Long Run Paces for Marathon Training

Long Run Paces for Marathon Training

I’m going to hit this topic again because I keep getting asked this question and it seems there may be some misunderstanding around it.

Typically the question is ‘how fast should I run my long run in my marathon training plan’ and, as we discussed before the answer is ‘it depends’.

First, the answer depends on what your goal is for your target marathon race?  What are you trying to accomplish?

Second, this can only be answered in context of your entire training plan.  The long run is just one element of that plan and has to work with that plan.

Let’s look at the first thing.  What is your goal?  What are you trying to accomplish?

  1. Are you training to be able to finish the distance?

Many people training for a marathon are simply trying to make that last 6-8 miles go better.  I cannot tell you how many people have told me the same story.  They trained for their last race.  They were running well until mile 18, then the wheels fell off and they struggled in to the finish.

Their goal in this case is to be able to run through that last 8-10 miles and not crash.  That’s a worthy goal.

There are three main reasons they are crashing at the end.  First, and primary reason is that they aren’t aerobically fit enough to maintain the effort over the time and distance.  Second, is that they went out too fast and don’t know how to pace.  Third is that they screwed up their nutrition, fluid or electrolyte replenishment and essentially ‘ran out of fuel’.

To get more aerobically fit, to build the capacity to sustain an effort over the course of the race, you need to treat the long run as an aerobic fitness run.  This means you have to slow it down and run it at a pace that is probably 1-1:30 slower than your race pace.

This messes with people’s heads for some reason.  They try to apply the logic that since the long run is simulating the race somehow, they should try to do it at race pace or near race pace.  They somehow think the long run is some sort of practice race.

This is false logic.  Your body builds more aerobic fitness at lower effort levels. Running your long runs fast not only doesn’t build that physical capacity of aerobic base, it also breaks you down and makes you less able to execute the rest of your training plan.

To stop going out too fast you have to stop training to go out too fast.  This means starting your long run at a slower pace and then having the discipline to hold that pace through the course of the long run.  You are training your body not to fail at the end.  If you try to run race-pace in your long runs you’ll more than likely struggle to close them and this is exactly what you are training NOT to do.

If you are screwing up your nutrition the long run is a wonderful place to practice this as well.  Again, going at an aerobic pace will allow you to test taking in nutrition at the right cadence and volume.  If you’re attacking your long run at race pace you may not be able to digest and process that fuel as well.

To summarize, if your goal is to not crash at the end of the race, you need to keep your long runs aerobic, at least for the first two thirds of the run.  If it really bothers you, you can throw in 2-3 minute surges to race pace every 2-3 minutes and close the last mile or so at race pace.  This will reinforce the practice of starting easy, pacing consistently and closing hard – all while practicing your nutrition.

The pushback I get is hey, if I want to finish stronger why don’t I run the first third of my long run easy, the second third faster and the third chunk at race pace or faster?  This is a perfectly good workout, but it is not a long run to build aerobic fitness.  It is a step up run to build race pace.

This type of workout addressed a different challenge and is appropriate if you already have aerobic fitness and want to fine tune your racing.  It’s a tempo run.  These long step up runs are typically found in more advanced plans for more experienced athletes.

One risk that you run if you turn your long run into a tempo run is that you may be overloading your fitness capacity.  If you are doing other hard workouts during the week, turning your weekend long run into a tempo run could hamper your ability to recover.  If you go into these other hard workouts without enough recovery you can get injured or not hit the workouts as well, which subsequently doesn’t produce the benefits of those workouts.

  1. Are you training to get faster at that distance?

But let’s talk about the second type of goal you might have in your marathon training.  You might have a time-based goal.  You may be, god help you, trying to qualify for Boston.  In this case your constraint is not that you hit the wall at the end of the race per se, it is that you are not able to maintain a fast-enough pace to meet your goal.

Bottom line the goal of the training plan is to get faster.

What does this mean for your long run?  To get faster you should do two things.  First, you must develop the physical skills to run faster.  The form, the muscles the mechanics of speed.  Second, you must move your aerobic threshold so that you can hold faster paces longer.

To develop the physical skills of running faster you need to practice running faster.  This means speed and tempo training. This can be step up runs, other tempo runs, track work like 800’s and 1600’s.  This is the practice of speed.  If you have never trained specifically for speed you will reap large benefits from focusing on speed in your training plan.

How do you move your aerobic threshold so that you can maintain these paces for the distance?  It’s one thing to be able to run 800 meters hard, it’s quite another to hold race pace for 3 hours.

The fastest way to move this threshold and build this capacity is with volume.  There is an outsized benefit when you increase your volume from the typical amateur runner volume of 20-25 miles per week to 40-50 miles a week.  These higher weekly volumes ‘brute force’ condition your ability to hold a pace longer.

How do you get more volume?  One way is the weekly long run.  If you’re putting in 18-20 miles in a long run that makes up a good chunk of weekly volume.

Coming back around to ‘shouldn’t I be running my long runs faster to practice for my race?’ you can see that the goal of the long run here is not to build pace or speed.  It is simply to get volume. You are getting your pace a speed from the workouts during the week.  You don’t need to load in another tempo run on the weekends.  The benefit comes from time on your feet.

As you progress through a training plan that has a high volume and consistent speed and tempo elements the two parts will start to come together.  You’ll be getting more efficient from the speedwork and holding faster paces will be easier. You’ll be building volume from the combination of the weekly workout cadence and the weekly long run that will give you that race fitness as well.

Again, running the weekend long run as a tempo run in the context of a speed-and-tempo-based plan is probably overkill. The time on your feet is more important than pushing it hard – you are already doing that in the other training.  And, like we said before, you are going to end up pushing too hard and lessening the benefit of all your workouts.

Again, for advanced runners, in the last month leading into your race, it’s ok to throw in some surges or some fast finishes, but don’t turn your long run into a tempo run.  It runs counter to your goals.

The long run is for building volume and aerobic fitness not for race tuning your tempo pace.

3 Comments

  • Marathoner Vic

    Reply Reply September 2, 2017

    My objective for my first marathon next year will be to finish running the 42k distance. I had bigger plans for 10k and half marathon but not this time. I know it will be hard so all I want is to finish it. I’m not even sure for which I will register but probably sometimes next summer. My main issue is sticking with a plan. I always deviate and improvise along the way. Anyway what I plan to do is to increase the distance gradually and put more weekly miles in and eventually run a 42k for a couple of time in the months prior to the racing day. The only problem is, the winter is kind of long and ugly here in Toronto and it might be hard to do long runs in the winter – I tend to cough the air is cold. Cheers, Vic

    • cyktrussell

      Reply Reply September 9, 2017

      Choose a plan you can stick with, get a coach and find some co-conspirators.

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