Achieve the Perfect Long Run for Your Marathon or Half Marathon!

English: Start of a long road
A long run need not be lonely or boring. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s been a while since we’ve visited the long run, and since many of us are getting into fall racing season it’s time!

Most of us know long runs are important, but we also have some newbies among us who need a little background on the fundamentals of good half and full marathon training. Weather you’ve run a bazillion of them or are sweating about your first, this post is for you!

It seems like runners either love or hate going long. No matter your standpoint, they are necessary, especially for half and full marathon training.  And as we creep up on prime timing of long training runs for this fall’s racing season, I’ll share what the experts have to offer as well as what has worked for me, personally, for these time consuming but gratifying runs.

The Half Marathon Long Run

English: A brick wall (stretcher bond) Françai...
Think of your long runs as wall insurance. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A weekly long run is essential for half marathon training. Building the base from about 4 to 5 miles up to 10 to 12 miles is a typical theme in basic half marathon training programs, regardless of if you’re a vetted half marathoner or a first-timer. For beginners, the long run will be a mental barrier that builds confidence for race day; for any runner, regardless of level, the longer training run will prepare the body for the endurance that it will need. Fighting through the fatigue and training the body to keep pushing forward will assist both mentally and physically.

I consider anything 7 miles or up a long run, and I typically try to one each weekend for at least two months leading up to the half.  I like to do a 10 miler about one month prior to race day and another 10 miler about two weeks prior to race day before leading into a taper. Some swear by doing a 11, 12, or 13 miler as their longest training run, but for a half marathon 10 miles is plenty and prepares my body just fine. The final three miles of the race are typically completed with a heavy dose of adrenaline anyway.

Being on your feet (in the act of running) for the same duration as you will be at the race is the most important aspect. For example, if your training run is done at about 1:30 to 2 minutes slower per mile than you will be running at race pace,  you can run about 10 miles and be on your feet for just as long as you will be for all 13.1 come race day.

The Marathon Long Run

Ahhhh, the marathon long training run! When you embark on completing this goal race, it seems like this particular run within the training schedule is SUCH. A BIG. DEAL. And, well, it kind of is! The long run is such a crucial part of marathon training.  Questions might be booming in your mind: How far should I run? Do I run for time or distance? What about pace? What to eat and drink? The list goes on and on.

You’ve been training for eight to twelve weeks and the time has come to tackle the inevitable: the 20-miler. Some tend to overemphasize its importance, though. I think all the miles leading up to the longest run surely contribute to the overall racing experience; however, training the body to push through fatigue that hits during those last miles of a marathon has always served me well, personally. I stick to the popular 20-mile maximum when training for a marathon, but others go as far as 22 to 24 miles. A very few believe in overdistance training, meaning they run more than 26.2 in training for a marathon!

There are really two types of marathon long runs that do well for most runners. The long, steady one (this is what I use; running about 1:30 slower per mile than race pace for the entire run) and then the long run + workout. This might mean you throw in some marathon pace sections, tempo sections, intervals, etc. A very common example is the fast-finish long run Coriander mentioned in her recent mental toughness post, where you start at the slower pace, increase it in the middle of the run and try to hit race pace for the last 30-60 minutes of the run. You can read more about these techniques on the McMillan running site.

Your marathon long run is essential for another reason too: it trains your body to spare glycogen stores while improving your stamina (to read more about glycogen and marathoning check out our “Fight the Bonk” posts). And like Coriander suggested, it’s also an opportunity to improve your mental fitness and test our your racing equipment and nutritional plan come go time.

Enjoying your Long Run

Leaving the family for a lazy Saturday morning to get in your long training run might not sound too appealing, but it sure will help you come race day!
Leaving my  family for a lazy Saturday morning to get in my long training run isn’t too appealing at first, but it sure does help me prepare for the race!

Setting out solo for a 20-miler (or honestly anything over 10!) can be quite the tedious task. Instead of hanging out with the family, sleeping in or noshing on chocolate chip pancakes on Sunday morning you need to carve out 3 hours to complete a 20-miler. Are you nuts? Yeah, probably. But in the end, the long training runs can be very cleansing and rewarding.

If you’re going solo, you likely will want to go in daylight for safety reasons, but remember, you don’t want to go in the worst heat of the day! You can make a fun playlist if that’s your thing or try out a new route so you have new scenery to keep you intrigued. I like to envision the giant glass of ice cold water or chocolate milk that’s waiting for me as soon as I finish, or to visualize icing my legs with giant bags of peas while lounging on the couch and watching trashy reality TV without feeling any guilt at all. I just ran 20 miles, after all!!

Pace of Easy Long Runs

SLOOOOWWWWW DOWN! Long runs are meant to be run at a slower pace. It should be fairly easy to carry on a conversation. A long run should be run at least 45 seconds per mile slower than marathon pace and up to 2:00 slower. I like to go 1:30 slower per mile than my goal race pace.

One of the biggest mistakes first-timers make is running long runs way too fast. The goal is to finish the mileage and focus on being on your feet for the amount of time you will need to complete the race. This is the training the body needs and taking walk breaks is totally acceptable, especially if exhaustion or fatigue comes creeping and it’s your first time training for a half or full.  Just keep moving as much as possible if you do need to slow down. Again, I can’t emphasize it enough, time on your feet is the important thing to consider!

Timing is Everything

Test out the racing gear that you'll be using on race day. Use the long training run as your 'dress rehearsal'
Test out the racing gear that you’ll be using on race day. Use the long training run as your ‘dress rehearsal’

You don’t want to do your longest training run too early in the training plan in fear of losing that edge and confidence boost that it provides, not to mention the beneficial physiological training effects. But you don’t want to wait too long in fear of injury or overdoing it and enhancing fatigue too close to race day.  Most runners agree it’s important to plan a taper period as well.

Most plans say to plan your final long run approximately two weeks before racing day. It should be a like a dress rehearsal. I typically like to run it at the same time that the race will be. I also like to eat the same dinner and breakfast that I will be eating on race day to test out the gastrointestinal issues! Additionally, if the weather seems like it will be about the same as it will be on race day I test out my racing outfit to see how it holds up: whether I’m comfortable, if there are any chaffing issues, etc. I bring along my chosen race fuel and hydration and try out my fueling plan for the race. For me, this includes water and Gatorade alternating at every mile after 5 and a GU at mile 7 (for a half) and mile 13 (for a full).

I’ve run dozens of half marathons and half a dozen marathons. I’ve taken a liking to these longer, slower training runs and all the freedom and confidence they bring me. I know skipping out on tempo runs and speed workouts won’t make me the best runner I can be, but I can’t say I’ve been as good at getting to the track as I have been about getting in the long training runs.  I just love them!  I’d rather strap on the shoes and hit the trails, enjoying this time of year with its crisper air, fall smells and beautiful changing leaves.

Do you enjoy your long training runs or do you dread them? Do you run with buddies or fly solo? Do you like to use them as dress rehearsals?  Where do they fall in your training cycle?

I'm a new momma, full-time non-profiter, and coffee lover. I write about healthy body image, half marathon training, and recovery from eating disorders. I'm currently training to maintain fitness throughout the winter and break 1:27:00 in my next half marathon.

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  1. Lots of good advice here. For the most part, I enjoy long runs. But I think if you are going to run distance races, you have to embrace them as you’ll be doing them every week for several weeks, if not months. I also think the approach to long runs should vary depending on whether you are a newer runner, a seasoned runner going after a PR, or even a seasoned runner just trying to cover the distance but not necessarily race. This marathon training season I am gunning for a PR and training at a high level (for me). I did my first 20 miler at 9 weeks and will ultimately do 5 runs that are 20 miles or over. I will run up to 23 miles. My last long run is 3 weeks out from the race though – I definitely need a full 3 week taper.

    1. Long runs are my favorite. Last year was the first training cycle that I ran more than 3 20s, and I feel like it really did help my endurance during the race. I will have 5 20+ runs in for this training cycle, and hope to hit 23 tomorrow for my last long run before Twin Cities (3 weeks out).

      I follow the Run Less, Run Faster training programs, so long runs are treated more as a workout than an easy run. I actually love this approach, and haven’t had issues with recovery. I’m not ready to call it a success on the avoiding injury front because I don’t want to tempt fate, but Twin Cities will be my 3rd marathon in just under 12 months (along with a 50K). I’ve never been able to pull something like that off previously.

  2. Like Ginkgo says, long runs are supposed to be easy, through slightly faster than your easy pace. You’re trying to build aerobic capacity. Save speed training for workout days.

    For everyone new to this, remember it gets better. The first year I ran long runs, I remember being unable to move for days. Now I do 16 or 20 miles and within a few hours, I can’t even remember them.

  3. I’ve always run my long runs faster than my typical easy pace. I think of my long run as a quality day and try to make it a quality workout. For marathon training my favorite workout is to do 14 easy-moderate (1:00-:45 slower than GMP) and then 10k at GMP. It’s great to simulate the last 6.2 of the marathon.

    1. You would do that for every long run? I usually run my LR at easy pace, but once in a while have workouts like you mentioned – usually near the end/peak of cycle. I consider the LR a quality workout too, so I don’t slog it, but usually run b/w 8:45 and 9:00 pace (general aerobic). I think pushing harder than that for every one would be more detrimental than good (takes too long to recover, more likely to cause injury if you are also doing speed/tempo workouts during the week).

      1. No! I do that maybe on e before the race. I also do a longer gmp run about 4 weeks out which is also important. Usually I just do a steady run somewhere between 7:50 pace and 7:25 pace.