How to Maximize your Marathon Long Run
Ah the marathon training long run – you either love it or hate it. The prep, the recovery, not to mention the 2-3 hours you need to carve out every weekend, can make marathon training feel like a part time job. It takes a lot of time and energy, but is a very necessary part of the process if you want to achieve your marathon goals.
When I ran my first marathon in 2007, I had two goals:
- Finish, which I did.
- Finish in 4 hours or less, which I did not (4:19).
One of the (many) reasons I missed my second goal was because of a lack of emphasis on anything related to speed. I did my long runs slow, and had no real focus on how fast I should be doing them. Often I wondered how I was going to finish the marathon in four hours when I could barely finish my long runs at that pace.
Whether your goal is to simply finish (which is amazing by the way), or to qualify for Boston, you can use the long run to get more out of your marathon training.
The Importance of the Long Run
The long run is, in many ways, the foundation of marathon training. It is used to build general endurance, and helps all of the systems in your body to adapt to the harshness of running 26.2 miles. It is a way to ensure that all of your muscle fibers are getting a chance to contribute to your run.
When you run shorter distances, the muscle fibers that are easiest to recruit are used first and end up doing most of the work. Running longer trains those muscle fibers that are used less often to step up and help out.
Steve Magness, author of The Science of Running notes,
With each long run, those structures get more resistant to fatigue from the pounding, with the eventual goal of building a body that can handle a full marathon’s worth of stress on the structural components. That is why the long run is progressively increased.
The Long Run Tests your Fueling
Running a marathon often comes down to how well your body is using it’s fuel system. Carbs burn first, then fats. The more you can get your body to burn fat as fuel (at your goal pace), the longer you’ll be able to run before you “bonk” or hit the wall – which is hopefully never.
Because a long run is 60-90 minutes or longer, it’s the only run that truly tests your entire fuel supply. “…if we can get the body to change its fueling ratio at marathon-specific speeds, then performance will be improved” writes Magness.
It’s for these reasons that you need to work on improving your long run. Even if your goal is to simply finish, you’re still going to need to run at a pace that will ensure you can finish before the course closes (in most cases, six hours).
How to Improve Your Long Run
One way to improve is to turn your long run into a workout – try doing this several times during your training cycle. Instead of always running your long run 60 seconds slower than race pace, you can use your long run as a way to train at your desired marathon pace.
As mentioned above, the idea is to force your body to use as many muscle fibers as possible when tired so that glycogen-related adaptations occur. There are several ways to do this, but here are three types of runs you can add to your long run to help hit your marathon goals:
1. Strides and Surges
Strides can be thought of as sprints, but at the end of your long run. Jay Johnson writes that strides are important biomechanically because most of your runs are at paces slower than 5k pace. Strides help to open your stride up a bit and give you a little more pop.
Use the final mile of your long run to do 5-10, 100m strides at or around your 5k pace. It will recruit fast twitch muscles fibers that, at this point, will be totally taxed from the run. Take a minute to recover in between strides, and make sure your form is still good.
Surges, like strides, are bursts of speed, but typically done during the middle of the long run. These can look several different ways, depending on training goals. Typically you’ll want to gradually accelerate to 5k-10k pace and hold it for 60 seconds, then coast back down to your easy pace. Repeat several times.
2. Tempo Runs
A tempo run is simply running at a steady pace for any given duration or distance. During your marathon training long run, gradually increase a portion of it so that you can hold your desired marathon pace for a set time.
For example, on a 15 mile long run, do the first five miles at a comfortable pace. Take the middle five miles and run them at, or close to, your goal pace. Use the last five miles to ease back to your comfortable pace.
Gradually increase the distance of the middle goal pace section every other week. My next long run consists of a two mile warmup, then 12 miles at marathon pace, followed by two miles of cool down. Ooof!
3. Progression Runs
A progression run is similar to a tempo run, except that you are progressing in your pace. According to Magness, these are a good way “to get a slightly different stimulus. This occurs because the first part of the progression serves to pre-fatigue the body.” In other words, the beginning will tire out the muscles fibers that are easy to use, forcing the harder (fast twitch muscles) to be used, trained and strengthened.
Start with a few miles of easy warm up, then progressively increase your pace every few miles until you’re at your marathon pace, hold, then slow back down to cool down.
Try talking to a coach for a more complete training plan with these workouts in mind. Whatever your marathon goal, use your long run training to your advantage.