Whether you're a marathon vet or you're new to the distance, the long run can often cause anxiety. Running for 2, 3 or even 4 hours is a huge time commitment, and it's a real test of your mental and physical stamina. But is the long run really necessary during marathon training? The short answer is...probably. But you do have some flexibility when it comes to when and how far you actually run. Ready to go the distance? Here's what you need to know.
The Why of the Long Run
Most long run training plans max out at 20 to 22 miles, although it should be noted that many European plans use 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) as the upper limit. Whether you're running 16, 18 or 22 miles, the long run provides both mental and physical benefits, and those adaptations often don't show up until the final miles. A long run (usually defined as anything longer than 75 to 90 minutes when marathon training) will prepare your bones, joints, muscles and ligaments for the fatigue and strain of a long race. An hour-plus run can also help hone your mental toughness. Running long can be boring, and there's usually some discomfort (fatigue, thirst, etc.). Practicing being in this situation can give you the confidence that when things get difficult, you'll be able to keep going.
Long runs are also key to figuring out the gear and fuel you'll want on race day. A stomach can react very differently to fuel at mile 20 of a marathon compared to a 45-minute recovery run. Some runners need to hydrate and fuel at specific intervals to stave off nausea and lightheadedness. Better to figure that out on a low-key training run instead of on race day!
You know the whys of the long run, but what if your body or schedule just can't handle 20 milers? There may be another way. One of the physical adaptations that take place during a long run is that your body learns to use glycogen more efficiently. Glycogen is your muscles' main fuel, and when you run out (usually around the 90- to 120-minute mark of an unfueled run), your performance will take a nosedive. Over time and through training you can teach your body to rely less on glycogen and burn fat instead. One of the ways to do this is through long runs, but another way is through higher overall mileage. You can also add in more moderately hard, medium-distance long runs. So instead of running 20 miles on Saturday and 0 miles on Sunday, you can do a divided long run, 12 miles on Saturday and 10 or 12 miles on Sunday. This will produce a similar, if not greater training effect without spending 3 hours on your feet.
Keith and Kevin Hanson, coaches of the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, eschew the traditional 20-mile run for their sub-elite runners. Instead, their philosophy is that no single workout (like the long run) is more important than another. They focus on creating residual fatigue, often through back-to-back medium length runs, which produces similar (or better) physical adaptations as compared to the traditional 3-plus hour run. Most of the Hansons-Brooks plans max out at 16 miles, which is still a lengthy run, but if you're interested in trying something new, their approach might be a good one to explore.
If you're an experienced runner just looking to finish a marathon (not PR) and you're open to taking walk breaks, it might be OK to jump into a race with minimal long runs. Of course, it all depends on your personal training and injury history and what you want to get out of the experience. And if you need a little inspiration, keep in mind that Greta Waitz, the famed Norwegian runner, only maxed out at 13 miles in training before winning the 1978 NYC marathon. Of course, if you're planning on running an ultramarathon, this might not be the best plan of action.
READ THIS NEXT: 10 Quality Breakfasts to Fuel Your Long Run