Long Distance Running - The Long Run Guide for Marathoners & Half Marathoners

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.


Goal of the Long Run

  • Build endurance both physically and mentally
  • Set a rhythm and gain stamina, always slow and steady
  • Teach the body to “go the distance” without hitting “the wall”.

The idea behind these long distance runs is to primarily 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 running workouts 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.


What Makes a Run "Long"?

So what constitutes a “long run”?

This can be answered in various ways.

To a track athlete, long distance running could be 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


How Long Should Your Longest Run Be?

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. 

There is no need to run 26 miles before your actual marathon. It is 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 distance dishes out. 


For the Half Marathon:

When training for a half marathon, it is best to do a long distance running workout of 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. 


Benefits of Long Distance Running

Being the most critical component of marathon training, the long run definitely has its perks to it.

  • Strengthens the heart
  • Develops the leg muscles necessary for endurance
  • Increases mental toughness to tackle the challenges
  • Increases capacity to burn fat
  • Targets the appropriate energy system if you run at the right pace! This is critical in training to run a successful marathon!

Pacing During the Long Run

The pace you set for yourself during a long run is going to be dependent on your ultimate marathon goal. 

  • Do you want to finish the marathon and not worry about time. (A good idea for a first time marathoner or a recreational marathoner.)
  • Are you training for a time goal or want to qualify for another race such as the Boston marathon?


Your Long Run Pace as a First Time Marathoner or Recreational Runner:

The key to pacing yourself when long distance running is to go slow and steady.

Although long runs are “long” they are not meant to be done fast by a beginner runner.

Save the speed for tempo runs and interval training or shorter runs during the week.

Your long runs should be completed at a slow steady pace.


Typically a good long run pace for a beginner or first time marathoner 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 anaerobic system.

Your marathon race is the time that you can combine your long slow training runs, with your faster speed and strength 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!


Pacing during your Long Runs as an Intermediate Marathoner or a Marathoner with a Time Goal:

When you are training for a time goal you will still want to incorporate some slow paced long runs. 

However, you will also want to be targeting your marathon goal race pace during your long runs as this will be the best "practice" that you will get leading up to your marathon race day. 

My two favorite long run styles for achieving this are:

  • Progressive Long Runs: These runs are designed to get your body used to running at your marathon goal race pace when you are already tired or beginning to become tired. To run a progressive long run training workout, run the last 6-8 miles of your long run at your marathon goal race pace. 
  • Marathon Goal Pace Runs: The idea behind this long run training workout is that you will practice running longer at your marathon goal race pace, learning how fast you should start, how to keep your pace steady especially on hilly terrain, and learn how to recognize pace adjustments that might need to be made.

This page goes more in-depth into each of these styles of long runs, how to pace yourself during them and when to include them in your training plan. 


How to Build Mileage and Space Your Long Runs

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.


How to keep yourself motivated on your long runs:

It's easy to hit a mental block when you are doing any long distance running. Here are some ideas and tips that will hopefully help:

  • Bring along gummy bears to treat yourself with at the end of every mile.
  • Take a couple minutes walking break every 5 miles. Include a few stretches.
  • Create a new playlist for each long run.
  • Have a pre-determined reward for yourself when you have finished (ice-cream, out for dinner, go see a movie, let yourself sleep in or take an extra long nap, etc.)
  • Go sit at a cafe halfway through, hit up McDonalds and get a drink and snack.
  • Make after your long run your cheat day and eat whatever you want!  

What your nutrition should look like before, during, and after a long run

There is so much to be said on nutrition before, during, or after a long distance running workout so I broke it down into 3 separate sections.

See recommendations, timelines, and foods list for each period of time in relation to your long run by seeing the following pages!

How to Recover After Your Run

Your recovery after long distance running is SO important in determining whether you you will be able to continue and keep up with the rest of your marathon training plan. 

Don't neglect to include some form of active recovery into your routine. Make it a conscious decision to include some extra rest and relaxation into your day after a long run. 

Read this page for how to recover properly after a long run + get your free actionable long distance running recovery plan! 


Remember...

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.


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