Jim2's Running Page

The Longest Long Run

Home
About Me
Favorite Links
Contact Me

7/16/98

There are two distinct camps among runners on the length of the maximum long run during marathon training. There are those who believe that it's best to run 26 miles (and even longer) in training for a marathon.......and then there are the rest of us. I am on the "doubting Thomas" side of the fence. Let me explain why.

I do not subscribe to the generalization "to race the distance......train the distance" for all runners and all distances. For instance, to take it to an extreme, do ultra runners "train the distance" while preparing for a 50 or 100 mile race? How about for a 6-day endurance race? Of course not.

Certainly, most runners should train at the distance they plan to race, and beyond, for 5k's up to half marathon.....even metric marathon. But, I believe there comes a point when following such a regimen isn't constructive.....and is probably counterproductive or can even be destructive. This point might vary from runner to runner, but for most of us, I think it's the marathon distance. I think there is no physical benefit to running the full distance in training for a marathon for most of us. The only reason to do so is mental. And, if you need to "prove" to yourself that you can go the distance, you have no faith in the wisdom of innumerable marathoners who have come before you and you have no faith in the totality of your training program.

Some people say that running 26 miles, as opposed to 20-22, in training will "push the wall back" and make the last 6 miles of a well run marathon easier. It simply ain't so. How the last 6 miles feels is more determined by the totality of your training program, taper, pre-race prep, race plan, race execution and marathon experience. Basically, the more you run them, the more prepared you are and the smarter you learn to run them. But the last 6 miles will always be harder than the first 20, unless you really under run the race.

Some elite runners might do 26 in training. OTOH, you have heard of Alberto Salazar? He's one of the best, if not THE best, marathoners the US has ever produced. I once heard him say in a pre-marathon seminar shortly after his prime years that he NEVER ran longer than 18 miles in training. He relied on his total training regimen, not just the long runs, to prepare him for a marathon race. Granted, he was running mega-total mileage....like up to 180 miles/week. Still, he went on to make a good point. The long runs are certainly a critical element in marathon training, but they aren't the total program. Putting too much dependence on them and energy into them often means that some other part of your training might be suffering from neglect or fatigue.

I do believe in two general rules of thumb concerning training that I think are applicable to this subject. Rule One, a "first-timer" at any distance should have run at least 2/3 the planned race distance in training before attempting the race. Thus, a minimum of 18 miles for a marathon. (Or 2 miles for a 5k, 4 miles for a 10k, 9 miles for a half marathon, etc.) Of course, this is the minimum to complete the race distance....more is better. And, Rule Two, a marathoner's training program should include a minimum of one long run at the TIME planned for the race, but at a pace 1-2 minutes per mile slower than the planned race pace. For most runners, this distance will be 20-23 miles......the long run range that most "experts" consider to be optimum for marathon training. It's long enough to challenge and develop your body and to accustom you to the time you will be on the course in the race. I don't think longer runs are any more beneficial.

I ran my first marathon in 3:47 off of minimal training that included a single 18-mile run. Yeah, the last 6 miles were tough. But, that's because I ran the race hard, not because I was severely under-trained. The last 6 miles have been tough in all of my marathons, although I have run 20- 28 miles in training for all of them...except one that I jogged to help a slower runner finish. Only two of my 12 marathon training programs for 21 completed marathons included a run of 26 miles or longer. My marathons were no better those seasons, but my training was more difficult for a few days after the longest runs. I have found that the number of 20+ mile runs I did in training was much more important than the length of the longest one. The "best" (read strongest, not fastest) marathon I've run was after eleven runs of 20-24 miles in the 18 weeks before the race. However, that was an exception. I don't usually train like that. I usually do 4-6 runs of 20-24 miles in training. One reason the "odd" year didn't result in my fastest marathon is that I sacrificed speedwork (I did none) for mileage to lose weight......an example of how the total program is important for eventual race performance......not just mileage, whether total mileage or the length of the longest run.

Finally, I think it is particularly a mistake for a marathon novice to attempt to run 26 miles in training. Most first timers have a primary goal to simply cover the distance and finish the race. They are developing and building themselves up to handle the distance for the first time. They don't know how they will tolerate the complete distance until they try it. And they face a greater risk of injury in attempting that test in training than does someone who has already been through it. Remember, a 26 mile run at a training LSD pace of 1-2 minutes per mile slower than you plan to run the race will take up to 10% longer....thus, about 4000 more strides.....than the race will take. That's 10% more foot strikes and pounding than you will experience in the race. You might argue that that's good for conditioning.....but the downside is increased injury risk that might keep you from your race. I think that novices should wait until they have more marathon experience to experiment with training runs of 26 miles and stay a little more conservative in training for the first one. If you are going to break down under the distance, let it be in the race, not before you get to the starting line.

Bottom line....I would never recommend that someone training for his/her first marathon should run longer than 20-22 miles. The only exception would be for someone who is following Galloway's run/walk program. However, if you are going to follow Galloway's plan, don't just "cherry pick" the running the distance of 26 miles or longer. Follow all of it. His plan has moderating factors (walk breaks and less intense total weekly mileage) built into it to ease the stress of the extended long runs.

I know there are many experienced marathoners who disagree and think that going 26 miles in training helps significantly to prepare for the race. We can debate the issue forever and we won't all agree. Good! That's what makes the world go 'round! All of us chasing around looking for absolute answers that apply to all runners when there aren't any! And, sharing our thoughts and opinions on the Forums as we do it.

Jim2