14 miles. Personally, I prefer the longer than marathon runs in preparation, but that's probably because I enjoy running for hours on end.

  7. I don't have too much experience on this subject, but I'd agree with Steve that, for me, it's about time on the feet and getting used to being out there for a long while. I mean, I'm not shooting for under 3 hours like you :-)

    I've never been able to do super high mileage, and at this point just don't have the time, or the energy, what with Sam, etc, to run a lot of miles per week, so I feel like the long run is extra important, as the rest of my runs tend to be short and sweet. But, that said, I can't seem to make myself run really slowly on any of my runs, so I guess I've been incorporating your MP idea without even realizing it :-)

  8. I know you've been on this train for a while, but it's most enjoyable to mess with you.

    I think I said this somewhere before (I probably did because it's extremely intelligent and insightful), but another value of the MP run is learning your MP. Thinking about my race on Sunday, I knew I was pacing properly because it just felt right. I do most of my long runs at that pace, so I knew right where I was—slow. :) That knowledge is especially valuable in a race situation, so you don't get pull along too quickly.