As we talk to beginning runners about marathon training, they always have questions about The Long Run. Although they have signed up to run 26.2 miles on race day, the idea of running 18 or more miles in training can be daunting. Even seasoned veterans adjust the long run to find out what works best for them: What distance is necessary to prepare for the marathon without overtraining? How fast should it be run? Why is it necessary to go that long?
According to John Schueller, Eagan Life Time Run coach and Minnesota Regional Run Coordinator, “The long run is the single most important workout when preparing for the marathon. Running the distance of 20-22 miles in a time that is close to your marathon goal time does two things: 1) keeping the pace one to two minutes per mile slower than your marathon goal pace (MGP) helps condition the body to use fat as the primary fuel source which is essential when running for three to five hours and 2) being on your feet running for three to four hours conditions your mind and body to be ready for the work you will be doing on race day.”We asked our resident experts these questions to help you prepare for the long run (or runs) that you have coming up.
Rebekah Mayer, Life Time Run’s National Training Manager, has a similar philosophy, “The long run prepares the runner to spend a large amount of time on their feet, and strengths muscle, tendons & ligaments so they are ready for the marathon. When done at an appropriate (easy) intensity, the slower pace of the long training runs also trains the ‘fat burning’ aerobic system, so that runners are able to use fat and spare carbohydrates early in the race. Combined with a conservative race plan, this can help runners to push back the point at which they run out of carbohydrate stores during the race, which is known as “hitting the wall”. A good tip for pacing on the long run is that runners should be able to comfortably carry on a conversation.”
Both Mayer and Schueller suggest a single 20 mile long run for beginning marathoners. According to Mayer, “Although 18 miles is long enough run to physically prepare a runner to complete 26.2 on race day, reaching 20 miles in training gives runners additional confidence that they are ready.”
Intermediate marathoners generally do two to three long runs of 20 to 22 miles each. Mayer notes that she prefers that runners keep their longest run under three and a half hours. If a runner needs to be out longer than that to reach their 20 mile goal, it should only be done once per season. Schueller adds that the pace should always be one to two minutes slower than MGP, even for runners who have been through a marathon training cycle in the past.
Advanced marathon runners have the benefit of knowing what has or has not worked for them in the past. Some of these runners may do five or more runs of 20 to 24 miles. But Mayer notes that the risks associated with runs over 24 miles (injury and undue fatigue) may outweigh the benefits of going that long.
Finally, your last long run is your best opportunity to “practice” for the marathon. Try to do the run at the same time of day as your goal race. Test out everything that will affect your marathon experience. Hydrate as you will for your marathon. Eat a pre-race dinner the night before, and a pre-race breakfast the morning of your run. Wear the shoes and clothing that you’re planning to wear on race day (weather permitting). Fuel during your run as you will during the marathon. Discover what works and what might cause problems on race day.