Question — How many miles to make a marathon ‘just another run’?

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Coach Joe English

Here’s a question that came in from a reader named Bridgette:

“How many miles do you have to run each week to make a marathon ‘just another run’?”

Well Bridgette, good question. Let me start by interpreting the phrase ‘just another run’ to mean not needing much recovery from the marathon. So I think what you’re asking is how many miles you need to run to be able to have a quick recovery from a marathon.

Let’s approach this first by saying that the number of miles that you run each week isn’t going to be the determining factor here. The issue that will dictate how quickly you recover from the marathon is the intensity that you run the miles and then the effort level at which the marathon is run.

We might be inclined to think that elite runners, who may run upwards of a 100 miles per week would cruise through a marathon and be recovered quickly from the effort, but that again misses the crucial question. While it may be true that these folks can easily knock out 26 miles, when they run those efforts as fast as they can, it will still take them a significant amount of time to recover from the effort. This is one of the reasons that elite marathon runners often will only run two or maybe three marathons per year at their full effort.

The key here is the intensity of the effort. For the average runner who is training to complete a marathon at close to their pace capability — meaning an effort that they can sustain for the entire marathon without slowing down or bonking — the marathon is going to be an intense effort that last hours and will take as much as four to six weeks from which to recover. This is true even when the marathon is running “all out”, but just within a say 5-10% of the pace that might be an effort that requires significant recovery. So to put some numbers to this, if a runner could conceivably run a 3:30:00 marathon, an effort in anywhere from 3:30:00 to about 4:00:00 is probably enough to recover substantial recovery.

Now if you were to dial the effort level way back so that the effort was much more low-key then the recovery would be much shorter. So if that same runner slowed down to say 4:30:00 or 5:00:00, the recovery would be much shorter. Remember, what we’re saying here is that someone who could run a 3:30:00 marathon would have a much shorter recovery running a 5:00:00 marathon, so the point is that the person would have to be capable of running the marathon at the harder effort for this to mean anything to their recovery.

To put this in slightly more technical terms. Marathon pace is usually about an 84% effort (84% of maximum effort). A marathon run at anywhere between about 75-85% effort is likely to require a good amount of recovery. (For an extensive discussion on the topic of workout and long-distance running intensities, click here.)

Now it is true that over time we can build our max long run mileage up to a long run of 25 miles and this would also reduce the recovery. In other words, there was a time in every marathon runner’s life that they felt that 10 miles or 12 miles was a a long way to run, but at some point a 12 miler becomes a fairly short effort. Over time, you became accustomed to running those long miles a little at at time. Personally when I was training for ultra-marathons, I routinely ran over 25 miles as my long run and needed only a day or two to recover. But the effort level of these runs was easy and I had built up to this over a long period of time. The trade off in running these kinds of long-runs (over 20 miles) is that they themselves require a lot of recovery and there is a high risk over over-use injuries in running that many miles.

The bottom line here is that in order to make a marathon ‘just another run’ you have to do two things: 1) train with the intensity to run the marathon at a high marathon pace and then 2) back off the pace in a marathon. If you put these factors together, you’re likely to have a pretty easy recovery from even a marathon distance run.

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

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  1. 1. Question — How many miles to make a marathon ‘just another run’? « Running Advice and News March 8th, 2010 at 7:05 pm

    [...] To continue reading about marathon effort levels and recovery, click here. [...]

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