The Long Run and the Marathon Training Puzzle

Many runners, even some experienced marathoners, are often a little confused about the role of the long run in marathon training.

When I talk to marathon trainees, they often ask some version of this question:

“How can running at a slower pace, for a shorter distance, help me finish a longer distance at a faster pace on race day?”

The answer is: it doesn’t.

At least it doesn’t by itself.

The long run is one piece of training puzzle.

Types of Runs

Most marathon training plans are made up of three basic types of runs:

  • Short, fast runs (often track/speed work). These runs, not surprisingly, increase your speed. Speed work builds fast twitch muscles, increases leg turn over, and gets your body used to the feeling of pushing yourself to the limit.
  • Middle distance runs. These are the bulk of the running you’ll do during training. They are ‘not too hot and not too cold’ runs. Middle distance runs build muscle memory and get your body used to running at roughly your marathon pace.
  • Long, slow distance. These runs develop your slow twitch muscles. Long runs also increase your endurance, get you used to spending lots of time on your feet, and train your stomach to take in fuel on the run. They also have psychological benefits, getting you used to being bored on the run.

Runs that don’t provide any specific physical or psychological benefit are junk miles. A key to staying healthy and accomplishing your running goals is minimizing the number of junk miles you run.

Junk miles don’t provide you any benefit and include running your short, fast runs at a pace that’s too slow (you won’t get the leg turnover or fast-twitch muscle benefits) or running your long runs too fast (you won’t get the psychological benefits of running long and slow), or any run done with poor form.

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The Puzzle

These different types of runs are all part of marathon training puzzle.

Other training plan puzzle pieces include: good nutrition and adequate hydration (in life and on the run), cross training, strength training, stretching, foam rolling and other mobility work. Sufficient sleep and rest days.

Putting the Puzzle Pieces Together

Each training plan puts each of these training elements together in slightly different ways, in different proportions, and may call them different things. But each part is necessary, and each provides something you need to get you to the finish line on race day.

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The marathon training long run (by itself) doesn’t get your body used to running at your marathon pace – your middle distance runs to that.

Your long runs don’t give you the experience of pushing yourself to the limit (which you may need to gut it out in those last few miles on race day) – but your track workouts may give you that in spades

Track workouts don’t train your gut and your mind to keep plodding away for hours on end – that’s what long runs are for.

To get ready for race day, you need to have all the puzzle pieces. A training plan made up of only long runs won’t work, nor would a plan made up entirely of track work.

You need all the pieces of the marathon training puzzle.


To Do

As you start each run, consider the purpose of that run. Check-in with yourself a few times during the run to make sure you are accomplishing that purpose.

Don’t go too fast on your long runs, or too slow on your speed work.

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