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A Perspective of the Long Run

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The following excellent essay was posted on the RunningAHEAD forums by mikeymike, who is a regular participant there, offering his perspective as part of a discussion on long runs while marathon training. It is archived here with mikeymike’s permission in order to preserve it and make it available to a broader base of readers.


Even though the phenomenon sometimes frustrates me, I totally get the obsession many--especially newer--runners have with the long run for marathon training. I really do.

I mean for most of us, the marathon is the one distance we race where the race itself is longer than any (or at least almost any) training run we ever do. Just the distance itself is scary enough, let alone thinking about racing it. And when you do go out and botch a marathon and the final 25% of it becomes a brutal death march, it's really easy to say that the solution is more long runs--after all it wasn't until after 20 miles that the wheels came off, right?

The thing is no matter what distance you're racing if you totally mess it up, the disaster won't show itself until about he final 25% of the race. I can't tell you how many times I've run 5K's that went 5:20, 5:38, 6:19-doing-the-funky-chicken. But when we do that we don't automatically look at that last mile as the problem the way we do in the marathon. We don't say, "Oh, obviously I need to do more runs that are longer than 2 miles because at 2 miles is where the wheels came off." Because all of our runs are longer than 2 miles, hell they're longer than the race itself. So we look at other things and say, "Well I need to do more speedwork," or "I need to do more tempos," or, "I need to run more hills," or if we're really clever we might even say, "I need to run more," or, "I need to stop overestimating my fitness and going out way too fast!"

Long runs are very important for marathon training. In most training weeks, your longest run is your single most important run of the week. But it's not more important than all the other runs combined. And just because it's an important run doesn't mean it's a good idea to flog yourself for four hours.

I like Nobby's recommendation to focus on time, more than distance. Although I log distance, I plan my training based on time. In marathon training, I try to do at least 2 single runs per week over 90 minutes, with one of them being over 2 hours. I never run longer than 3 hours and very rarely even approach 3 hours. But I do run every day and run relatively high mileage for a regular person. Okay but I'm faster than the average person and that means I can run 20 miles in well under 3 hours so I can't possibly relate to the challenges of slower runners! Yeah, I've heard it before. But I've got plenty of experience working with slower runners, and my experience tells me the same thing Nobby's a thousand times more extensive experience tells him--that although it may be psychologically important for a newer marathoner to go over 20 miles at least once in training, it's probably not a good idea to go longer than 3 hours, regardless of distance, very often.

We call training "training" and not "practice" (well most of us anyway) for a reason. It's because although there is some element of it that is mental and psychological practice for the stress of racing, really what we're trying to do is train our bodies. We're actually trying to make physiological changes to our bodies to make them better able to run fast and long--we're increasing our abilities to process and use oxygen, building capillaries, increasing blood volume, increasing aerobic enzyme activity, strengthening our hearts, our lungs, our muscles, our connective tissues. We're building neuromuscular coordination and becoming more efficient, quicker, smoother, lighter on our feet. We're developing more powerful, more efficient strides, we're...training. We are indeed also practicing--developing a raw toughness, an edge, a killer instinct, a detached ambivalence to our own suffering in favor of a laserbeam focus on The Task At Hand, an understanding of what we can and can't do, and a belief that we can do just a tiny bit more than what we've done so far. But all that mental practice doesn't mean a thing without the training, and really you couldn't have one without the other so the question is moot.

Now these changes both physical and psychological can only happen a little at a time. That is, no matter how big of a workout or a run you do, you can only make so much progress from one effort. At some point, you've gotten all the training stimulus there is to get from a single run or a workout and you're just bludgeoning yourself needlessly, prolonging your recovery and compromising the next few/several days of training. The exact point is probably a bit different for everyone and the intensity certainly matters but for your run of the mill long run, 3 hours is probably a good rule of thumb.

So it's really the sum total of all the little efforts that do much, much more of the work than a few Big Efforts, but the Big Efforts can put the finishing touches on a training cycle. That's why weekly, monthly, yearly, lifetime mileage is always much, much more important than the long run, but the long run is still important.

Nothing magical happens at 20 miles. You don't suddenly switch to burning fat over carbs or any other such physiobabble. You're always burning both, and the mix depends on effort/pace, not distance. Run a lot of weekly miles at low intensities and you'll become damned efficient and using fat as a fuel source to spare your glycogen. "The Wall" is purely a function of outrunning your fitness level. If you run the first 15 miles too fast, you'll hit the wall no matter how many long runs you've done over 20 miles. And if you go out slow enough you'll never hit it even if your longest run ever was 10 miles.

I guess what gets me riled up and why I've felt the need to write this novel is when you've consistently got the most experienced, most accomplished runners and coaches on this board saying that 20 milers are not the be-all-end-all and still there is vehement argument from people who've never run a marathon or have run one or two off of low mileage and long runs talking about the NEED for 20+ milers, as if there's no other option (I'm not specifically talking about this thread here, BTW). You'd think experience would count here. Nobby is, literally, a world renowned coach. Obsessor has run 2:30. Tanya is 47 and ran sub 3:40 this year at Boston. Jeff won his first marathon and has run 2:38. I'm nobody's idea of elite but I've shown an ability to improve through training--I ran my first marathon in 3:40, took a full 30 minutes off between my first and my 2nd, and have taken another 15 minutes out of my marathon PR since then, with hopes of more time coming off soon. When you consider the collective experience--the many tens of thousands of miles, the many hundreds of races, the many dozens of marathons--on the side of "Don't overdo the long runs," you'd think there might be something to it. Just sayin'.