The Bulls**t 20, or: Does it count if you split the miles up between runs?

During a visit to my hometown Vegas last fall, my sister’s boyfriend (who like me runs a lot, but runs a lot more half marathons, and definitely runs faster than me) enlightened me on his approach to long runs when prepping for half marathons.

On days he decides to run long:

  • He’ll wake up in the morning and run 4 miles at a brisk pace.
  • Later, during the afternoon, he’ll run 4 miles again but as more of a regular distance run.
  • Towards the evening, he does a final 4 mile run but very easy, like a recovery run.

He never does a full 10+ mile long run during his training, but he consistently runs half marathons in the 1:40 range. So far be it from me or anyone to call his “long” run days a problem, as it clearly works very well for him.

In fact, it actually sounds like a great idea, though granted part of the reason he does this is necessity: The Las Vegas heat is oppressive, and going for 2 hour runs in 100+ degree (Fahrenheit) heat is not only impractical but very dangerous. If he’s going to train for half marathons, the only way to get in the distance for long runs is to either get up far too early, or to break the distance up into shorter runs.

Not until I began this current marathon training cycle did I think to try and apply his approach. Obviously I have no trouble going on 15-20 mile runs, and Chicago’s conditions usually allow for it. But if I know I already have the aerobic capacity to run 3+ hours… could I not get the benefit of that mileage without excessive damage if I broke the run in half? Or shortened the long run to something in the 2.0-2.5 hour range, while doing a later recovery run for the rest of the distance?

This would allow me to get in all of the mileage, without drifting into the 150th minute danger zone where in various theories you’re no longer getting aerobic benefits from continuing and are only doing physical damage to yourself. If I did a long run, broke it off before I reached the danger zone… then did a later run after some time to recharge and refuel to cover the remaining distance, does that not serve the same overall aerobic benefit, as well as provide the workload benefit, without the risk of damage from an overlong run?

Last week I went to do a full 20 miler. Danger zone be damned, I always try to do a couple of uninterrupted runs that blow through it and simulate to some extent working through the later miles of the beating that the marathon will provide me. The 20 is technically a run most runners shouldn’t attempt, but like many I find a psychological benefit from powering through 76% of the race’s mileage.

I always try to map out or estimate a route for a desired distance, and I thought a long run to, through and from Northerly Island near Soldier Field and the Museum Campus would get me 20 miles. The threat of rain did not cut it short, and despite running the final miles through a downpour, I thought I had logged enough (I don’t rely on my inaccurate tracker to log miles, and instead manually map and log runs afterward to get an accurate reading).

Well, I log the run and was disappointed to find that it was only 18.6 miles. Though I had taken some longer detours through Lincoln Park, the whole route didn’t add enough distance to get to 20.

However, later that day my sore body felt up for a brief recovery run. I went outside around sunset and completed a typical 1.6 mile neighborhood circuit to get to 20.2 miles on the day.

Does that count? Purists would say no, of course. They would claim a 20 miler can only be one single 20 mile run. Of course, who is to say they’ve ever fathomed or considered breaking up a long run like this?

They would even say that my decision to go out for a 2nd run might have been dangerous. To be honest, it didn’t feel any more dangerous than extending the 18.6 mile run another 1.4 miles on the spot (presuming I knew at the time I was short). I was beaten and very tired by the time I returned from the 18.6, and had certainly done my fair share of wear and tear. I feel like it would have been more risky to press on in that state, than to go out after several hours of rest (and a meal or two) and take a short, easy run around the neighborhood.

A few weeks prior I took a 17 mile run, where more than halfway through I stopped at a hot dog stand because I was hungry and thirsty. I got a plain hot dog and some Powerade, ate and drank it, and then resumed my run. You could basically argue that was a flash version of the broken long run, where I did a 12ish mile run, then followed it quickly with 5 more miles… albeit with the two runs being about 10-12 minutes apart.

And today, I ran 17 miles. However, I ran 13.1 (a half marathon!) before stopping at Whole Foods in Edgewater for breakfast, right around 150 minutes after starting. After finishing, I walked to a nearby corner, resumed running and ran all the way home, about 4 miles. Same sort of deal. Was this a 17 mile run? Or was it a 13 mile run capped by a separate 4 mile run?

I think it counts, and I don’t anticipate any Running Police coming to my home to take me in for not doing the whole run at once anytime soon. Maybe a Bullshit 20, where you do a long run less than 20 miles and then make the rest of the distance up in a later run, is not a real 20 mile run. Maybe doing 150 minutes, and then making up the difference in a run later is a healthier way to do a 20 miler that’s just as effective.

As problematic as results based analysis can be, I guess we’ll see how it works for me when I run the Chicago Marathon next month.

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One thought on “The Bulls**t 20, or: Does it count if you split the miles up between runs?

  1. […] My record calorie burn in a day right now is 5400, which of course was on the last day I attempted to log a 20 miler (after which I logged a recovery run in the evening, making it a Bulls**t 20). […]

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