Tag Archives: long runs

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?

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Is it ever okay to do two quality workouts on back to back days?

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Cross country runners often train long the day after a race. It’s possible for others to do back to back hard, quality workouts. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

First, to clarify: A quality workout for runners is any run with more than 5 minutes of a challenging volume of running:

  • Fast or otherwise hard running
  • A very long period of running
  • A run with intermittent fast running (such as speed reps)

Secondly, in brief… yes, back to back quality workouts are not only okay but beneficial in some circumstances.

In fact, one demographic of runner actually practices this regularly: Interscholastic cross country runners.

Many cross country runners will run a race or a speed workout on Saturday (a quality workout), followed by their long run on Sunday (also a quality workout). They have an easy day Monday and then follow a more balanced schedule through the school week.

Now, is that healthy? Running guru Jack T Daniels will actually recommend in some of his Daniels Running Formula training plans that, during the peak phase, you do two quality workouts back to back. This is the only period in his plan that you do so. In other phases of such plans he spaces out the quality workouts as others do. In most plans you do the long run later in the week (while he is one coach whose cross country plans have you do a race or quality workout right before a long run).

So while many running minds recommend you avoid running quality workouts back to back, here is Daniels not only scheduling back to backs but in many cases putting them in the important peak phase. Are those other running minds wrong?

Well, no. Most plans might schedule more demanding regular and quality workouts, and perhaps their quality workouts require more recovery. Putting their workouts back to back may be a terrible idea. In Daniels’ case, the back to back quality workouts he schedules are not as daunting: A 3 mile cross country race and a long easy run. The 2nd workout in particular is done at a lower intensity, just for a longer than normal period.

Another training plan where back to backs are possible is IronFit. Because the rest days can be slid elsewhere in the week as needed, and because the workouts need to be done in order, it’s entirely possible that speedwork and a tempo run might be back to back.

Of course, most plans won’t dare schedule a back to back for the reasons stated. That said, they are not taboo. If schedule adjustments force the possibility, or you’re crafting your own training plan where you may need to book back to backs, there is a smart way to do it.

So here is how you should approach the possibility of scheduling a back to back:

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Building hill workouts for your goal races

It’s nice when a goal race is on flat, normal terrain. A place like Chicago or New York City makes it easy, since all their races are on mostly flat ground.

Along with creating prime conditions for fast times (… well, weather permitting), training for the races is straightforward. Work on aerobic and neuromuscular fitness, work on tempo and speed, recover and feed yourself well, and you can crush it.

If a race has elevation shifts, things get a bit more complicated. We already see how weather and temperature impact races: If you train in clear and mild conditions, but then race in windy, hot/cold conditions, you’re not going to be trained to deal with the latter. Even when trained for warmer conditions, suitably hot races can negatively impact performance no matter what.

Likewise, if you train on flat ground, then try to run a race with hills (whether uphills or downhills or both), your performance and body will suffer as you likely have not trained at any length to handle hilly conditions. The longer the race, the greater the impact.

Runners who live in hilly locales face challenges with training speed, tempo or maximizing mileage because of the hills impacting speed. But this becomes an advantage when they run races featuring hills. Their bodies are well-trained to deal with the big elevation shifts. American runners in Seattle, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and mountainous regions like Colorado and Utah are better equipped to handle hills than runners in Chicago, Florida or New York City. (Plus, that never minds thinner air in higher altitude, also a key factor and a separate subject)

So, as a Chicago runner, I have to be mindful when I blow town for a race in a locale with hills. Vancouver is a clear example, with not only big elevation shifts early in the Vancouver Marathon course, but even the smaller elevation shifts later in the race are mountainous compared to the elevation changes in flatter Chicago.

One key reason these hills didn’t destroy me is that on multiple occasions I ran special workouts at nearby Cricket Hill. While Cricket Hill isn’t exactly a big hill (with only a 45 foot elevation climb), it does rise at a tough grade and when run on right, it can prepare you for running up and down hills.

So, how?

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Headwinds are a training blessing in disguise

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I’ve spent a busy April mostly off the grid. I am running the Vancouver Marathon in 8 days. Since muscle damage takes about 14 days to fully repair and quality training’s benefits take about 10 days to manifest in your running, I am done with high volume quality training or any tough workouts. Now it’s about maintaining conditioning and resting up for the marathon.

After getting sick a few weeks ago I had to abbreviate peak training, and I ran a final 17 mile peak run last weekend. The 20 miler I ran in mid-March would be my only one this training cycle, and the 40-45 mile weeks I had that month would be as high as my volume would get.

So, that final long run. Due to weather forecasts and other needs, I had to run it on a Friday right after work. Even though it was the best possible weather of any time I could run that weekend, I had to do most of the run into a stiff 25-30 mph headwind.

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A Better Long Run: The 55-5 Long Run Method

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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.

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Endurance is best built through your regular runs, rather than your long run

Runners understandably focus on their long runs while training for races from the 5K to marathons and ultras. Your ability to run long determines how well you run your longest races, and long runs help build the aerobic capability that carries you through races of all distances.

However, the long run also receives too much focus. I’m not going to call the long run overrated, because long runs definitely are not overrated. They’re important. But long runs are one component of a successful training plan, and building your aerobic endurance and performance requires more than getting your long run in every week.

And no, I don’t mean doing your speedwork. In fact, improving your aerobic capability requires no speedwork at all (though speedwork can certainly help your running economy, and is valuable for maximizing your race day speed).

We fixate on the length of our long runs. We fixate on the speed at which we run our speedwork. But we don’t pay much attention to the length of our regular runs, and it turns out the latter is as important (if not more important) to developing our aerobic endurance.

To briefly summarize and blow over a ton of science:

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Learning race pace with an accessible mixed-tempo long run

In light of my previous thoughts on tempo running… here’s an idea for a long run workout. Basically, it’s like a long, stretched out low key speed workout.

  • Warm up with easy running for about 1 mile.
  • Run 10 minutes at your desired marathon /half/15K/whatever tempo, or (if conditions won’t allow it) at a similar relative intensity
  • Then run easy for 5 minutes.
  • After that, again, run 10 minutes at tempo.
  • Then, again, run easy for 5 minutes.
  • Repeat until finished.

It’s pretty simple in structure, even if in practice it’s not so easy.

  • This is basically an interval workout built into a long run.
  • You can practice race pace or intensity within the challenge of a long run, without having to hold that pace for the entire run or build the entire workout around it.
  • Later tempo reps in the workout help simulate the fatigue of later miles in an injury-safer controlled setting.
  • You challenge yourself for a few minutes at a time, then catch your breath and recover with easier running.
  • And throughout all of this, you’re also getting the important aerobic development of a long run.
  • This workout is a fine middle ground for intermediate runners training for a 10K or longer race, who want to improve their race times or hit a goal time.
  • It may be more productive and efficient than doing a hard midweek speedwork session, and then a separate long slow run on the weekend.
  • Even if you fail in some way at running your desired pace… you still get all the benefits of a speedwork session AND a long run, without unduly taxing yourself.

In fact, if you don’t have a ton of training time during the week, doing this on the weekend as your only non-easy workout might work best for you. It can be your one key workout, while you can mix in whatever easy running you can do through the rest of the week. It takes a lot of pressure off of training, while ensuring you still do quality training that can prepare you for race day.

Another great aspect about this approach is, for most mid-pack marathoners, the tempo segments usually line up perfectly with the amount of time it takes to run between water/aid stations. You can carry hydration or other fuel, and practice fueling/drinking every time you hit a rest interval.

Sure, the easy run intervals are much longer than it would take you to get through an aid station. But this is not a full practice for a race, and you don’t want to subject your body to a full race during a workout anyway.

The easy running not only pads this into a true long run, but gives you ample time for your body to recover for the next bout of tempo.

If you want to seriously practice race fueling during this workout, you can take a swig of water/fuel right at the end of an easy segment, and make sure to hit a full dose once the tempo segment ends.

Or, if you plan to keep running hard while drinking/fueling at aid stations, it may be best to fuel in the middle of a tempo segment, to practice doing so at full speed.

 

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