Should You Run the Full Distance Before a Race?

Should You Run the Full Distance

In long distance running, there are two different opinions about whether you should run the full distance of a race (or longer) in your training leading up to race day. To understand the advantages and disadvantages of each approach, we interviewed Meb Keflezighi, 2008 Olympic Silver Medalist and winner of the Boston and New York City Marathons, as well as two avid distance runners.

Meb Keflezighi

In an interview with last fall, elite marathoner Meb Keflezighi mentioned that he often runs a full 26.2 miles—and sometimes even exceeds that distance—on his longest training runs in the weeks leading up to competition. For Keflezighi, it all comes down to confidence.

"[If] you do it a few weeks before the race, [then you] know your body can take the distance," he says, adding that running the full distance in training helps him recover much more quickly after the race itself.

In fact, Keflezighi may do two or three full-distance runs prior to a race, staying true to long run form by keeping the pace about 60 to 90 seconds slower per mile than his anticipated race pace. Once he is three weeks out from race day, he begins his usual taper phase.

Keflezighi stresses that he only does these very long runs when he's healthy and feeling strong. "It's better to run one mile less and do a proper stretch and cool-down after, than to run an extra mile and skip the stretching," he says.

In his book, Meb for Mortals: How to Run, Think and Eat Like a Champion Marathoner, he explains the concept of "pre-hab"—the workouts and other routines he religiously follows in order to stay healthy and keep breaking records at the age of 40.

And Speaking of Mortals...

Running 26 or 28 miles in training may be no problem for one of the top marathoners in the world, but what about the rest of us? To find out, we contacted a few "average" runners and asked them the same question.

Angie Groettem is an avid half marathoner and the owner of Twin Cities Jogging Tours. For many years, Groettem says she trained pretty conventionally, making a 10- or 12-mile run her longest before each race, but more recently she's increased that distance to 13.5 miles. According to Groettem, the shift in strategy has helped her get more total training miles in and, when coupled with a full three-week taper, ensured that she's fully recovered and ready to go on race day.

Nathan Freeburg is the creator and editor-in-chief of local running publication Minneapolis Running. He has run numerous half and full marathons over the years, and says his long run strategy depends on the distance of the upcoming race. He normally runs 15 miles on his longest run prior to a half marathon, but when he's training for a marathon, he changes his focus to time spent on his feet rather than mileage. He never runs more than three hours on his longest run, and recommends that strategy for slower runners, too.

"Most beginner plans have runners peaking at about 30 to 40 miles per week," Freeburg says. "When 20 of those miles are done in a single run, it's not good for your body. For someone who may be finishing in five or more hours, spending more than four hours on your feet during a training run may do more harm than good."

Behind all of these answers is a common thread of sage advice: It's better to run fewer miles and stay healthy than it is to push yourself to hit your weekly mileage targets and show up on race day feeling bedraggled. However, if you're feeling healthy and strong as you approach the last phase of your training, then running the full distance can be a major boost to your confidence on race day.

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