The Long Run

by Ben Connelly

The long run holds a special place in marathon lore. Runners who run no other workouts in their entire training (which I do not recommend), will run long runs. 

This workout serves a variety of purposes: 

  • It prepares the legs and feet to handle long hours of continuous running
  • It allows runners to practice eating and drinking while running
  • It boosts endurance
  • It conditions runners psychologically for racing
  • It can help runners avoid hitting the wall during the race (and it sometimes helps runners practice hitting the wall in training)
  • It is a good opportunity to test out marathon racing shoes

For marathoners, the long run is (sometimes) the most important workout of any given week. Many runners only run long, slow long runs. But I recommend trying some interesting long run variations, each of which has its own benefits:

  • Extended long run: the most common type – typically 18-22 (or 24) miles
  • Fast finish long run: a normal long run until the last few miles – over the course of the final miles you keep speeding up until you meet or exceed your marathon race pace (some runners will finish at tempo pace)
  • M pace long runs: these runs are shorter than extended long runs, with a majority of the miles run at marathon goal race place – I plan to devote next week’s post to these workouts
  • Time trials: usually a shorter race (or another marathon) – an opportunity to gauge training progress
  • Uphill/Downhill long runs: these runs include extended uphill and downhill sections, designed to prepare the body for muscle damage from long periods of running downhill

Runners do not necessarily need to try every long run variation in that list. And you can easily combine multiple variations, or make your own. Even if you do not try any, I have a few helpful guidelines for long runs:

  • Only run an extended long run every other week. 20-mile runs put a lot of damage on the legs. Running them more frequently can cause overtraining. (Run your last 20-mile at least 4 weeks out from your race.)
  • Practice eating and drinking, including beforehand. Long runs are a good opportunity to practice your prerace routine.
  • Run at least 18 miles in training. The second half of the marathon starts at 20 miles. I do not recommend attempting a marathon having never run more than 16 miles in training.
  • Runners with a marathon goal time of 5–8-hours can (and should) break that last rule. Instead, keep your long run to 2.5-3 hours. 
  • The long run should typically take up 20-30% of weekly mileage. Marathoners can push this a little higher. But a 20-mile run in a 40-mile week is not a good idea.
  • Recover well afterwards. Take it easy the next day. 
  • Run the long run at whatever pace you need to run at to complete it. I do not recommend pushing the pace to make it overly fast, unless that is the purpose of the workout. At the same time, I do not recommend what are called Long Slow Distance Runs. You do not need to run 3 minutes per mile slower than your race pace. Just run at an easy, comfortable, conversational pace. Preferably faster than your recovery jog. 

Finally, do not worry if you break one or two of these rules, or if you do not try the long run variations. Do not worry if your long runs do not go well. Mistakes happen during training. Rather than let the perfect be the enemy of the good, just try to train as well as you can. Sometimes, you just need to punch the clock on your long run and get the miles in, no matter what it takes. On those days, you can forget about quality or speed and just focus on completion. 

Try to enjoy the long runs. The ability to run for long periods of time is a gift. 

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