The Long Run – Are we getting it wrong?

I wanted to post a few thoughts I’ve been having recently on Long Runs.

I’m not saying these are right, or indeed wrong. But they’ve been making more and more sense to me and I wanted to write them down so I don’t forget them. Also I hope I can get a few people’s thoughts on them, let me know if you think I’m onto something, or if I’m missing something completely.

In particular I’m addressing the Long Run which is usually a staple part of a Marathon training plan. Most plans will have you go up to 20 miles, or further, at least once. Its become a magic number, one that must be reached in training regardless of how many times you might run in a week, or your overall mileage.
I’ve been there myself, the 20 milers loom large on that plan stuck to the fridge. They fill you with dread at the start of the cycle, but they’re set in stone. You have to do them if you want to be able to run 26.2 on the day.

And actually, these thoughts apply if you’re not running a marathon too.

My experience with 20+ mile training runs is that they knock me for six. I run them at the right pace, I fuel them right, but they still bugger up my training for the week ahead. And that goes for 18 milers too.

In fact, I’ve found my limit where I can consistently maintain training week in/week out, and its 2 hours. I did a 2 hour Time Trial last week and at current fitness levels thats just over 16 miles for me. As soon as my sessions start going over this threshold, fatigue creeps in to the point where I have to start missing training.

Funnily enough, that coincides with what I’ve been reading in Hansons Marathon Method. The long run in their plans goes up to 16miles, but the whole plan is consistent high mileage. They do suggest taking the long run longer if your overall weekly mileage is up around 80+, but I would guess this correlates roughly with a 2 hour session anyway.

I wonder what the elites do? They’ll be planning to be out on the course for just over 2 hours so why would they want to run training sessions that go way over that, its just not specific to their goals. Its not beyond the realms that they might do a 20 mile run in 2 hours several times in preparation is it?

It strikes me that this golden figure has rolled down from the top performers, back in the 80’s running boom when there were loads of runners out there running 2:40 and quicker, and become a target for everyone.

Interestingly, without me mentioning any of these thoughts, a club-mate approached me with a research paper he’d read that said no positive adaptations occur in the Mitochondria after 2 hours. In fact, the muscles begin to break down at this point, actually causing damage, essentially causing more harm than good. (wish I had a link for this, it sounded really interesting)
He said that the biggest adaptations to the Mitochondria occur when running for shorter periods at higher intensity. For example 15mins at 5k pace will bring about more increased Mitochondria function than a 90 minute run. Of course, this doesn’t solve the issue of specificity if you’re training for a marathon.

The key points for me at the moment:

  • Long Run should equal 20-30% of weekly total
  • Long Run should not exceed 2 hours
  • Long Run should be a staple workout, regardless of distance training for
  • Long Run pace shouldn’t be set in stone: If it feels too fast for a given day, It probably is, dial it back a bit.

We’re all different and what works for me might not work for you, but one thing is certain, consistent, injury free running yields results. And this is my preferred approach at the moment.

In my own context, I’ve managed to maintain high mileage (50-70miles per week), and set a 5k PB within days of a 2hr TT so its working for me.

I haven’t yet gone into a marathon with this method, but I’m planning on it at some point and I’ll be sure to let you know how I get on.

Please remember, these are just my current thoughts on it, pick it apart if you like, tell me why I’m wrong (or tell me why I’m right!) – I’d appreciate any input.


Here’s a link to some further reading if you’re interested





7 thoughts on “The Long Run – Are we getting it wrong?

  1. I have read similar reports regarding the ‘long run’ and had a long chat with a coach about 20 milers being detrimental to overall training as it takes the body so long to recover from it. I train to time rather than mileage now and although I am not marathon training if I were to do another I would not do any more than 16 in one go. I think a better method is a double run day of two smaller distances at a low HR with some faster (race) pace intervals thrown in once warmed up during one of them.

    I am going to do a blog about HR running because I am completely converted to doing longer runs this way and have definitely seen benefits. I finish a run knowing I could go further and with much less fatigue.

    One of my best mates did an Ultra (33) without running anywhere near 20 miles in training and used a run/walk method to complete the race in a very respectable time. So I definitely think you are on to something.

    1. I’m keen to know if I could do well on a marathon plan that tops out at 16. I might find that my theories just don’t stand up!
      I’ve never really used my HRM enough, whenever I try it I get frustrated with not running as quick as I’d like to! My HR tends to get up to 160-165ish very quickly, but then I can hold it there. My max recently seems to be 178. (seems low for a 35y/o). I think I need to calculate my zones properly.

  2. I ran my first marathon with 18 miles as my furthest run and I only did it once.

    I found running slow very frustrating to start with (my watch buzzed like an angry bee every time I bust the zone) but as I have gained fitness I can now run faster within the same HR zone. I do fast paced stuff as well so I still get my adrenaline fix. The Kenyans etc do 80% of their runs at a slow pace apparently.

  3. Yeah curious thoughts indeed. I never dreaded the long run but I certainly never wanted to have it interfere with the rest of my training. Nor do I want to have it take too much time away from the rest of my life.

    Add me to the list of frustrated HR trainees as well. I’ve got the new Forerunner telling me to slow my ass down. I keep hearing it pays off in the long term but it is hard to handle right now.

    1. I got to points in training plans where my Friday night would look like this – Get home from work, eat something, go out running for almost 3 hours, get home and limp about, shiver in a cold bath, get out and moan about how much my body ached, eat something, go to bed. Then I wouldn’t be able to run for like, 3 days. Then repeat for the following fortnight. I definitely didn’t look forward to those nights.

  4. Very relevant and something I think every runner should be reading a paying attention to. Its taken me about a year but by trial and error I’ve come to a similar conclusion to your ‘balance’ theory and it’s doing absolute wonders for my running at the minute. Good read, Dave.

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