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

Sun, 10 Mar 2002 22:28:11 -0500

Longer Shorts, Shorter Longs


We've talked for awhile now (RCs 398, 399 and 403) about high school coach Jack Farrell's ideas for simplifying training. Even before hearing about him, I'd written to praise the simplicity of Ed Whitlock's running (February RW). He's the oldest runner to break three hours in a marathon, doing that at age 69.

The discussion continues. Reader Mark Siwik, a rather new runner who ran "too many marathons" in the past year, writes, "I note that Farrell has his kids taking a 'long' run that is only one mile longer than the daily run, which peaks at eight miles. It would seem that to run a half-marathon or marathon, one would need to build up the daily distance and step up by more than a mile on the long run. Does Ed Whitlock take any longer runs?"

I told him that Whitlock's runs all sound long to me. Before his 2:52 marathon of two years ago, all runs lasted two hours except the races, which could be shorter or longer. The racing itself served as "training" for speed or distance.

How might a Farrell-like program apply to runners who want to go beyond the nine-mile limit that he places on his shorter-distance racers? This could require rethinking the training requirements of long-distance racing.

For two decades the long run has been king. We've been taught to make it good and long, approaching marathon distance or (in some programs) even beyond.

We've been told to do this weekly, or even two or three weeks apart, and to spend the time in between recovering with very easy runs and rest days. These long runs typically have at least doubled the runner's everyday average.

There is another way -- the about-the-same-every-day way. It requires two radical departures from conventional training wisdom:

1. Resurrect the old collapse-point theory, which guided marathon training programs of the 1970s and '80s. This grimly named system held that you can run about three times your average daily distance before hitting a wall. Marathoners, then, need to up that average run to nearly nine miles to push the wall past the finish line.

2. Limit the length of long training runs to half-again the daily average. Adding 50 percent to an everyday eight- or nine-mile run would place the longest one at about a half-marathon.

Does a plan of shorter long runs and longer short ones work? It does for Ed Whitlock. He ran his fast marathons on daily training runs little more than half that length.

Running this far every day isn't required. The medium-long runs just need to recur regularly.

John Keston uses a variation of Whitlock's plan. Keston runs for about two hours every third day, and walks for similar time on the in-between days. (See "Old Men Walking," RC 386.)

Yet John can go much farther on raceday. Last fall he became the oldest marathoner to break 3-1/2 hours, running 3:23 at age 76. A year older, he recently ran 3:34 at Napa Valley -- on a slightly sprained ankle.

By not going so far in the long training run, you can go farther and feel better, and maybe accomplish more, on more of the other days. You save the really long runs for the races, where the extra effort counts the most.

A plan like this once worked for me, years before I'd heard the words "collapse point." It's another story from my first and forever fastest marathon, Boston 1967.

The longest run, of 20 miles, came two months before the race. That probably was too early to do much good. Thereafter I ran no farther than a half-marathon.

But the marathon went just fine -- better than any other ever would. I think that's because my daily average was as high, and my theoretical collapse point as distant, as it would ever be again.

When the average run length slipped, so did marathon performance. This was true no matter how far the long runs stretched.

(Next week: How almost-same-daily-running might work for someone who isn't racing or doesn't take it seriously anymore.)

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