Tomorrow, if all goes well, I’ll run 32 miles. It’s only one run, but it’s probably the single most important run I have left between now and race day. The longer-than-marathon run represents the core of my thinking about marathon training.
Most training plans for sub-elite runners have the runner adding a couple miles to their long run every two weeks, peaking at 20 miles or so just before the marathon. Maybe there’s some speedwork or hills, but mostly the focus is building the long run to something near marathon distance.
The weakest point in that typical plan is that the long runs aren’t long enough. You don’t train for a successful 5K by running 2 miles – you run farther. The same principle applies to a marathon. To run your best race, you have to include runs longer than 26 miles in your training plan.
I believe in the simple rule of thumb that goes, “on race day, you can go farther or faster, but not both.” Anyone who hasn’t run more than 20 miles while training is certain to have problems when they try to run both faster and farther in a race. If your longest long runs are only 20 miles, of course you’re going to hit the wall on race day at about that point. Want to avoid hitting the wall? Then train for the distance you’re going to race.
The other weak point about a “typical” marathon training plan, besides the length of the longest run, is that it has you doing your longest long runs just before the race. I’ve still got over two months to go before Cape Cod, but after tomorrow’s run, I’ll cut the rest of my long runs back so they’re all no more than 20-22 miles long. I’ll retain the benefits from my extra-long runs, but I’ll reduce my chance of overtraining by backing off from my hardest long workouts well before the marathon.
When I recommend longer runs to people, I get asked why I want runners to suffer more while they’re training. I had no idea that we were running marathons in order to avoid suffering! The idea isn’t to suffer less; it’s to manage your training to maximize the benefit of all your hard work. That way, your suffering doesn’t go to waste on race day.
If you want to do better in your next marathon, work your way up to where you’re doing a 20 mile long run. Then start extending every other long run. Keep one long run in each set of two at 20 miles, but stretch out the other one regularly, until you’re running 26, 28, 30,… 35 miles (or more!).
Plan to run the extra-long run slower than usual so it doesn’t take too much out of you. Don’t worry about the time. Your only goal is to put in the distance. Run comfortably; take walking breaks if you want. Stop at a store to get more sports drink, or on a bridge to admire the view. Don’t worry about time.
If you choose to take walking breaks, don’t wait until you’re tired. Take them from the start of your run. I set the alarms on my Garmin watch set to measure out the intervals for me. Tomorrow, I’ll be running for 5 minutes and then walking for one minute. Other times, I might run for six or seven minutes before walking, or run for 20 minutes and then walk for 5. You should fiddle with the proportions to match your ability.
Like many other elements of your training, the more of these long runs you can do the better, if you can do them without burning out. But you don’t have to do a lot of marathon-plus runs to benefit from them. Tomorrow will be only my third run of more than 26 miles this year. I’ve been trying to fit in more speedwork this year and that’s crowded out some of my longer runs.
One thing you’ll definitely notice once you’ve done a few extra-long runs is that your other long runs, the ones that are “only” 20 miles, will get easier. You can take the opportunity to adjust those runs and incorporate more hills, run a little faster, or just relax and enjoy the time on your feet.
It’s not just about physical fitness. Marathon-plus runs train my body and they also train my mind. When I go past 26 miles in training, the distance is less daunting on race day. I can tell myself, “It’s only 26 miles. Why, I ran 32 miles just a few weeks ago. This is nothing.”
A side benefit of running farther than 26 miles is that it puts you on your way to running an ultramarathon if that interests you. In fact, entering a 50K is a great way to add enjoyment to your extra-long run. Just remember to keep your main goal in mind and run the 50K as a comfortable training run, not a race (or make sure to take a little time to recover if you slip).
Extra-long runs aren’t for everyone. If you’re a new marathoner, additional experience will help you improve no matter what plan you follow. If you’re experienced, but you just enjoy running marathons and you’re not worried about your time, keep right on doing what you’re doing and stay happy. If you’re an elite runner, I suspect extra-long runs would help you, but if you’re already capable of putting in 100 miles per week regularly or running a 2:40 marathon, I’ll concede that you’re different from me and you might be better served by a different plan.
No matter what you do, running a marathon as fast as possible will always be hard. Hell, running a 5K as fast as possible is hard. But a slow 3 mile run? That had better be easy if you’re at all serious about racing 5Ks. If you want to run a marathon to the best of your ability, you have to get to the point where a slow marathon is, if not exactly easy, at least something you can do without needing a week of recovery time afterward. The best way to make your 26 mile run easier? Run farther than that.