Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 22 Aug 1998 15:03:23 -0400

Long May We Run

(from RC 275)

The long run serves as the kingpin of all marathon training programs. Hal Higdon interviewed me (among many others) on this subject for an article in the August Runner's World and quoted me briefly there. Here is the full text of that talk with Hal.

"What is the main purpose of the long run?" More and more I see it as an orthopedic test and a dress rehearsal for the race. That is: (1) a test of the feet and legs to see if they can handle the distance; I suggest not entering the race until the last and longest test is passed; (2) a rehearsal over the same or similar course, at the same time of day or nearly so, in the same shoes and clothes, taking the same drinks and foods.

"What is the peak long-run training distance for marathoners?" For competitors I recommend running full marathon TIME -- while covering less than the full distance (slower than race pace, in other words). This was nearly standard among marathoners I surveyed (in 1995) for Road Racers & Their Training. For the rest of us I say at least three-fourths of projected marathon time. This is what most people seem to do anyway, whether they're advised to or not.

"Is there a single best peak distance, or does the number differ?" I like feeling a sense of progression -- building by steps to the longest run, each step taken only once. A half-hour is the longest step most runners can handle. So the progress for a 3:30 to 4:00 marathoner might be 1:30, 2:00, 2:30 and 3:00.

"How many long runs at or near peak distance should runners do?" One (see above).

"Should you incorporate walking into your long runs whether or not you plan to walk in the race or not?" Walk breaks are optional. Take them or not, as needed and preferred. If used, incorporate them the same way both in training and the marathon. Again, think "dress rehearsal."

"What about walking (Gallowalks) as a strategy for finishing marathons?" I'm absolutely sold on it. I wouldn't be attemting marathons today without these breaks; my legs couldn't stand non-stop training, or the race distance. Nor would thousands of newcomers to the event get to and through the marathon without the breaks.

"How much recovery do you need between long runs?" Past programs (including my old ones) had us taking long runs too often. My advice now is to put at least two weeks between and as much as a month. At this length the recovery period is almost race-like -- which makes sense because the effort of running this far is also almost race-like.

"Are there any tricks to recovery? (Gels? Power Bars? Massage?)" Taking gel and bars DURING the long run speeds recovery from it. Plus carbo-reloading is both fun and effective. Mainly, though, I recommend rest (see next answer).

"How much rest should you take before and/or after long runs during the regular training week?" Rest afterward is most important. My formula is one day of rest (light cross-training okay) for each hour of the long run or race. This departs from earlier advice to run easily the next few days "to flush out the lactic acid." David Costill's research shows that lactic acid isn't as much a problem as muscle damage, and that heals quickest with rest.

"Is there any advantage (or disadvantage) in combining long runs with other workouts? (For example, speed training Saturday, long run Sunday.)" It would be a miserable combination for me, a notoriously slow recoverer, but others get by with it -- by racing short on Saturday and running long on Sunday, for instance. My long running and short racing always come on separate weekends.

"First-timers don't always know how fast to do long runs, because they don't know how fast they can run a marathon. What do you tell them?" I tell them to figure conservatively. The usual formula for estimating marathon potential is 10-K time multiplied by 4.6 or 4.7. Newcomers might multiply by FIVE. Example: a 50-minute 10-K equates to a 4:10 marathon -- which allows time for walk breaks if needed.

"How much base mileage or training should a runner have before starting a marathon training program that would include long runs?" My book, Marathon Training, lists two prerequisites: (1) a nonstop -- no walk breaks -- run of one hour or more; (2) a completed race of 10-K or longer. Anyone who hasn't met those requirements needs to pick them up before entering the book's program.

"How long should that program last?" It lasts as long as needed to work up to at least three-fourths of predicted marathon time -- by steps of a half-hour or less, taken every two to four weeks. This can mean as little as a month for runners starting from a high base, to three or four months for those starting at minimum entry level.

"Any best weekly mileage for those doing long runs?" If this question has to do with how much to run BETWEEN the long ones, my answer is: not much. Concentrate on recovering with easy running and rest, not on adding up miles. I define an "easy" run as one lasting 30 to 60 minutes. If able to do less than that, you're probably better off resting. Save longer running for the really long one.

"Is it safe to continue speed training while doing long runs?" Not only is it safe but also a great idea. This keeps you from falling into the one-pace rut and restores life to the mileage-dulled legs. But I wouldn't want to call this "speed work" because it suggests gut-busting 20-times-400 sessions. Just a little faster running will do -- say, a mile once a week at a minute or so faster than normal pace, or an occasional 5-K race.

"Is there any advantage in long runs for non-marathoners?" Yes. Endurance is a factor at all racing distances, and long runs are stamina-builders. Even track runners can benefit from one- to two-hour runs, but anything longer might drain energy from their more specific work.

"Should you do one or more of your long runs in your race shoes, or save those for race day?" Racing shoes are a poor investment for all but the fastest runners. They give the least protection at a time when a marathoner needs the most. Go with the same shoes that brought you this far. Not just the same model but the same PAIR -- the ones that have stood the tests of training.

"Finally a key question: How fast should marathoners run in their long runs?" Racers of marathons usually run one to two minutes per mile slower in training than in the race. This is what I did at my fastest, when long-run pace was eight-minute miles and the marathon 6:30s. Marathon survivors -- which I now am -- usually run about the same pace in both the training and the "race." It may be the only gear we have.


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