As with a lot of training approaches, runners have a very polarized approach to how they handle long runs.
Either they do a simple easy run over a long distance, or they add in some tempo with the long run (either trying to run the whole thing at a tougher moderate pace, or mixing in tempo segments with easy running), turning it into a grueling exercise.
Both polarized approaches have substantial drawbacks.
The long easy paced run may develop long aerobic endurance, but it also accustoms you to only handling your longest distances at an easy pace. Any attempt to race longer distances thus becomes a huge struggle, because you haven’t practiced running faster at max distance.
The mixed tempo run may address that issue, but creates another issue: It asks you to work especially hard at points on a run that is already fairly difficult due to its duration. This increases the burnout and injury risks, and at the least makes long runs such a miserable experience that many just forego any sort of intermediate tempo work on those runs. (It’s the biggest issue with the Daniels Marathon Plans. Those quality long runs are super-demanding. Few outside of elites and hardened distance running vets can consistently handle them.)
Regular readers can probably sense where I’m going with this point: There is a vast and mostly-unexplored middle ground to long runs that will allow you to work on and develop aerobic strength (aka the ability to maintain faster paces over longer distances), without demanding so much from you.
Like most, I did virtually all my long runs at a very easy pace, focusing only on covering the needed distance or time. While that helped my aerobic and neuromusuclar development in general, it also didn’t substantially develop my ability to race longer distances.
That’s fine if my goal at the half marathon distance or longer is just to finish the race. But like most runners, I’m well past that post in my life, and my goal in these races is to PR them, run the entire race strong, and finish strong.
I have dabbled with Daniels 2Q mixed tempo runs, with fast finish long runs, and other mixed up-tempo long runs. While those workouts can be valuable for some runners in some cases… having that be your only other long run approach aside from easy long running is a blunt-instrument approach to developing endurance.
I wanted more for a while. And the good news is that my recent 10K success turned on the light bulb. There is a better way!
Not only is there a better way that’s easily do-able for any long run distance you can reasonably complete… but it shouldn’t wreck your body the way running at a hard tempo in mile 14 of a 16 mile run does. You can bounce back more quickly and get back at your regular workouts within a couple days with little distress.
See, when we run reps and intervals, the approach is very similar to a recent productivity concept known as timeboxing. When timeboxing, you focus on a task for a set period of time, then take a break from it.
One popular example of timeboxing is known as the Pomodoro Technique. The Pomodoro Technique is simply setting aside a firm 25 minute block of time to focus on a specific task. At the end, you take a 5 minutes break from the task, after which you’re free to focus on the task for another 25 minute Pomodoro (with another 5 minute break afterward), or to move on.
The only difference is that we as runners usually box our focused effort into distances rather than time. We focus for example on running 400 meters, then take a recovery interval before either running more 400 meter repetitions (with recovery intervals between), or finishing and moving on.
The Daniels 2Q workouts also do this, having you start off running easy for a few miles, then asking you to run at faster tempos for one or more miles, taking an easy period, then running more fast-tempo sections, until finished.
To diverge a bit, the Hanson Marathon Method asks runners to do their long runs at more of a moderate (rather than easy) pace. The IronFit approach asks a similar demand, citing that a runner needs to complete their long runs within 30-60 seconds per mile of their goal marathon pace, and this typically demands a more moderate-level effort, closer to 30-60 seconds slower than marathon pace. (An easier run is closer to 90-120 seconds slower or more.)
Running at a moderate pace over a regular 5ish mile run is not a big deal over a regular training run. In fact, most runners do it every day (even though they should run easier in most of those workouts).
But asking that pace over 10-16 uninterrupted miles may be a bit much for a lot of runners.
However… what if we melded the Hanson approach, the Daniels 2Q approach, and the timeboxing approach?
What if runners wisely pushed themselves a bit in long runs with a more moderate pace, but for periods of time with some recovery work in-between… rather than all in one go, or outright asking them to run race-tempo during all those runs?
I like the Hansons/IronFit idea of executing long runs at a greater-than-easy moderate effort. But like most I also like finishing those runs without feeling physically beat up and worn out on the level of having just run a long race. Sometimes that level of fatigue is okay and important (we call those “key workouts”), but not after every single long run.
Here’s the approach I’ve refined for long runs of 2 hours or more (typically the duration of marathon training long runs). I call it The 55-5 Long Run:
The 55-5 Long Run
For every hour you are running…
- Run at a moderate pace (within 30-60 seconds of your goal marathon pace), for 55 uninterrupted minutes.
- At 55:00, slow to an easy run. Take fluid or other fuel if you have it. Breathe. Relax, but keep running/jogging.
- Run easy for 5 minutes.
- After those 5 easy minutes, resume a moderate pace and repeat the above until finished.
- Shorten the last moderate section as needed, e.g. if you plan to run 2.5 hours, then the last moderate section is only 30 minutes long.
- If you want to do a fast finish long run, a shortened final section (after the last easy 5 minute recovery interval) is a great time to do a fast finish.
If that sounds slightly familiar… yes, that’s very similar to the approach I took while PRing in the Mardi Gras Chaser 10K last week. Given how strong I felt the entire way, and how even my whole race effort was, I realize the approach could translate easy to not just any race, but any long run of challenge and consequence.
The 55-5 is what I do for long runs now. Though I’m not one to ever regret, I do wish I knew to do 55-5 long runs years ago. I would have gotten so much more out of my long runs with so much less pain and exhaustion. I would have bounced back more quickly and not had to reduce, defer or skip workouts in the days following my longest runs.
The 55-5 long run approach effectively channels your energy and challenges your aerobic and neuro-muscular fitness without red-lining your body or your hormones.
Also, by inherently guide-posting your run (with the breaks every 55 minutes), 55-5 gives you an easier and more productive way to cut long runs short when needed. If you’re not feeling up to par, you can always aim to finish the 55 minute block, and re-assess during the 5 minute recovery interval.
It’s easier during the easy interval to determine if you’re just having a tough day and can grind out the workout, or allows for a dignified and appropriate early exit from a workout, while at least knowing you got in a full hour (or 2 hours, or 3 hours) on your aborted long run. When you must walk away early, you usually do so with a lot less regret or shame and a lot more satisfaction, having at least completed a solid block of running.
And, most of all, for those who want to try those harder-core Daniels 2Q style mixed tempo workouts, the 55-5 approach is a great bridge to those workouts. Once you get used to long runs where you push a moderate effort in 55 minute blocks, trying to do threshold and M-pace tempo segments over a 10+ mile run becomes less daunting and more do-able.
If you really want to train Daniels-style, or any other mixed-tempo long running, I highly recommend starting out with the 55-5 approach for a while before attempting those workouts. I think your first foray into those workouts will pay terrific dividends that way.
Regardless of where you are at with your running development, the 55-5 Long Run is a healthy, productive way to build your long distance running stamina and help prepare you for your longest races. Instead of grinding you and your mind into dust, this approach will focus your effort on long runs and get you race ready.