Hitting the wall. It may be the most well known phrase in all of distance running. One minute you’re running along breathing effortlessly, your legs feeling rhythmic and light, feet popping off the pavement with every stride. The next minute your breathing becomes labored, your legs feel heavy as lead, and fatigue courses through your body from head to toe begging you to slow down. There are many factors that can lead runners to hitting some version of “the wall” in a marathon, but there are just as many things you can do to break right through it. When implemented properly the long run may be the most effective weapon that can power you to a strong finish at the end of a marathon.
One of the most difficult things to determine when planning your training is how to schedule the long runs. When starting any training plan you should structure your training in 3-week blocks where you have 2 “up” weeks where you run more and 1 “down” week where you run 10-15% less in order to allow for the recovery that will allow you to absorb and adapt to the training. The same model applies to marathon training, and the long run schedule reflects that with longer runs on the “up” weeks and a shorter long run on the “down” weeks. However, in order to make sure you recover well week to week stagger the long runs so that on the down week the long run is 10-15 miles; on the first of the two up weeks it is 15-19 miles; and on the final week of the three week cycle the long run is 18-22 miles. These are wide ranges that are dependent on your individual goals and training background, but you should aim to get in 3-5 runs that are 18 miles or more.
As you plan your long runs and the routes, keep the racecourse in mind. If you are running a hilly marathon do at least 3-4 of your longer runs on a hilly course similar to the racecourse. If the course is flat, be prepared for that too. Believe it or not, 26.2 miles on flat ground will cause problems if you aren’t used to it during your long runs. Likewise, most marathons are run on pavement and while I’m a huge proponent of running on soft surfaces you do need to callous your legs to the pounding you’ll experience on race day. Not every run needs to be on pavement, but the majority of your longer runs should predominately be on the surface you’ll be racing on, whether that is pavement or not.
There are several things you can do in the execution of long runs to be in the best possible position on race day. The first is very simply starting them slowly. Most people start their long runs too fast and it leads to over exertion, struggling at the end, and even having to cut them short. It’s easy to get geared up for the big long run and get in over your head early, but starting too fast can crush you confidence and spiral you into a fatigue cycle that is difficult to recover from. Additionally, going out too fast on race day is the single worst mistake you can make in a marathon and those habits are tough to break if you develop them every week in training. Start the first few miles of your long runs 90-120 seconds/mile slower than your race pace and focus on easing into the run so you finish quicker than the start.
Long Run with Pickups
There are two different styles of long runs we incorporate at ZAP in our marathon training. The first, and most common, is a long run finishing with pickups. This is a training concept admittedly stolen from Bill Squires, the most successful marathon coach in American history. As an example, over the final hour of a long run you would throw in a 1 or 2-minute pickup every 5-6 minutes. The pace of the pickups isn’t critical, but you should be able to resume your normal long run pace immediately after the pickup. If you have to slow down to recover you’re doing them too fast. I suggest starting them at marathon effort and moving forward throughout the sequence as you get the feel for them. The pickups serve two critical purposes. From a physiological perspective they improve your ability to finish fast at the end of a race when you’re tired and improve your body’s efficiency in burning fuel, a key in avoiding the wall. Additionally, the pickups provide great psychological training as they force you to break up the run and focus on 1-2 minutes at a time. If you can translate that idea to race day and narrow your focus to a few minutes at a time you’ll run much stronger over the final stages of marathon.
Long Run with Marathon Pace
The other type of long run is running significant portions at goal race pace. An example is 2 x 5-6 miles at or a little quicker than marathon pace with an easy 1 mile between each within an 17-22 mile run. Another example is a progressive long run where you finish the final 10-12 miles of an 17-22 mile run starting 10-20sec/mile slower than marathon pace and finishing near half marathon pace. Using a half marathon race as a marathon paced long run with a few miles warm-up beforehand works great as well; just run the first 8-10 miles at goal marathon pace before you speed up with a fast finish. These types of runs should be done only 2-3 times during a marathon buildup. When done properly they necessitate a lot of recovery and doing too many will put you on the fast track to over training or injury.
If you’re ever in doubt dial back the intensity and know the most important thing in avoiding the wall on race day is simply getting the miles in. Some days in marathon training that will be the best you can do, and that’s okay. Be purposeful and patient with your long runs and you’ll break right through the wall on your way to a strong finish.
*This Article Originally Appeared in the August 2016 Issue of Running Journal