The twin objectives of every marathoner (or half marathoner) are to train his or her best to cover 26.2 miles on marathon day while reaching the start and finish line healthy and injury-free. The key is finding the right balance between doing enough training to run well and yet remain free of injury.
Why this is tricky is simple: The more you train and the longer and faster your runs are, the more susceptible you are to injury.
This is especially true of the long runs that are so essential to marathon success. When your long runs cover 18-22 miles (or longer), the possibility of injury increases. This greater risk of injury occurs because when you run that far your muscles become extremely fatigued (hence, the training effect) and lose some of their ability to absorb road shock. As the muscles fatigue in the closing miles of a long run, your running form will also deteriorate. Fatigued muscles and poor form in the latter stages of a long run, means you run a higher risk of injury than say on an easy five-mile run.
And yet, that’s precisely why a long run is important: to strengthen your muscles and prepare them for the stresses of a marathon. But that’s also why long runs are risky business. The more long runs you do (and the longer and faster they are), substantially increases your risk of injury.
Exactly how far your long runs should be, how many you do in preparation for the marathon, what pace you run and when you do them is based on your running history, experience and goals for the marathon. The longer you have been running and the more ambitious your marathon goals are, generally means you should be doing more long runs during your training (and better able to handle them) than a novice marathoner.
Clearly, a beginning marathoner can’t run as many long runs (or run as far or fast) as a veteran. In addition, if your goal is just to finish the marathon, means you won’t have to do nearly as many long runs as someone who wants to run a specific, personal best time.
If this the Livestrong Austin Marathon on February 17th is your first marathon and your goal is just to finish, your longest long run should probably be about 20 miles. It’s possible it might be a little less (based on your prior running experience), but it certainly shouldn’t be more than a mile or two farther. One long run of 20-22 miles should be sufficient. Two would be better, but only if you have been running and racing for at least a year. If not, your other long runs should be limited to 18 miles and you should probably get at least four to six long runs under your belt.
For most marathoners who want to run their best time at Livestrong, six long runs of between 18 and 22 miles should be plenty. If you have previous marathon experience and have handled long runs well in the past, adding another couple of long runs (going up to a total of eight or nine) should help you in the final miles of the hilly marathon.
If you are a vastly experienced marathoner who is focused on running a personal best, you may want to move up to 10 to 12 long runs. If you have tolerated the 20-plus milers well in the past, you might consider doing at least one long run of 24 miles. But only one.
It is important to build up to your ultimate long-run distance gradually. There are two ways to do this—time or mileage. Mileage means you add one mile per week to your long runs, skipping every third week.
For example, if your current longest run was 12 miles, you should be prepar to build up a 20-miler over 11 weeks. Using this as an example, in week 1: 13 miles, week 2, 14 miles, week 3, shorter long run of 10 miles, week 4, 15 miles, week 5, 16 miles, week 6, shorter long run of 10-12 miles, week 7, 17 miles, week 8, 18 miles, week 9, shorter long run of 10-12 miles, week 10, 19 miles, week 11, 20 miles. By now, you should be well on your way.
If you choose to increase your long runs by time, simply add 10-15 minutes every week to your long-run mileage. But continue to back down with a shorter long run every third week. Doing so in this manner, gives your body time to adapt to the increasing stresses of the longer runs.
How often and how fast you do your long runs is a subject of great debate. Some marathoners do a 2-2 ½-hour run on a weekly basis, year ‘round. But in a marathon buildup stage, it is safer to space the long runs out, alternating long-run distances (for example, one week 18, the following week 12) or simply alternating weeks. One week you run long run; the following week, you either run a race or do a moderately easy semi-long run of 10 miles or less). Or, some training programs, do one long run every two weeks.
There is no right answer which works for every marathoner, just as there is no definitive answer on long run pace. Some coaches advocate long-run pace should be two or three minutes per mile slower than marathon pace. Others, suggest it should be about 90 seconds a mile slower. All agree you should not attempt to do an entire long run of 15 miles or more at marathon goal pace.
My answer to what your long-run should be? It depends on the length, terrain, weather and purpose of the long run. Generally, a long run begins at a rather conservative, conversational pace for at least the first hour. After that, the pace can be picked up to anything from 25-30 seconds a mile faster than what you’ve been running. Or you can try to hammer a section of the long run for a specific length of time (usually 45-60 minutes) and then back off. Or finishing the final hour of the long run at marathon goal pace. Or do an entire long run of 12-14 miles at marathon goal pace.
There are no pat answers, but beginners should usually stick with a conversational pace (that is, a pace they can maintain a conversation without being winded) which they can continue for the length of the run. Marathon coaching guru Jeff Galloway contends that no long run pace is too slow. Slower isn’t necessarily better, but it’s less stressful than a tougher pace.
But if you’re experienced and want to set a personal best, you will have to vary your pace on the long runs and do at least parts of some long runs quicker than a jog.
One of the best long-run workouts you can do is two complete laps around Lady Bird Lake. Although it can be crowded, it’s flat and there’s water available at various spots.
Here’s how you can maximize results from this 20-miler: Run the first lap easy and relaxed, making sure you hydrate along the way. But for the second lap, try to run it five minutes faster (30 seconds per mile). Or run the entire second lap (or at least the final eight miles) at marathon goal pace. Either way, it should be a tough long run (especially if you didn’t start slowly enough) but a great marathon simulator.
A Lady Bird Lake long run is obviously mostly flat, but to prepare for the Livestrong Austin you need to do a few of your long runs over several sets of hills such as Mount Bonnell and Mount Barker, Exposition, Rain Creek, Scenic and any of a number in Westlake Hills.
Since you’re right here, it also only makes sense to run as much of the Livestrong Marathon course as possible on various long runs, including Exposition, South Congress and the tricky three-tiered San Jactinto hills.
Some long-run tips that should make the workouts easier:
- R&R. Rest the day before each long run and recover the day after every one. Treat each long run almost like a race and chill out the day and night before.
- Load. Carbohydrate-load the day before every long run. Load up on carbohydrate-rich food just like you will in the days leading up to the marathon. Find out which foods work best for you. Make more than enough the night before and you can pound some the leftover carbs when you finish the long run.
- Pre-hydrate. Every marathoner knows the importance of drinking during the run, but many begin their morning long runs already in a dehydrated state. Drink at least 20 ounces of water or Gatorade before you start every long run.
- Go early. An early morning long run is always better than later in the day. There’s less traffic and pollution and it’s cooler. Livestrong Austin starts at 7 a.m. so even if you generally aren’t an early-morning runner, doing long runs early will help you get used to running in the pre-dawn darkness.
- Don’t overdress. Unless it’s extremely cold, all you need to wear is a long sleeve T-shirt, shorts and possibly some light gloves and a hat. Don’t wear a jacket or tights unless it’s below freezing.