Training: Should I run one or two 20 milers before my first marathon?

One of my athletes training for the Mayor’s Midnight Sun Marathon in Anchorage wrote to me today asking the following question:

Our training program has more time than some other programs and I see that we have the opportunity to run 20 miles twice to get ready for the race. Do we really need to run 20 miles twice to be ready?

I mention the fact that this runner is preparing for the Mayor’s Midnight Sun Marathon in Anchorage, only because that particular course has some hilly and unpaved sections that make it more difficult than many marathons. But my answer below really applies to most runners preparing for their first marathon in any race:
– First, running 20 miles at least once in training for a first marathon will normally ensure that a runner has the necessary preparation to finish the race without regard to a particular time goal. This means that the 20 miler is tool to prepare the run for the distance of the marathon and every runner should try to get in at least one run as close to 20 miles as possible.
– Running 20 miles more than once in training will improve how the runner feels in the last six miles of the race, because it will give the body an additional opportunity to exercise for a duration of 2/3rds to 3/4s of the total time needed to finish the marathon on race day.
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Training: the first-time marathon runner 20-miler mental anguish

running-advice-bugIt’s always great to see another group of marathon runners graduate from my program by finishing their first marathons. But before getting to graduation day, they have to make it through their first 20 mile run. One of my groups — runners training for the upcoming Rock N Roll Marathon in San Diego — went through that process this weekend.

First TimeI’ve 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 they have ever conceived of running before — even when they began their marathon training program. It’s just sort of hard to imagine the scale of 20 miles in your mind and, until you do it, it isn’t something that we grasp easily.

It’s also tough from the perspective that running 20 miles on your own — even with a small group — feels very different than the energy of race day. There you are slogging through mile after mile, getting more and more tired, stopping at the traffic lights, avoiding cars, and wondering to yourself, “now, why am I doing this again?”

That’s where I wanted to focus today. The mental anguish that the 20-miler sets up in the first-time marathon runner’s mind and maybe some ways to get around them.

The problem was brought into stark relief this weekend when as runner said to me, just after finishing her run, “I don’t feel ready for the marathon.” A 20 mile run has a way of leaving a runner with that feeling. I think the thought process goes a little like this:
– I just ran 20 miles.
– Wow, I need to go another 6 miles in the marathon.
– I’m really tired.
– My legs hurt.
– I don’t think I could go another 6 miles.
– What have I gotten myself into?
– I think I’m going to puke.
– I don’t feel ready for the marathon.
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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
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