(This is the 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)
July 2003 (retitled in the magazine). Let’s say that a marathon looms on your distant horizon, a full training program away. Let’s say also that you accept the long run as the centerpiece of this program, trusting it to take you where you want to go.
But you’re still asking: “How long? How fast? How often?” Here are some answers, prefaced by a story on how they originated.
Before my first marathon the long runs peaked at 20 miles. I ran this far several weeks before the marathon, intending another run to be even longer but missing it.
The marathon took a few minutes longer to finish than the longest training run. But it packed almost another 10K into that time because its pace was 1½ minutes per mile quicker.
Later I took shorter long runs and longer ones, ran them slower and faster, ran them more and less often. Never again in almost four-dozen tries did I run a faster marathon than the first one. This experience shapes my answers to questions about the long run.
How long? First, draw your start and finish lines for training. In the beginning, don’t let your ambition outpace your ability. Run no more than two miles beyond your recent longest run.
Wherever you start, aim to reach 20 miles in this program. You’ve heard this figure before because it works. Going 20 builds confidence along with fitness. By running this far, you rehearse most of what a marathon has to offer.
Twenty miles is only about three-fourths of a marathon. Where, you might wonder if you aren’t already a marathoner, will the extra 10K come from if you haven’t trained that far?
It comes from the magic of race day. That day brings soul-stirring conditions that you can’t duplicate on solo and small-group training runs. The excitement carries you many extra miles, but not an unlimited number. If you train yourself to 20 miles, race day will take you the rest of the way.
How fast? The training run is not a race. Treat it like one, and you may recover too slowly from one long run to the next. Full recovery from “races” of 10 to 20 miles takes most runners several weeks, and you don’t have that long to wait between these training runs.
So instead of pushing the pace, focus on upping your distance. Back well off from the fastest you could run. Train one to two minutes per mile slower than you could race this same distance – or maybe that much slower than you might race the marathon.
You could surprise yourself by running a minute or more per mile faster on marathon day than you’d trained, even at the longer distance. Again credit the race-day magic.
While you’re at it, credit your training. If you backed well away from race pace, you covered much less than full marathon distance but ran almost the full amount of time that the race would take. You were ready to spend this much time on your feet again, but moving them faster.
How often? If the question means how often to run a particular distance, the answer is once. Runners like having a sense of progression, so make a steady march up in long-run distances without repeating any of them.
The steps themselves are small. They progress from shortest to longest by two miles at a time. With these runs requiring ever-bigger efforts, and therefore ever-longer recoveries, they’re best not taken weekly but only every second or third weekend.
Set the program’s length by where you start. An eight-mile beginning leads to a three- to four-month program. A half-marathon start can shrink the program to as little as two months.
The longest run before the marathon is the last and hardest one. Place it at least three weeks before the race; a full month is better.
What to do between long runs? Recover from the last one and recharge for the next one with mostly easy running.
When one part of the training program (the long run) goes way up in effort, another (the remaining days) must come down in compensation. Shorter runs help make the longer ones work.
2019 Update. I wrote this piece two years before starting to coach a marathon team. The peak training distance for them was 21 miles. They taught me that the best predictor of marathon time was their 21-mile training pace, which they could expect to carry on for the extra five miles on race day.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]