The Long Run

A Shifting Paradigm

For years, the venerable long run has been the centerpiece of the marathon training program. The physiological benefits are well documented, but there is the added psychological benefit which comes from asking your body to accomplish something it may never have done before. The idea of completing your first 20-miler brings with it much apprehension, but also much anticipation. The satisfied feeling of completing the distance can get stored away and called upon when you are in the midst of doing the actual marathon and need to draw from the waters of that mental well.

With that being said, what I am about to discuss will seem like heresy, but it is based in well-researched sports science; unless you can complete a 20-miler in three hours or less, you can do more harm to yourself than good. To put this in better context, most research has found that running for a period of 2-3 hours returns the most physiological benefit, whereas anything beyond the 3-hour mark can start to have deleterious effects.

The Science Behind It

The science behind the long run is to stimulate adaptations, and running it is not a means to an end. Imagine what it would be like if we always had to run for the distance, we were training for. If that were the case, how could you ever recover if every Sunday you had to run 26.2 miles? You would spend the entire remainder of the week and then some, walking around very gingerly-- going down stairs backward-- have every muscle below the waist be sore to the touch! What adaptations are going to happen under this scenario? The answer is None!

Most beginner marathon schedules that you find online include long runs that eventually build up to at least a 20-miler. Some even higher than that. Most sports science research, along with many nationally recognized distance coaches, suggest that the long run should make up anywhere from 25-30% of your overall weekly mileage. It should compliment your training regimen, provide the appropriate stimulus for adaption, and not require more than a couple of days to recover from.

Trust the Training

If this news is causing you some anxiety in thinking you may never get to 20 miles except on the day of the marathon, please don’t dismay. This is why we have the other days of the week to train. Adaptations are not the result of any single run (long or otherwise), but instead are the cumulative effects of all the many runs you do. All the many runs over the weeks leading up to the marathon, along with the appropriate rest and recovery, will get you to the finish line.

If after all this you still feel compelled to attempt the distance, then I can only caution you to be careful and listen to your body. While you might be successful in completing a 20-miler, your body may take up issue with you at a later time by developing pain somewhere you didn’t expect or become run-down because of too much-accumulated fatigue.

You have been warned!


Coach Sam Davis