The Long Run. Every runner who has trained for a marathon has had that seem feeling of dread when they see numbers like 18 or 20 appear toward the end of the schedule. We will do almost anything to make a long training run tolerable: group run with friends, find a race close to the required distance on the same weekend, darn near anything to avoid having to go run for HOURS by ourselves. When no other out presents itself you may try rationalizing your way out of doing the long run; I’m here to explain why you need to do it if you want race day to go well and not dissolve into the dreaded death march.
There are multiple reasons why you need to do long runs as part of your marathon training which I will break down into 2 areas: physical and mental. The physical part is the most obvious so we tackle that first. On race day most of us will be on the course in excess of 4 hours. That is a lot of pounding on your legs and there is no good substitute. If your legs are not prepared for that kind of beating you will be a sad camper on marathon day. Equally important are the physical changes your body makes during training. When it comes down to it what your training is meant to do is force your body to adapt to running long miles. One of the most important adaptations to occur is you force your body to make more mitochondria, which are like little energy generators. The more of them you have the more energy you will have during your race and those long runs on your schedule are there to help you force your body to make more of them.
These long runs are also your chance to practice in-race fueling and hydration strategies. There are certain adaptations you can force by running in a under-fueled state but you should not do all of your long runs that way, especially if you are new to marathoning. Long runs are when you need to figure out what hydration works best for you, what fuel types work for you (gels, blocks, etc). and practice using them on the go. If you are wondering, at The San Francisco Marathon we are going to have GU Energy Chomps and Nuun electrolyte drink on course. If those are products that work for you, HOORAY! If not you need to think about carrying what you are going to use. “Thinking about” also includes carrying stuff with you on training runs even if you don’t plan on using it. That will allow you to get used to having it with you and let you correct any issues. You don’t want to find out your bag chafes at mile 10 and you have 16 to go.
The final piece to consider is your mental preparations for the race. For many people the challenge of running for 4.5 hours is nothing compared to keeping mental focused for that whole time. Your mind will play games with you, but because you did your long runs you will be able to resist when you start to doubt yourself. The deposits you make into your mental strength fund running 18 miles on a Sunday will pay huge dividends on race day when you want to stop at mile 18. (We all have moments when we want to stop). Knowing that you made it through training, that you have done everything you needed to do to prepare, that is what will get you over the hump and to the finish line.
One last thing before I close. Splitting your long runs doesn’t work. While running the miles in two sessions is better than not doing them at all, the physical and mental adaptations you need to make will not happen if you do a 10 and 6 run instead of 16. Good luck to everyone reading this, I hope you all have a fantastic time at TSFM 2014.