A best practice for very long marathon training runs

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If training for your first marathon, or even if you’re generally not used to regular runs longer than 2 hours… there’s a better way to get in long run mileage than just doing one long uninterrupted run.

Once a single run exceeds 2.5 hours, the physical damage a run does can offset a lot of the training benefits from running long. Many runners may need multiple easy days or days off to recover, which derails some key workouts and disrupts your fitness development more than the long run helped it.

The Galloway Method, aka run/walking your longest workouts, offsets this by building in repeated rest breaks through walking. However, training this way only makes sense if you intend to run/walk the marathon. If so, then Galloway’s approach or any run/walk variation is completely fine.

For those who intend to *run* the entire race, you need to fully run all your long runs. And you need to be mindful on long runs of the 2.5 hour threshold.

Yes, that means your uninterrupted long runs will be well short of many training thresholds like the 20 Mile long run.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t run 14-20+ miles on long run training days. In fact, when new to marathons, you absolutely need to get these long mileage days in.

So how do you do it, if you should only run 2.5 hours max, and you can’t possibly cover the needed distance in 2.5 hours at an easy, sustainable pace?

Recall last year I discussed how my brother in law trained for half marathons by breaking his 10-15 mile long run days into multiple shorter runs spaced throughout the day. This clearly did not undermine his fitness to race the half, as to this day he still knocks out sub-1:40 half marathons and has even won a few races outright here in the Las Vegas Valley.

The key to this habit working: The runs develop his neuromuscular fitness, since during a full “long run” day he runs the full distance, even though the runs are broken up into sections throughout the day. There’s no overnight recovery from the morning wear and tear before the afternoon and nightcap runs.

His aerobic fitness may only be slightly tested in the morning run, but the mildly fatigued afternoon and evening runs definitely test and trigger aerobic, mitochondrial adaptions you see from longer runs.

I experimented a bit with this approach in prior training cycles. On a couple of inadvertent occasions it helped me hit all my long run miles in a day: I’d either have to cut a morning run short, and then get the balance on my miles in during a rebooted afternoon long run… or I’d run out of gas on a morning long run short of my desired miles, then get the rest of the miles in during a short later run.

I finally figured out recently that, akin to Galloway intentionally run/walking as a practice (instead of falling into a run/walk out of exhaustion), I could get in 16-20 needed miles by intentionally breaking that mileage into 2-3 runs.

To gain the maximum benefits of a long run, I could make the first run a true long run of 90-150 minutes, cutting it short before the run begins to unduly damage my bones/muscles/tendons/etc.

Then, a few hours later, I can go on an easier, shorter run to get in more miles and continue challenging my aerobic fitness. The hours of downtime can allow for some recovery and, while I can’t go as far as the morning long run before I max out the run’s benefit, it allows me to do more today and over subsequent days than if I had over-extended that long run to get all the miles in at once.

Maybe I need to cut the 2nd run short and still haven’t gotten in all the desired miles. If that 2nd run was early enough in the day, I could wait a few more hours and get in yet another shorter, easier run to put in the balance of desired miles. At this point I wouldn’t be too worried about going long enough to trigger aerobic adaptions since I’ve already done that in the first two runs. This would just be about logging a few more miles, and generating circulation for subsequent recovery.

And, of course, I’d eat a lot of good food throughout such a day, and get good rest between/after these runs. I’d turn in early and sleep well that night, and the next night.

Another variation of this is the 55-5 Long Run approach I used while training for Vancouver 2019. If you have 16 or 20 miles to run on a given day, and you know you’re capable of running over 2 hours… you could take a page from Galloway and commit to running 55 minutes, then slow to a recovery jog or even a walk for 5 minutes. After that hour, run another 55 minutes before resting 5, repeat, until you get the balance of your miles in. When I used this method, I’d run the 55 minutes at more of a steady, moderate pace, then slow to an easy jog for the 5.

But, presuming you don’t have a ton of hours, or running several hours at once isn’t something you can do right now… you may be far better off breaking that long run up into manageable chunks. Run the biggest chunk you reasonably can first, then a few hours later run another smaller chunk, then another if needed.

Obviously, you don’t want to do more than three runs in a day, and that 3rd run needs to be very easy and do-able when tired or sore. You may be better off (on an earlier weekend) experimenting with three short, easily do-able runs spaced a few hours apart, to see how your body responds to three runs in a day. Once you feel more comfortable with the habit, then try to do your longest runs broken up accordingly.

Elite runners are able to run 20+ miles because their easy pace is so fast that they can get that many miles in during a 2.5 hour max long run.

The rest of us have to run a lot longer to get in 20 miles. If elites had to run 3-5 hours in a training run, many would suffer the same immediate and long term damage that the rest of us do.

Unless your easy run pace is around the 7:00/mile (4:20/km) range, you probably should avoid doing 20+ mile runs in one go.

But that shouldn’t mean not doing 16-20 miles in a day at all. Break the run up into smaller, manageable chunks. Run as far as you can for the first run in the morning, then just get the remaining miles in during later, shorter, easier runs.

You’ll get all the positive effects of the long run, without side effects that can derail your subsequent training.

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