In The Long Run

The long run is the staple of every distance runner’s diet. If you’re training for a marathon, it’s de rigeur. Novice runners use them as springboards to the finish line, and elite marathon runners do multiple long runs to improve their times. Even if you’re only interested in fitness, a longer-than-usual weekend run is the perfect fat-burner, and is often more a social gathering than a training session.

But what is the specific purpose of a long run? Is there a perfect long-run distance? And how frequently should you do them, and at what pace?

We posed a number of these questions to a group of coaches and athletes who work or train with thousands of runners. Although the application of long-run theory differs between experts, the one thing they all agree upon is the critical role such runs play in any schedule. Shun them at your own peril.

So, here are the answers to some of the crucial long-run questions.

1. What is the main purpose of the long run?

A long run is a dress rehearsal for your race. Think of it as a test. It gets you used to the stress of lugging your feet up and down nearly 5000 times in a marathon and gives you the chance to practice skills you will need in a marathon, such as drinking while moving and eating energy foods. Long runs build confidence in your ability simply to run for a long time. Equally important, you learn patience.

“Many runners push too hard on daily runs,” says Bob Glover, author of the Runner’s Handbook. “The long run forces them to slow down and pace themselves wisely – just as they have to do in any long-distance race.”

In addition to psychological reasons, there are strong physiological reasons to run long. Exercise physiologist Robert Vaughan offers the scientific rationale:

“The long run serves to increase the number of mitochondria and capillaries in the active muscles, thereby improving those muscles’ ability to remove and utilise available oxygen. In addition, the long run recruits muscle fibres that would otherwise go unused. This recruitment ensures a greater pool of conditioned fibres that may be called upon during the latter stages of a long race. There are certain psychological barriers and adjustments to the central- nervous-system fatigue that are also affected by the long run.”

Translation: the most important reason for long runs is to condition the muscles to delay the onset of fatigue.

2. What is the best long-run training distance for marathoners?

In short, there is no perfect distance. We have seen marathon-training schedules which never take you further than 13 miles and ones that suggest you run the complete distance or further in training.

In our marathon training schedules the longest distance we ever suggest is 22 miles for the sub-3:00 group, other groups don’t go quite as far because they’re running more slowly and consequently will be on their feet longer.

What you find is that many marathon schedules don’t go further than 20 miles, although that’s probably more because 20 is a nice, round number than anything more concrete. In countries that use the metric system, 30K (18.6 miles) is equally round and frequently used.

Most coaches feel that once you reach 16 miles, you’re in long-run territory. That’s the point where the psychological and physiological changes start to take place. Some coaches prefer to keep track of the long run by time rather than distance, which is the approach we generally recommend for the slower groups in our marathon schedules.

Your time goal for your longest run should approximate the total length of time you expect to run in the marathon itself, without worrying about the distance or the speed. For example, if your marathon time goal is three hours, you should probably do at least one long run of close to three hours. The exception: If you’re a first timer with a goal of four hours or slower, you shouldn’t do a long run of that length. It’s too risky. Instead, do one long run of at least three hours, but no more than 3:30.

3. How fast should you run during long runs?

Speed is of limited importance during long runs. As we have already mentioned, they’re more about time spent on your feet.

First-timers, following most training schedules, will often run them at a pace close to the one they will run in the race. That’s because they are encouraged to select a conservative time goal to guarantee that they finish. If you can’t hold a conversation during the closing miles of your long run, the pace was probably too fast.

Experienced marathoners who do long runs at race pace risk both injuries and over-training.

While the law of specificity suggests that you need to do some running at race pace to condition your muscles to that specific pace, you should do this only for selected stretches of your long run, or, better still, during midweek speed sessions or steady runs.

Generally it’s better to err on the slow side. Not every long run needs to be done at the same pace, nor does the pace within each run need to stay the same.

We would suggest that you try to aim to run a negative split in your long run – that is, run the second half marginally faster than the first. This is also the strategy you should aim for in the marathon, and it is the way our Team in Training pacers will be approaching the Flora London Marathon.

The rationale in training is that, by following this plan in your long runs, you establish the discipline of going out slowly, rather than allowing the excitement of the marathon to push you on at a pace that you’ll pay for later.

If you’re looking for a specific pace for your long runs, aim for 30-90 seconds slower per mile than the pace you expect to run in the marathon. Don’t worry if you’re even slower; it isn’t a problem.

4. How many long runs should you do?

Again this is a point of dispute. Former RW Coaching Editor Bruce Tulloh always held the view that you’d hit your marathon target if your five longest runs added up to a total of 100 miles. If you’re a first-time marathon runner, however, you should probably only do one run that’s as long as 20 miles.

Nearly every training programme gradually builds runners up to that distance, rests them for two to four weeks, and then directs them to the race. And it works.

Most runners who faithfully follow our marathon training programmes will jump from a 20-mile training run to the 26.2-mile marathon distance with ease. The excitement of the marathon, coupled with several weeks of rest before the big event, helps them bridge the gap. First-timers are often surprised to discover that running the marathon is actually easier than training for it.

However, finishing that first marathon and racing marathons are two different beasts. To improve your time, you need to do more long runs. Experienced runners – the ones Tulloh was thinking about – don’t need to run 23-milers every weekend, but they probably do need to do between three and six long runs of 18-23 miles in their marathon preparation.

As with novice marathoners, the reason is psychological as much as it is physical. “The more peak distance runs marathoners do in their training, the more confidence they have,” says Bob Williams, who prepares runners for the Portland Marathon in the US. The danger of running too long, too often is a heightened risk of injury and boredom.

5. How much recovery do you need after long runs?

Robert Vaughan summarises the general consensus: “An experienced marathoner with years of training may recover in 48-72 hours after a long run, while a novice may require two weeks.”

Most runners will benefit from a day’s full rest after doing their weekend long run. Thus the typical pattern, which underpins the RUNNER’S WORLD marathon schedules:

Sunday: Long run
Monday: Rest or easy run
Tuesday: Hard run
Wednesday: Easy run
Thursday: Moderately hard run
Friday: Moderate run
Saturday: Rest or easy run

Some marathon-training programmes even allow two weeks between peak long runs. Usually, medium to long runs (10-14 miles) are scheduled on the weekends in between.

Nearly as important as rest after the long run, is rest before. If you plan a day or two of easy running and/or rest before your long run, you’re less likely to be overly fatigued during the long run itself, and the recovery will be easier. Treat a weekend long run almost like a race. Taper for it, and rest or jog easily both before and after. Also, carbo-load before and after.

6. Are there any tricks to recovery?

No tricks, just sound training and nutritional advice. Our experts cited the importance of hydration and carbohydrate supplementation during long runs. For example, many recommend using energy gels and energy bars during the long run.

“Consuming gels and bars during the long runs speeds recovery,” says former RUNNER’S WORLD US Editor, Joe Henderson, who wrote the ground-breaking book The Long Run Solution more than 20 years ago. “You need to keep your glycogen stores continuously high if you want to maintain training effectiveness.”

Bob Williams says dehydration is one of the major sources of long-run fatigue. “Drinking during training is as important as drinking during races,” he says.

Massages are also valuable to speed recovery after a long run because they ease muscle soreness. Weekly massages during the final six weeks leading up to your peak long run (and eventual marathon) may also help reduce the risk of injury

7. Is it beneficial for non-marathoners to do long runs?

Absolutely. “Endurance is a factor at all road-racing distances,” says Henderson. “Even 5K and 10K runners can benefit from one- to two-hour runs, but anything much longer might drain energy away from their specific training.”

Doing long runs regularly is also an effective way to maintain weight, or shed a few pounds. There’s also the inherent camaraderie that comes with a weekly long run in the company of friends, many of whom you might not see during the week. Some runners find this social aspect of long runs enough to keep them entering marathons on a regular basis. But, however you choose to use it, the long run is an invaluable part of any runner’s regular training diet.

Long Run Rules

Here are five key principles to guide you through your long runs:

  • Distance: Most coaches advise long runs of 16-23 miles, depending on your experience. Slower runners should concentrate more on time than distance, and do runs of three to three-and-a-half hours.
  • Frequency: Most coaches suggest three to six long runs of 16 miles or more in the three months leading up to the marathon.
  • Pace: Run at a comfortable, conversational pace. This may be marathon goal pace for slower runners, or 30 to 90 seconds slower per mile than goal pace for sub-3 hour marathoners. Take short walking breaks if they help you cover the distance or if you’re planning to take walking breaks during the marathon.
  • Recovery I: You can improve your long-run recovery by making sure you are adequately hydrated during your long run. And immediately after the run, be sure to drink plenty and replenish lost muscle glycogen stores with carbohydrates.
  • Recovery II: Always have an easy day or a rest day after your long-run days.

Long Run Logistics

Plan ahead to get the most out of those long runs:

  • Plan your long run like you would a race. That is, taper your running a day or two before the long run, or don’t run at all. Try to get off your feet and rest. Hydrate well, and carbo-load at lunch and dinner the day before.
  • Plan to run in the early morning, which is the time you’re likely to be racing. Psychologically it’s better not to have it hanging over you on the day you’re planning to do it.
  • Plan your route carefully. If you’re doing a 20-mile run, try to drive the course so you can familiarise yourself with it and measure it. You want to know in advance that it’s approximately 20 miles and that you won’t get lost once you’re on the way. Try to find lightly travelled roads so traffic isn’t a hindrance. Your route shouldn’t be exceptionally hilly (unless you’re running a hilly marathon) or windy.
  • Plan your hydration and food stops carefully. You’re going to need to drink and possibly eat something. Either carry sports drinks, water bottles and energy foods with you or plan a lap course and have a friend assist you along the way. Toilets along the route are also a good idea, although they can’t be relied upon for reliable drinking water. Also make certain you have immediate access to plenty of cold water and sports drinks right after the run.
  • Plan to dress according to the conditions. If it’s sunny, you may need to wear sunglasses and sunscreen. If it’s wet and windy (more likely at this time of year), use leggings, a rain jacket, a breathable hat and light gloves. New runners tend to over-dress rather than under-dress. But remember that you warm up quite quickly when you’re running, so it’s better to start off feeling cool rather than warm. It’s a real pain to carry clothes you wish you weren’t wearing. Also, try to do at least one long run in your intended marathon kit
  • Plan to run with friends or a training group. This will make the long run easier and more enjoyable.