The long distance running portion of marathon training is called the “ long run”. It is the key element of marathon training. It is essential if you want to avoid hitting “the wall” (to be technical, when glycogen in the leg muscles is depleted and your pace becomes slower than a crawl) during your marathon race.
So what constitutes a “long run”?
This can be answered in various ways. To a track athlete, long distance running is anything that is 3 miles or over. However for a marathoner the answer is usually anything over 10 miles.
In marathon and half marathon training, the main portion of your training is the long run. This is usually anything over 6-10 miles.
The idea behind these long distance runs is to build endurance.
Without endurance there can be no marathon or half marathon. A marathon tests your endurance and if you have built up not only your body but also your mind to go the distance you will be successful in the marathon training. Long distance runs are actually good predictors of how your marathon training is going and if you are ready to cope with the challenges of running the marathon.
For the Marathon:
Marathon gurus and professionals will all tell you different numbers when it comes to the question of how long your longest run before a marathon should be. 20 miles is a good “longest” run but many people like to do 22-23 miles as their longest run which will give you a good base going into the marathon. Many of the training plans on this site and the custom training plans are designed to bring you to the starting line of a marathon with at least two 20-20+ milers under your belt.
Jeff Galloway, who designed various marathon training and long distance running plans, suggested that a long run of over 26 miles be completed before a marathon so that your body is already accustomed to going that distance. This seems to be a little excessive and has been proven many times that by running 20- 23 miles as your longest run will give you excellent results and will more than adequately prepare you and equip you for coping with the challenges that the marathon dishes out.
For the Half Marathon:
When training for a half marathon, it is best to run at least 10-11 miles. If you are training for a time goal it is good to train at 13 miles at least once or twice so your body can adjust to the distance and the speed that you want it to work at. The half marathon is more forgiving than the marathon so it is normal to go the full distance of the race during training.
Being the most critical component of marathon training, the long run definitely has its perks to it.
The key to long distance running is to go slow and steady.
Although long runs are “long” they are not meant to be done fast. Save the speed for tempo runs and interval training. Long runs should be completed at a slow steady pace. Typically a good long run pace is 1 ½ - 3 minutes per mile slower than what you plan your marathon race pace to be at OR 1-1/2 minutes per mile slower than your current 10K race pace.
So if your marathon pace is going to be 8 ½ minutes per mile run your long runs at 9 ½ minutes per mile to 11 minutes per mile.
Why should you run slow for your long runs?
The number one reason is so that you are training in the right energy system: your aerobic energy system. If you are running too fast you will start to train partially in your anaerobic system. For marathon and half marathon runners, your endurance capabilities will come from your aerobic energy system and so this system needs to be targeted and trained even if you never even train once in the anerobic system. Your marathon race is the time that you can combine your long slow training runs, with your faster speed and strenth workouts in order to hit your goal race time.
Also, running slow will decrease your risk of incurring an injury. Running long distances puts a lot of stress and strain on your body particularly your joints, muscles and tendons. So take it slow!
To build up your endurance and long run first make sure you are comfortable and able to run 6- 8 miles before attempting a marathon. Once you can do this you should complete one long run every other week, increasing your long run by 2 miles each time or by 10% of your weekly mileage.
If you are training for a half marathon, increase your long runs by 1 mile each week. If you need to take more time you can lower that to 0.5 miles. In our Half Marathon Walking Program we let the body get used to a base mileage of walking and then increase the long walk every other week.
Obviously, you can tweak your long runs to fit your schedule and more importantly your body. Some marathoners will increase there long runs by only one mile as they build up endurance. Those who have been training for awhile and have completed a marathon before find that they can run a couple of long runs without taking every other week off but save that for after you have done several long runs.
It's easy to hit a mental block when you are running longer distance training runs. Here are some tips that will hopefully help:
The danger of long distance running every week is that you increase your risk of injury. The worst thing you can do to yourself is to have to drop out of your marathon training and the race due to an injury so play it safe, listen to your body and increase long run mileage slowly. Push yourself but know your limit. No one likes to be left behind at the starting line because they ran too many long runs in too short a time.
My favorite part of training for a marathon is the long run. This wasn’t always the case and I still have my moments when I absolutely dread doing a long run but most of the time I am excited and eager to do my long runs.
Each long run brings you closer to your goal of finishing a marathon and that in itself is so rewarding. You might not always be pumped to go out on your long run but as you put more miles under your belt I can assure you that you will come to love going out for a long slow run when the timing is right.
The Runner's Pace Kit - a guide personalized to help you train at your goal pace