Training: How should I feel after running 20 miles?

A lot of my runners, and a lot of others, are right in the midst of their longer training runs. This weekend, after one of my groups ran their first 20 miler, I was looking around at the faces to see what was going on. I would ask them, “how are you feeling?” and the resounding answer was “tired!” It occurred to me that it might be time to talk about what long runs should feel like – and how that’s different from the way you’ll feel in your first marathon.

There are two points that I want to make really clear:

First, you SHOULD be tired after running 20 miles. It’s a long, long, long way. Think back to the start of your training when you ran a few, maybe three or four miles. Back then that probably felt like a long way to run. 20 miles is way, way, way longer than that.

So with that in mind, you should feel tired. But more than likely, you’ll be back up and going again after a good nap and maybe a day or two of rest. If you’ve trained properly, progressing your distance up slowly over time, then you’ll bounce back pretty quickly from a run of even 20 miles.

With that said, it will take two to three weeks for most first-time marathon runners to fully recover and reap the benefits of runs 20 miles and longer. That’s why you likely won’t run much further than 20 or 22 miles in your training: it just takes too long to recover from the effort. The benefits of these runs will come out later after your taper, which is the time in which you recover from your training and prepare for your effort in the marathon itself.

Second, the marathon is going to feel very different from your 20 mile runs. Think about in these terms. If you ran 18 miles a couple of weeks ago and you’ve now completed 20 miles, the difference is only two miles. For most runners that would equate to 15 to 30 minutes more running than that 18 miler. When you step up to the marathon, you’ll be adding another 6 miles – an effort of 45 minutes to an hour and a half for most. That’s a very significant difference.

What this means is that the marathon is going to treat you to whole new range of emotions and physical experiences that you won’t have felt in that 20 mile run. These new experiences are quintessentially what makes a marathon a marathon. Especially the first time.

When running 20 miles you were tired. Perhaps more tired than you’ve even been after a physical effort. In the marathon, you’re likely going to reach that point at 20 to 22 miles, but then you’ll have to push through it and keep going. This is where the struggle and epic battle of the marathon occurs. It’s what everyone has told you about that they are completely unable to describe for you.

Here’s something else to keep in mind: this epic struggle and effort in the last few miles of the marathon is not an indication that you are not well trained for your effort. If you weren’t well trained, you wouldn’t have made it nearly that far. Everyone has to push in the later miles of the marathon, no matter how well trained they are, if they’re running at or near their capability. (A marathon doesn’t have to be an epic struggle if you run below your trained capability. See a note related to this below in the comments and a somewhat related discussion on recovery between marathons.)

You may be thinking something along the lines of this: “shouldn’t I run longer in training so that the marathon isn’t such a big effort?” or “Why not run 24 or 26 miles in training then?” There is a great deal of debate over these questions. The answer is typically that the extent of the recovery is so long and the potential of injury is so high that they off-set the benefits of any further training. In other words, you’ve logged enough time on your feet at 20 miles to make it safely through the marathon and it might just hurt you to keep training at longer distances.

As an example, look at ultra-marathoners. Runners training for races in excess of 50 miles most likely will run 25-40 miles in training – or perhaps 20 miles on back to back to days. But they won’t likely go beyond these distances in training. (They may use intermediate distance races as long training events.) But the effort and risk of injury, and the amount of time needed to run say 80 miles in training for a 100 mile run is just so high that it isn’t something that most people would do. This doesn’t mean that these runners are unprepared. They are well trained, but this is the practical balance of training for such long running events.

Getting back to the topic at hand, as a first time marathon runner you will be well trained having made it through a 20 mile run. You should be tired from the effort, maybe exceptionally so. But you should expect the marathon to be an even more difficult task. It will be a task that takes a physical toll on you. You’ll need much more time to recover from the effort. But you’ll make it through it and you’ll be rewarded by experiencing something different than anything you’ve ever done before.

Congratulations to all those that made it through their first 20 mile runs. It’s a milestone that may be overlooked, because it happens during your training, but it’s a big, big, deal. And it is a huge step to getting you to the finish-line of your first marathon. On marathon day, just remember that you have a long road ahead and to make sure that you pace yourself out there. You’ll do great!

To read more on this topic, click here for a follow-on article: More thoughts on late marathon miles.

Related articles:
How much should my legs hurt after a long run?

More thoughts on late marathon miles

How long should I plan between marathons?

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon USA
Running Advice and News
www.running-advice.com

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13 responses so far, want to say something?

  1. 1. “How much should my legs hurt after a long run?” AKA: Painful legs « Running Wild with Coach Joe September 16th, 2007 at 9:24 pm

    [...] Wild with Coach Joe Races: Kenyans Kibet, Chepchumba win at Philadelphia Distance RunTraining: How should I feel after running 20 miles?Races: Portland Marathon Course Details (second half)Races: Triathlon at Pacific Grove (Guest [...]

  2. 2. Kent A September 17th, 2007 at 5:00 am

    Thanks for info Coach Joe although it’s a bit humbling. I just completed my first 20 miler over the weekend for Oct. 21 marathon, and was feeling pretty good about it. I finished strong with the last three miles being my fastest ones. At least with my run on Saturday, I felt like I could have gone another 6. (or at least 3 :-)) I am however paying for it yesterday and today. I wish I had seen this article and how much should my legs hurt article before the run.

    Thanks again for enlightening this runner.

  3. 3. coachjoeenglish September 17th, 2007 at 6:18 am

    In response to Kent, there is an important point that I’d like to add after reading his comment: there are always exceptions and it is possible to have a relatively easier time during a first marathon than I might have suggested above.

    Three factors greatly effect how you feel later in a marathon:
    – How fast you are running compared to your capability as a runner.
    – How well you’ve paced yourself throughout the race, especially at the start and on any large hills.
    – How much food you’ve eaten and fluid you’ve consumed during the race.

    One of my main points in writing this piece was to give solice to the fact that 20 milers are really tough. The other was to ensure that people keep the effort of the marathon in perspective and not get overly carried away with their pace goals in their first race.

    It is possible to have a first marathon that isn’t a great struggle – but it doesn’t happen that often. Keep your goals conservative the first time out and keep your pace under control. The bottom line is that you just want to finish – and you can.

    Coach Joe

  4. 4. Training: More thoughts on late marathon miles « Running Wild with Coach Joe September 18th, 2007 at 7:29 am

    [...] Wild with Coach Joe Races: Kenyans Kibet, Chepchumba win at Philadelphia Distance RunTraining: How should I feel after running 20 miles?Races: Portland Marathon Course Details (second half)Races: Triathlon at Pacific Grove (Guest [...]

  5. 5. Training: the first-time marathon runner 20-miler mental anguish « Running Advice and News May 12th, 2008 at 10:06 am

    [...] written about the 20 mile run before. It’s a unique animal for a number of reasons. For most runners it is much, much [...]

  6. 6. Training: Should I run one or two 20 milers before my first marathon? « Running Advice and News May 13th, 2008 at 11:38 am

    [...] See also: First-time marathon runner 20 miler mental anguish How should I feel after running 20 miles in training? [...]

  7. 7. Training: What’s the longest run I should do in preparing for a marathon? « Running Advice and News September 23rd, 2008 at 11:06 am

    [...] First time marathon runner 20 miler anguish – How should I feel after running 20 miles in training – Should I do one or two 20 milers in preparation for my [...]

  8. 8. Training: the first-time marathon runner 20-miler mental anguish | Running Advice and News March 17th, 2009 at 8:51 pm

    [...] written about the 20 mile run before. It’s a unique animal for a number of reasons. For most runners it is much, much further than [...]

  9. 9. Training: More thoughts on late marathon miles | Running Advice and News March 17th, 2009 at 9:34 pm

    [...] and had more people talk to me at workouts yesterday- after reading my earlier piece called “How should I feel after running a 20 miler?” Most of the questions revolved around one sort of nebulous topic: if the last few miles of [...]

  10. 10. Simon October 11th, 2009 at 2:53 am

    Hi Coach Joe,
    First, this is a great website you have going – I've learned so much watching the videos and reading the articles here. My question relates to *pacing* of the long runs. Most of the programs I've seen have me running anywhere from around 25-40 seconds slower per kilometer (apologies, I only understand metrics!) than my planned marathon pace. I need to carry a lot of liquid in a hydration pack – about 64oz (2L) which wont be the case on marathon day. There's also the fact that my long runs come at the end of the training week, so my legs aren't actually fresh (although I am by no means worn out). In the videos you often stress the importance of training at goal marathon pace. Does this apply to the long runs or does another logic apply in that case? And how do you take into account the other variables I've suggested (extra weight, heat, training fatigue) when deciding on the pace for the long run?
    I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.
    Regards
    Simon

  11. 11. coachjoeenglish October 12th, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    What we normally suggest is that you alternate weeks between an long run at easier pace (in the range that you suggest below) and then a long goal paced run the next week at a slightly shorter distance. For example, you might run 20 miles at the slower pace one weekend and then 18 miles at goal pace the next. Regarding your fluids, what I might suggest is that on your goal paced runs, you leave bottles somewhere and do multiple 4-5 mile loops passing those bottles, so that you don't have to carry them with you. Finally, with regards to being tired at the end of the training week that's to be expected, but try to build in either one rest day or an easy cross-training day before your goal paced runs, so that you are at least fresh enough to run them at goal pace. If you aren't able to do the runs at goal pace, then you are either not recovered enough or the pace is too fast for you. Good Luck!

  12. 12. Training — How much should my legs hurt after a long run? | Running Advice and News February 17th, 2010 at 5:18 am

    [...] How should I feel after running 20 miles? [...]

  13. 13. Running Ruminations » Humility, or crashing and burning April 1st, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    [...] training programs I’ve read or done suggest that only 1 20-miler is sufficient, given the cost-benefit risk that you take by doing such a long run before your LONG long run (hello, 26.2!).  Others say that [...]

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