There are many options for the marathon long run. Picking the right one for YOU is what matters.
Jeannette Payne, a 44-year old runner from Indiana, is riding a marathon high right now. After six attempts, she finally got her coveted Boston qualifier (BQ) time. Not only that, she did it with a 15-minute cushion and nailed a 29-minute PR to boot.
Payne couldn’t be happier with her results and if you ask her what allowed her to break through at her fall marathon, she won’t hesitate: a different approach to her long run. “Before this race, my fastest marathon had been my first,” she says. “In between, I wasn’t training in a way that worked for me.”
What was different about her long runs this go around? Her coach, Caolan MacMahon, an RRCA-certified coach out of Boulder, made them shorter. “When I first started training with her, I didn’t believe in the shorter long runs and added miles on,” says Payne. “But this time, I was diligent about following her plan and it paid off.”
Payne’s long run evolution speaks a big truth, one that all runners should heed ~ Long runs come in many shapes and sizes.
For instance, some coaches have the philosophy that your marathon long run should never exceed the time you will be on your feet on race day. Others put emphasis on the confidence gains that come from tackling a 20-miler, even if it requires four or five hours to accomplish.
What’s important is that, along with your coach, you figure out which of those long run options is best for your situation.
Pick an option
Randy Accetta, the RRCA’s director of coaching, says that the organization doesn’t have an official stance on the long run, and for good reason. “What works for one might not work for another,” he says. “My mom, for instance, is a slower runner/walker. Her five-hour effort is probably easier on her body than my two-and-a-half-hour fast effort.”
Accetta cites the fact that his mother takes walk breaks and ingests plenty of nutrition while out there for that many hours. Contrast that to Accetta’s hard-pounding, speedy pace. “Her run is not a hard-core race effort and she’s walking, talking, taking it easy,” he says. “In my opinion, that’s not too much for her body to recover from.”
The coach emphasizes the importance of adequate recovery efforts in these longer runs, however. “Runners who are out there for this long should make sure they take in adequate amounts of proteins and fats within a short window of time following the run,” he says. “In any long run, you are putting a strain on your energy systems and your muscles, so it’s very important to be mindful of recovery.”
Still, in some cases, Accetta might recommend that slower runners split their long run into two over a 24-hour period. “If it takes you five hours to run a 20, you could run three hours one day, and another two the next,” he explains.
This split run approach is similar to how MacMahon trains her athletes, although she keeps those runs on the shorter side. “My philosophy is that physiologically, you don’t need to be out there for much longer than three hours,” she explains. “So for most of my athletes, I have them stop at three hours, but sometimes let them go to three and a half if they need it mentally.”
Instead of being on their feet for hours on end, MacMahon prefers to have her runners do back-to-back “longish” runs. “For many runners, if they can tolerate it, I will have them do 10 on a Friday and then 16 on a Saturday, for instance,” she says. “You’re doing that second run on tired legs and the benefit will be similar to a 20 miler, but you won’t be doing the damage of a long time on your feet.”
MacMahon says that she typically has her runners work on four-week cycles of these combinations. “For three weeks in a row, they will do a lot of these 16- and 17-milers combined with the eight- to -12-miler the day before,” she says. “Then they get an easier recovery week.”
This was much the approach Payne used and in spite of a little initial uncertainty about the approach, she found it made all the difference. “I had to reset my mentality and eventually, I began to welcome the approach,” she says.
In addition to being of shorter duration, MacMahon says that she adds quality pacing to these marathon building blocks. “There are quite a few marathon pace miles in these runs,” she explains. “If you can run 14 miles at marathon pace within a 16-miler, you’re going to be able to hit your goal on race day.”
Another important element to MacMahon’s training philosophy is weekly mileage. “I want to make sure my runners aren’t weekend warriors,” she says. “The consistency of your weekly mileage is more important than a big, long run.”
Healthy running is what matters
No matter how you are going about your long run approach, the goal is to stay injury free. Gene Shirokobrod, a Maryland-based doctor of physical therapy, says that runners should always aim to run within their current cardiovascular and physiological limits.
“You will have a law of diminishing returns at some point,” says Shirokobrod. “Once you cross that point, you increase your risk of harm.”
Take your knee, for instance. “While running, you have synovial fluid to protect your joint,” says Shirokobrod. “At some point, that fluid starts to diminish and you go backwards. Or if, when you are tired late in your big miles, your form will break down and you’ll start and your bones will be absorbing higher forces.”
Payne says that when she was pushing the long mileage runs before this training block, she was caught in a perpetual cycle of injury. “This prevented me from the consistency I needed to make progress,” she says. “Now I am running injury free and faster.”
Accetta says that, while no approach is foolproof against injury, consulting with your coach to develop the right plan is the best defense. “Ideally, your coach will modify your program as needed to accomplish your goal without injury,” he says. “It’s important to remember that 20 miles for a long marathon run is just a nice, round number. There are plenty of other ways to go about it.”
For her part, Payne is now a believer in alternative approaches. “For me, the recovery after this marathon is another sign that I was well prepared without being over trained,” she says. “I was sore, but not like I used to be after marathons. I’m the poster child for this approach.”