There’s just no doubt about it: The most important element of any marathon training program is the long run. It’s absolutely essential for any prospective Livestrong Austin Marathon runner to consistently log several long runs during the marathon buildup in order to run well on February 19th.
There is absolutely no substitute for running long and there’s no way around doing them. Do long runs properly and the training will make you stronger and tougher (mentally and physically). Neglect them (or don’t run enough) and your chances for having a great Austin Marathon experience diminish greatly.
Even though the long run is critical to marathon success, it is also the hardest obstacle to overcome for many runners. Particularly beginners. There are certainly numerous ways to make your long runs more manageable and easier to complete, but you must keep in mind a simple tenet: The long run is a marathon. And the marathon is just a very long run.
That is, you must treat your long runs with the same respect and attention to detail as will the marathon. If you do, you increase your chances of success in the Livestrong Austin Marathon.
Here are several tips to make the long run more palatable:
Rest. Before any long run, get plenty of rest the day before. Don’t do anything physically taxing that you wouldn’t do the day before a race. If you run the day before a long run, make it short and easy. Then, avoid such activities as soccer, golf, mowing the lawn, long bike rides or moving furniture. Pick up a book or watch a football game. Just chill. This also extends to the night before the long run. Not a good time to go to 6th Street or a party. Go to bed at a normal time and get plenty of rest. You’ll need it the next morning.
Plan ahead. Decide beforehand, how long you’re going to run and where. Pick a course, map it and if necessary drive it the day before. Make absolutely certain there won’t be any confusion while you’re running which way to go. You don’t want to get lost or go too far (or too short). If you’re in a training group the course has already been mapped out for you. Also if you’re in a training group, there’s probably water placed out on your course. But if you’re not in a group, a word to the wise: You’ll need to need to hydrate every half hour or so during the long run. Because you will, you’ll need to hatch a plan so you can drink along the way—either at drinking fountains or bring money to buy Gatorade or water at covenience stores. If nothing is available, either plan to carry your own water (or sports drink) in a water carrier system. Better yet, the day before the long run cache several water bottles along the way that you can easily find. If there’s any concern with someone tampering with them, tape the nozzles shut. If you’re planning to use Gu, Shot Blocks or Hammer Gel, you can also hide a few packets next to your water bottles.
Get loaded. That is, load up on carbohydrates the day before your long run. Carbo-load for your long run the night before just like you’ll do for the marathon. You don’t have to get fancy. Simply eat a healthy meal, rich in carbohydrates to fuel your muscles for the long run the next day. Pasta always works; pizza doesn’t. Neither does TexMex. This is a good time to find which foods work best before a long run and then plan your pre-marathon meal based on what has worked well.
Partner up. If you’re not in one of the numerous training groups around Austin, find someone of equal ability to run long with. A long run can get awfully darn boring and a friend can only make the run seem shorter by sharing the miles. Try to find someone who can run within your pace range and who is willing to go as long as you need to go. Or find someone who can run at least a good part of the long run together. If it’s impossible to get anyone to go, ask your spouse, child or a good friend to ride a bike at least part of it with you (and make sure they remember to bring water).
Group runs. Even better than running with a friend, is doing a long run with a group of friends who are all training for Austin. The dynamics of the group are almost always helpful in completing a long run and if the group meets regularly, it becomes one long social gabfest. Since you’ll be running among great gobs of people during the marathon, doing a group run is good practice for this.
Go long, go early. When doing a long run, earlier is better than later. Especially in Austin. There’s less traffic, the air is cleaner, it’s cooler and once done, you have the rest of the day to recover. Beside, the marathon starts at 7 a.m. so get used to running early. Try and get up at least an hour before your long run so you can eat something and have a bowel movement.
Dress right. The problem on most long runs in Austin isn’t staying warm; it’s being cool enough. Even in December. You’d be amazed how much heat your body will generate on a long run and if you overdress, you’ll get way too warm. It takes some experimentation to find the right clothing combination, but generally if you’re comfortable in the first couple of miles, you’re probably overdressed. In the fall and winter, you should be a little chilled in the first few miles. Generally—even in cool weather—all you’ll need is a long sleeve T-shirt, shorts and possibly some light gloves and a hat. Unless it’s below freezing, you won’t need tights or a jacket. If you chafe, make sure you use some Body Glide or Vaseline in the sensitive areas.
Wear “fresh” shoes. Obviously you need to wear a high quality pair of training shoes which are right for you, but what many marathoners don’t realize is if their shoes are worn down, it will compromise the cushioning greatly in the latter stages of a long run (and the marathon). The last few miles are tough enough without having to run on a poorly cushioned shoe. (Any shoe will lose a substantial amount of cushioning in two hours of pounding. A “fresh” pair loses less than a worn out pair.) A “fresh” pair with plenty of life still in the shoe will provide cushioning for the length of the long run and make the last few miles a lot easier on your legs. And don’t forget: About 2-3 weeks before Austin, get a new pair to wear in the race. It’s much better to wear a relatively new pair of shoes in the marathon than a pair with 200-300 miles on them. Fresher is better.
Simulate the marathon course. A word to the wise: The Livestrong Austin Marathon course is a very tough course. Although the course changes for the 2011 race haven’t been announced yet, there are major hills in the first 12 miles. To prepare properly, you must do several long runs over a series of hills that approximate the hills in the marathon at the same point as in the race. Fortunately, Austin has plenty of good hills that are long and tough. Some good ones to include on long runs include such monsters as Mount Bonnell, Ladera Norte, Rain Creek, Jester Boulevard, Mesa Drive and any number of hills in Westlake Hills. Absolutely you make certain to practice several climbs up Exposition. This is a key part of the marathon course (roughly miles 11-13) that you should become familiar with. After climbing Expo, the course then gradually climbs up Bull Creek, Shoal Creek and Great Northern (miles 13-18) to Northcross Mall. The climb isn’t very difficult, but the more often you do it in training, the more comfortable you will be with it in the actual race. (Download the course maps from www.youraustinmarathon.com.)
Proper pace. There are different schools of thought on what the ideal long run pace is, but suffice it to say it should be slower than the pace of your normal (shorter) training run and slower than the pace you expect to run in the marathon. If you start the long run out too fast, the last few miles will be agonizing (just like in the marathon). Rather than suggest you run a minute or two (or more) slower per mile, my advice is to do the long run under a controlled pace. That is, a pace you can maintain for the length of the run—and even pick up a bit in the final miles.
Rather than trying to maintain a certain pace for the length of the long run, I believe the most effective long-run pace is a varied one. That is, start off relatively easy for the first 4-5 miles, pick it up gradually over the next 10 and then attempt to close at your marathon race pace. Or try to run the second half of a long run, four or five minutes faster. Or try to run the last five at 10-K race pace. Or charge the hills, relax on the flats, finish strong.
Regardless of the different types of paces you use in your long runs one type of long run that is absolutely critical to marathon success are long runs at marathon goal pace. You should do at least 2-3 long runs at whatever your goal pace is for the marathon, but the length of these long runs shouldn’t exceed 15 miles.
How often. Completing that perfect long run and feeling pleasantly tired but not exhausted, is a matter of conditioning, pace and experience. The more long runs you do, the easier they become. Many Austinites do a long run year round—regardless of whether they are building up for a marathon or not. Most experienced marathoners do a long run every week or 10-12 days, depending on the training cycle they follow. Most first-timers are probably best off doing a long run every other week. That way, you have plenty of time to recover before the next one.
How many. Again, it depends on your experience, your fitness level and several other factors. There isn’t a single number (or distance) which works for everyone. Some marathoners do as little as six long runs, but a good recommendation is to get in no less than 10 long runs during your marathon build up. They don’t have to all be 20-milers though. Of the 10 long ones, that can include a few 16-milers, a couple of 20 and at least two of about 21-24 miles.
My advice is that before your marathon you should have at least 10 long runs under your belt and at least one long run should take as long (in time) as your projected marathon time–but within reason. If you are planning to run a 4-4:45 marathon, try a very long one that takes about that long to complete. The mileage doesn’t really matter; the time on your feet does. But it shouldn’t be any longer than 21-24 miles. If your marathon goal is five hours, I would not suggest doing a long run of that duration. It’s simply too long.
The longest long run you complete in your training cycle should be about five or six weeks out from the marathon. And your very last long run shouldn’t be any closer than three weeks before the marathon date. Four weeks is probably better for most first-timers.
Walk. Sure, there’s nothing illegal about walking in a marathon. Even so, there’s been a controversy brewing on whether it’s OK or not to take walk breaks during long runs—and during the marathon. Some experts advocate them as a way to make the last few miles of the marathon less grueling. Other coaches, don’t promote walking in training or racing. You choose. What is undeniable is that if you’re new to long runs (and are having difficulty extending the length of your runs), a 30-45 second walk break every mile (or 10 minutes) will definitely make the long run easier. But if you choose to take walk breaks, do them consistently right from the first mile—even though you aren’t tired. If you choose to take walk breaks on your long runs, one good way is to take a break whenever you drink. Just keep walking, rather than stopping completely to drink.
Punt. That’s right. Just because you have a long run scheduled for a specific day, doesn’t mean you have to do it at all costs. If you’re dinged up or sore, you may have to postpone or even cancel it. If you turn an ankle during the course of the long run, don’t assume you must gut it out to finish. Doing so, will just further your chances of having a more serious injury. And if you miss a long run (due to a commitment, injury or whatever), don’t necessarily reschedule it for the next possible day. Let it go. There’s still plenty of time to get one in next week. Don’t panic. Assuming you complete several long runs before the marathon, missing one (or even two) along the way won’t make a substantial difference.
R&R. Rest & recover. You should have rested before the long run. You should also rest and recover after long runs. Long runs are strenuous and tough. They are supposed to be. And you will need at least a few hours immediately afterward to recover. Give yourself plenty of time to relax, rehydrate and refuel your body with carbohydrates.
Something I’ve always done is the night before a long run of 20 miles or farther, I have a pasta dinner, but I make way more than even I can possibly eat. Then, I have plenty left over for the next day after I finish my long run when my body is starved for more carbs. Whatever you do, eat what your body craves after the long run. You’ve earned it.
Take a walk or bike ride. Assuming you’ve done your long run on Saturday or Sunday morning and have some free time in the afternoon, go for a walk or gentle bike ride with your family. It’ll help your recovery and keep your leg muscles from stiffening too badly.
Give yourself a break. There’s one last bit of training advice that was given to me several years ago by Mark Coogan who made the ’96 Olympic marathon team. Coog, who is now the cross-country coach at Dartmouth College, always took a training break six weeks out from his marathon to give himself time to recharge and regenerate before the final push. Just when he was starting to get worn down by all the training, he cut his mileage in half for a week before the final stretch.
I’ve used the same approach. Six weeks out, I do my longest long run and then the next week I cut my mileage in half. All my runs for that one week are easy and stress-free. No speed work, no hills. I might run a short race, but that’s about it. It’s time to relax and give myself one last training break before the final weeks of hard training.
You should give yourself a one-week break too. Don’t stop running. Just don’t do any long runs or hard workouts for a week. Simply make all your runs relatively short and easy runs that don’t stress you out. After that “rest” week, you can put in two or three more solid weeks of training feeling refreshed and energized for the marathon.