Running-Advice.com -- Marathon Running Information, Coaching and Advice from Coach Joe English

Marathon: How long should your longest Marathon training run be?

running-advice-bugIt seems that the length of the longest training run for your marathon training has become a sort of hot-button topic in the coaching World. There was a time when just about everyone agreed that 20 miles was enough. Somewhere along the way, we’ve seen two diverging trends: 1) coaches advocating a much longer run, perhaps up to the full 26 miles and 2) coaches focusing on time or intensity, rather than a specific distance. I land somewhere in the middle, assessing each runner or walker individually.

How long should your longest training run beI was asked a series of a questions for an issue of a national running publication on this topic and I thought I would share my thoughts on the subject. I was answering this on behalf of my work with the Team In Training (TNT) Program, as I am a national adviser to the program. The views below are my own and should not be attributed to the entire organization as many people have different opinions on this topic.

1) “Why don’t most marathon training programs include at least one long run of 26 miles?”

Coach Joe: I take a holistic view on runners and assess what’s best for each individual. It is a myth to me that every runner has to follow the same formula to be successful, when every runner comes to the starting line with different goals and having different capabilities. For many years we topped out all of our training plans at 20 miles, because this was a good balancing between the amount of training necessary to finish the race and the potential risks of getting injured in training. We now recognize that the recovery period and risk of injury both get progressively greater as the activity goes over 20 miles, but we also acknowledge that faster runners may benefit from going longer than 20 miles.

So in today’s world it makes sense to look, for example, at runners that are banging out 20 miles in under two hours and give them the opportunity to run 22 miles in training (which is only a few minutes longer at their pace). At the same time we may have participants that could take six hours to finish 20 miles at a slower run/walk pace and in those cases we may want to limit the length of their workout to a maximum duration to ensure that they don’t get injured in training. Our philosophy is to get participants to the starting line of their race, rather than having them get injured in training, so they can at least participate in the event that they set as their goal.

From the mental perspective, we’ve also found that first-time runners want to achieve their distance goal in the race rather than in training. We’ve had instances in the past where we’ve had half-marathon participants, for example, complete a 14 mile run before their race and they then found the race itself to be a bit anti-climactic. So topping participants out at 12 miles for the half marathon and 20-22 miles in the full marathon gives them something further to reach for in their race experience and makes the journey all that much more memorable.

2) And what is the TNT recommendation to their runners about walk breaks? Encouraged from mile 1 of long runs to take them? Or do you encourage runners to go as far as possible before walking at all?

Coach Joe: We encourage runners to experiment with walk breaks to find a combination of running and walking that works well for them. Once they have found a pattern that works, whether it be run 1 mile, walk 1 minute or run 2 minutes, walk 1 minute, we stress the importance of practicing that combination in all of their long workouts, starting from the beginning of the workout through to the end.

Starting the walk breaks early in the workout keeps fatigue at bay and is much preferred to going until you “can’t keep running” before starting walk breaks. Of course, we don’t require or suggest that everyone takes walk breaks, as we recognize that many of our participants will run the entire distance without stopping. Conversely, we also train many marathon walkers that will complete the entire distance without ever running a step. We see the entire spectrum from Boston Qualifiers to people finishing in eight hours or beyond.

3) Finally, how frequent are the long runs (once a week?) and how long before the marathon is the longest one performed (2 weeks before?)?

In developing my training schedules, I tend to use a repeating pattern of the longest easier paced runs on one weekend and longer marathon goal paced runs on the alternating weekends. This allows us to step up the distance every two weeks and gives a recovery week between the longest hard efforts. Of course the differences between the workouts are small (maybe 2 miles) but this can make a big difference mentally for runners as they get into the highest mileage of the season. The mental difference between 18 and 20 miles can feel like an enormous break.

Typically our longest run happens three weeks out from the race, with two tapering weeks following that longest effort. This gives participants a good recovery from their longest effort and also can provide a make-up week if something goes wrong along the way and the participants schedule moves out one week. We would not recommend doing a long effort closer than two weeks from the race.

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

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