The 20 mile long run

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

Can you run a marathon PR without running a single 20 mile long run? Ask Allan. This spring, he twice ran under 4 hours after entering this year with a PR over 5 hours.

I’ve been asked a few times recently about long runs in marathon training. It seems people are beginning to question the need for the 20 mile long run. As anyone who knows me well, I’m celebrating these questions!

First, more about Allan and the story of his astonishing 66 minute PR, followed 62 days later by another 6 minute PR. Allan began running in 2011, completed a half marathon on a typical 12 week plan, then stopped running and fell into some bad health habits. In the spring of 2012, he began running again. After building up for a while, he again followed a standard marathon plan that included two 20 mile long runs. In October, he had some knee problems starting shortly after halfway and ended up walking a lot on his way to a 5:05 marathon.

In early December, we began working together. One of the first questions he asked me was about the long run. Having read up on the Hansons training philosophy, he was interested in how I felt about the need for the 20 mile long run. What a match! I don’t think he knew when he asked the question that I’ve long argued that 20 miles is not necessary. At that point, we planned to cap his long runs at 18 miles.

With his long runs capped, Allan was able to do more workouts and was able to get more intra-week consistency in his training. Previously, the long run was such a big part of his week that the rest of the week was largely about recovering from the prior long run and preparing for the next. By reducing his maximum long run distance by as little as 10%, we were able to put more focus into getting some real training done between the long runs.

I’m not going to claim the lack of the 20 mile long run was the only factor in these great improvements he achieved. There were many factors that led to a 72 minute improvement in 6 months. However, it should be obvious that he didn’t suffer by dropping the 20 mile long run.

That’s just the point. The 20 mile long run, while considered necessary by many, is too long for some runners. When the long run throws your whole week out of balance, it’s not doing you any good. By reducing the distance of the long run, even just a little, you can get more out of the rest of your week. Balance in training matters. If you can drop your long run by 2 miles but get an extra 10 miles a week and add a speed workout into the mix, you’re going to come out ahead, even in a long race like the marathon.

Now, the shorter long run isn’t for everyone. When I was running my best, my long runs were up to 30 miles but my weekly mileage was up to 150-160 miles at times and regularly topping 140. Another runner I’m coaching needs her long runs. If we don’t get enough 20 milers in, her marathon performances suffer. We found that through experience and adjusted accordingly.

So how do you know if you need 20 miles? First, consider your training balance. Is the long run about the only thing you can focus on or is it just another day in your overall training week? If it’s just another day, you’re probably fine where you are. If it’s the only thing you can focus on, you might be doing too much and a decrease in your long run distance may be warranted. Once you make this decision, try it and see how it works. Be sure to take advantage of the benefits of the shorter long run, though. Cutting the long run distance isn’t going to help without other changes. Get in some meaningful workouts with the extra energy you have, log a few more miles over the rest of the week, make the long runs mean more by adding some faster miles late in the runs. Figure out what your training is most lacking and make sure you are adding some of that in.

In the end, we are all different. Some people do in fact need long runs of 20 miles or even longer. The key I want you to take away from this is that not everyone does. Consider the possibility that you might only need 18 or even 16 miles. Weigh whether this shorter long run would allow you more balanced training that would not leave holes in your fitness on race day. Then don’t be afraid to go against convention. You might find out that a shorter long run allows you more well rounded training and will be one step toward a PR.

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