The marathon long run can be as perplexing as it can be intimidating. With so many variables involved it can leave your head spinning as to the best approach to the marathoner’s weekend ritual. The long run is the most critical component to building the strength necessary to endure the 26.2 mile distance so it’s important to understand. When implemented correctly the long run has the ability to make the biggest difference in our ability to not just endure 26.2 miles, but to race with confidence from mile 1 to 26.2. The following four types of long runs all serve specific purposes in allowing you to run mile 26 as strongly as mile 1.
Time on Feet
The goal for a time on feet long run is just that, to get the time in. Pace is not important and generally the effort should be kept at a comfortable pace where you could maintain a casual conversation with your training partner. These runs are particularly important in the early stages of marathon training where you are building your overall volume and long run distance. During this phase of training the goal is to adapt to the distance rather than the pace and intensity. Even running easily your body will increase capillary density, improving your ability to deliver oxygen to your muscles, and build strength in your muscles and tendons. These adaptations are among the most important we make as distance runners and are the crucial first steps to being able to handle the increased intensity of specific training. While the time on feet long run is most heavily used in the early stages of training, it can also provide a nice reprieve on a weekend where you’re feeling a bit tired or run down. However, if your goal is not driven by time, but by completing the distance then you should spend most of your long runs as time on feet long runs. In a training plan focused on completing the distance the only other type of long run you should implement is the long run with pickups as a way to add variety to your weekly long run.
Long runs with pickups are a staple here at ZAP Fitness, but we can’t take credit for the concept. That distinction goes to the greatest American marathon coach in history, Bill Squires, who coached the likes of Bill Rodgers, Greg Meyer, Dick Beardsley, and Alberto Salazar among others. The pickups are designed to improve your ability to finish strong at the end of a race and improve your body’s efficiency in utilizing energy. Picking up the pace at the end of your long runs when you’re tired will give you the ability and confidence to finish strongly over the final miles of your marathon. This is an example of how to incorporate pickups in your long run: over the final hour of a long run pickup up the pace for 1-2 minutes 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. Try starting them at marathon effort and then as you get comfortable with them you can run them a bit faster. In addition to the physiological benefits the pickups provide a psychological benefit as well, forcing you to break up the run and focus on 1-2 minutes at a time. If you can translate that practice to race day and narrow your focus to a few minutes at a time you’ll finish much stronger in the final miles of your marathon.
Running significant portions of your long run at or around marathon pace can be a weekly temptation. However, running too many hard long runs can lead to injury and over training that will leave you sidelined or fatigued by the time you get to race day. These runs are incredibly effective at preparing the body for the grind of the marathon but should be used only 2-3 times in a build-up due to their demanding nature. There are a number of different versions of marathon-paced long runs. A progressive long run is one where you finish the final 8-12 miles of a 17-22 mile run starting 10-20sec/mile slower than marathon pace and finishing 10-20sec/mile quicker than marathon pace. Another option is to run 2 x 5-6 miles at or a little quicker than marathon pace with 1 mile easy between each within a 17-22 mile run. Additionally, running a half marathon as a marathon paced long run is a great option. Run a few miles to warm-up and then target the first 8-10 miles at goal marathon pace before speeding up with a fast finish.
For most, or all, of your marathon long runs you should practice taking fluids every 20-25 minutes and calories every 40-50 minutes. However, there is one exception for experienced marathoners looking to improve their fat-burning ability during the marathon: the glycogen depletion long run. This is long run designed to improve your ability to use fat as a primary energy source by depleting the body of glycogen and forcing it to burn fat. There is some risk, as glycogen replacement during the run aides in recovery and is an important part of race day strategy, but used sparingly research shows glycogen depletion runs can improve marathon performance. If you are going to try this type of run start out with a run that is 2 hours or less and then progress to doing 1-2 longer runs this way. Remember, this run is for experienced marathoners who have significant experience with longer marathon runs. And even so, you should not attempt this every week, and always be sure to take some calories with you in case you need them.
Better understanding these four different types of marathon long runs will take the guesswork out of your preparation, and leave you stronger and more confident in the latter stages of your next marathon.
*This Article Originally Appeared in the September 2018 Issue of Running Journal