The marathon is considered by many to be running's ultimate test. But as anyone who as trained for a marathon can tell you, the real challenges happens long before race day or the dreaded “wall.” It's the hard work you do in the weeks and months prior to your race that can make — or break — your performance on race day. Balancing training and recovery can be a full-time job, but you can make it easier on yourself by taking the radical step of splitting your long run.
The Role of the Long Run
The long run is a critical component of any marathon training plan, as it's where you build the endurance and experience that will help you on race day. Distances vary, but most marathon plans will have long runs that peak out somewhere between 18 and 22 miles.
Athletes who run 10 minute miles or slower will be running anywhere from three to five hours! It's no coincidence that so many middle of the pack runners suffer overuse injuries. After all, they consistently run one-and-a-half to two times longer than their faster counterparts.
In other words, no one single run is what prepares you for your race. It is the effect of training your body over weeks and months — and the ability to focus that fitness on the big day with your race execution — that will give you the results you seek. Your can reap the benefits of a 45 mile run week by splitting that long 20 miler into two efforts without suffering the consequences of putting 50 percent of your weekly mileage into one session and overwhelming your body.
A Quick Example
Let's look at a long run of 2.5 hours for our friends Speedy Stan (7 min/miles) and Wandering Wally (12 min/miles). Both athletes are running the same effort for the same time. The only difference is that Stan can rack up 21+ miles while Wally covers 12.5 miles. They are doing the same work (as measured by Effort times Time), it's just that Stan's output is much higher.
They both need to cover 20 miles per their shared training plan, but for Wally that means running an additional 90 minutes on top of what Stan has done. In other words, Wally faces the prospect of doing more work at the point when he is most fatigued and ill-prepared to run well. Like most runners, Wally sucks it up and keeps slogging through his run.
Across a full training program, Wally logs an average of 90 to 150 minutes of more running per week than his buddy Stan. This impacts his ability to recover, increases his fatigue and definitely hampers his ability to fit training in with all the other things in his life. And yet cramming all that hard work into one long run session isn't necessary for Wally to be his best on race day.
Your Body and The Cost of Running Longer than 2.5 Hours
Inside Marathon Nation we don't advocate long runs over 2.5 hours, although you can do runs up to about 3 hours if you are fit and able to dedicate time to recovery. We can do this since we incorporate a good amount of intensity in our training plans, even the long runs. This increased effort offsets the need to go longer at an easier pace, as we are earning the same training stress.
The longer you run over the 2.5 hour mark, the risk of getting injured and/or over-trained is significantly increased. Yet you aren't gaining any additional fitness that couldn't be achieved in shorter runs with better technique. In other words that costs of running longer significantly outweigh any potential benefits.
Aside from the increased risks, it's important to note that once you have hit the two hour mark on a long run, your body is pretty much functioning a total marathon capacity. You are fueling up as your glycogen stores are dwindling and you are hydrating to offset water loss. Nothing else magical happens to you after your body has reached this point other than needing the mental strength to continue on to the finish line.