Get the Most Out of Your Long Run for a Better Marathon

Get the Most Out of Your Long Run for a Better Marathon

Could you run a 5K without any training? Probably. How about a marathon? Probably not. This is true for most of us, and therefore it’s common practice in marathon training to work on extending our range by undertaking a sequence of increasingly long weekend runs. These runs are necessarily done at low intensity for the obvious reason that higher intensities can’t be sustained as long.

What happens, though, when your goal shifts from merely finishing marathons to finishing them faster? Whereas a majority of less experienced and competitive runners keep their fast runs and their long runs separate in marathon training, achieving the best marathon performance you’re capable of requires that you inject some speed into your long runs.

This shouldn’t happen all the time. When your goal is to cover 26.2 miles in the least amount of time possible, the long-run component of your training should be divided into two phases. In the first phase, which is the base-building period beginning after an off-season or regeneration period, the long-run build-up is no different than before. Each session is done entirely at low intensity and the focus is on boosting your range by increasing the distance you cover from week to week. But what is different, is that this process terminates once you’re able to cover 20 or so miles quite comfortably — a point that should be reached about 12 weeks before race day.

Now it’s time for phase two, where most of your long runs include efforts at moderate intensity (between marathon pace and 10K pace) and/or high intensity (5K pace and faster). Although the format can vary, the overall degree of challenge of these next-level long runs should rise as race day draws nearer, except in recovery weeks, which will fall every third or fourth week. Here are four specific formats to try:

Long Run with Cutdown

A cutdown is a segment at the end of a long run where each mile is completed faster than the one before, and it’s a great way to teach your legs to do the opposite of what they want to do when you’re fatigued: slow down.

Example:

12 miles easy

1 mile @ LTP* + 0:10

1 mile @ LTP

1 mile @ LTP – 0:10

1 mile easy

*LTP = Lactate Threshold Pace, or the fastest pace you could sustain for one hour

Marathon-Pace Run

It’s important to practice running at or near your marathon race pace for a couple of reasons. First, it helps you determine what your marathon pace actually is. Second, it makes you more efficient and comfortable at this pace.

Example:

2 miles easy

12 miles at marathon pace

2 miles easy

Long Run with Surges

Incorporating modest doses of running at speeds that far exceed your marathon goal pace into a long run gives you the benefits of both high intensity work (including increased aerobic capacity and lactate tolerance) and prolonged low-intensity work (such as improved fat-burning capacity and inhibitory control, or focus).

Example:

3 miles easy

10 x (1 mile with the first 1:00 at 5K pace and the rest easy)

3 miles easy

Long Run with Tempo

Similar to the Long Run with Surges format, this format combines the aforementioned benefits of prolonged efforts at low-intensity with the rewards of running at threshold intensity, chief among them the heightened ability to sustain a moderately aggressive pace.

Example:

4 miles easy

2 miles at LTP

4 miles easy

2 miles at LTP

4 miles easy

I’d like to stress that the workouts above are just examples. Feel free to try other variations on these four themes. Keep in mind that your next-level long runs trend toward higher Training Stress Scores, and that the less marathon-specific sessions (those featuring high-intensity efforts) are bunched toward the beginning of the second phase of training and the more marathon-specific ones (those featuring longer efforts at marathon pace) are bunched toward the end. If you stay within these parameters, your next-level long runs will leave you feeling less intimidated not only by the marathon distance, but also by the pace you hope to sustain over this distance.

Matt Fitzgerald

Matt Fitzgerald is a journalist, author, coach and runner specializing in the topics of health, fitness, nutrition, and endurance sports training (read more about Matt on his blog). Matt uses TrainingPeaks to train, coach and deliver pre-built training plans for runners including training plans built specifically to be used with a Garmin Forerunner. View Matt's 80/20 running plans here and his 80/20 triathlon plans here.

Visit Matt Fitzgerald's Coach Profile