Getting Down to Business: The Long Run

You should not attempt a marathon unless you have been running for at least one year and are comfortably running 25 miles a week or more. If you find that running 25 miles per week is difficult to accomplish for any number of reasons (aches and pains, time constraints, etc.), you are not yet ready to begin training for this event.

Runners training to compete in a marathon must slowly and systematically build the distance of their long runs to a minimum of 20 miles. In fact, completing two to three runs of 20–23 miles each in the ten weeks prior to the marathon is a realistic predictor of successfully completing the race.

What are the benefits of the long run?

The long run strengthens the heart; it strengthens the leg muscles critical for endurance; it develops mental toughness and coping skills; it increases fat-burning capacity as well as capillary growth and myoglobin concentration in muscle fibers; and it increases aerobic efficiency.

Definition and Purposes of the Long Run

For the purpose of this discussion, the distance of a long run is 10 miles or longer (or a run that lasts over 90 minutes). As a general rule, and particularly for those whose goal is to finish comfortably, the pace of the long run should be approximately 1 minute slower than the pace at which you realistically expect to complete the marathon. If your training schedule calls for a long run of 18 miles, you must run the distance at one session rather than splitting it into a 9-mile morning run and a 9-mile evening run.

The long run is the most important component of marathon training because it teaches the body both to mentally and physically tackle the challenge of completing the 26.2-mile event. Physiologically, the body must learn to draw on fat-storage energy reserves after depleting glycogen fuel stores in the muscles (converted from carbohydrate food sources). You must become accustomed to running for very long periods of time. The mental toughness you develop from completing long training runs pays handsome dividends when you run the actual marathon.

Above all, design your marathon training schedule so that you are rested prior to undertaking your long runs. If you complete two to three long training runs of 20 to 23 miles, you will no doubt reduce the possibility of hitting the dreaded “wall” during the marathon. The wall refers to the point in time during a marathon when your body's glycogen stores become depleted, after which your pace can slow to a crawl.

The majority of runners who experience difficulty completing long training runs fail to prepare adequately for these critical workouts. So remember, both long runs and the marathon itself don't have to be painful experiences. The key is to plan ahead.

Alert

It is important to follow the hard-easy method of training emphasized throughout this book. Pressing too hard without scheduled rest periods or reduced workloads more often than not leads to injuries and training delays. Do not become obsessed with your training to the extent that you run on rest days. This approach can lead to injury, fatigue, and even burnout.

Making the Long Run Easier and Safer

Don't schedule long runs too early in your training, even if you are physically prepared to cover the distance. This can lead to staleness or premature burnout. Additionally, you could peak too early in your training. Also, schedule some long runs at the same time of day the actual marathon will be held to familiarize yourself with running during that time frame and also to develop a pre-race routine you feel comfortable with.

Consider running for cumulative time, approximating the distance. Doing so gives you more flexibility and spontaneity regarding the route you will be running. However, do your longest run no closer than three to four weeks before the marathon. The distance of this run should be 23 miles maximum. Above all, do not run 26.2 miles in practice to see if you can run a marathon. Save your efforts for the actual race!

Do not increase the distance of your long run by more than approximately 10 percent over your previous long run. This equates to adding about 15–20 minutes to each subsequent long run. Every fourth week, drop the distance of your long run (along with your total weekly mileage), providing an easy week of training before the race to facilitate rest and recovery.

Alert

When training, think about running with others whose ability level is similar to yours. Running with a group makes the long run more pleasurable and easier to accomplish than running alone. However, in running with a group, be sure you don't turn long runs into races. This will almost surely lead to injury.

Areas of Experimentation

During your marathon training you will have the opportunity to experiment with various elements that can either positively or negatively impact your marathon (for example, shoes, clothing, nutrition) prior to incorporating these practices in the actual 26.2-mile event. A cardinal rule of marathoning is: Don't try anything new on race day. Use training runs as an occasion for experimentation.

First, think about your shoes. If your shoes are causing you any discomfort during training, you should not wear them in the marathon. As soon as possible, talk to a local professional at a specialty running store for advice on a different shoe to wear for your training and racing. At least six weeks prior to the marathon, you should decide on a specific brand and model of shoe to wear for your final long training run and, of course, for the marathon.

Socks are also important. Which type of socks (for example, thin, thick, two layers, synthetic-blend) work best for you? There's no worse feeling in a marathon than developing blisters from your socks at only the halfway point!

Additionally, consider all of your running apparel. What type of clothing won't cause chafing? How much and what type of clothing do you need to wear to be comfortable yet not overheated (for example, gloves, hat, long sleeves)?

Beyond apparel, consider running accessories. For instance, do you plan to use analgesic creams (Bengay®, Myoflex®, Sportscreme®, etc.) during the marathon? Some experts claim that these don't penetrate deeply enough to relieve muscular discomfort. Others say that topical creams are effective in reducing pain and inflammation. Similarly, what about a moisturizing lubricant for your skin, such as Vaseline® petroleum jelly or Skin Lube®? If you use these products, how much and where should they be applied (for example, under arms, on toes, between thighs, on nipples)?

Essential

Many honey-makers and produce stores sell honey sticks, plastic straws filed with flavored honeys. These are very easy to carry with you on long runs since they're small and lightweight, and they provide a safe and natural source of sugar to boost your energy.

For your pre-race routine, consider what you are going to eat for your pre-race evening meal. What type of high-carbohydrate meal do you crave (for example, pasta, potatoes, rice)? Which foods give you the most energy? How much do you need to eat? Are there any foods that you should avoid so as not to cause digestive system problems?

Similarly, how about the race-morning snack? What type of foods work best for you, yielding energy while not causing stomach discomfort or cramps? Should you partake of caffeine? If yes, how much should you drink and how soon before the marathon? Some research suggests that drinking caffeinated products spares glycogen early in a marathon.

The bottom line is that if you consume caffeine, also be sure to drink water to avoid dehydration. Another downside of using caffeine before you run is that you might end up being one of the people standing in a long line at the Porta-Potty before the race when you should be warming up!

Essential

It is perfectly acceptable during a long run to come to a complete stop for 1–2 minutes to drink fluids, stretch, and hit the restroom. Such brief stops will have no adverse effect on your preparedness to successfully complete the marathon.

Rest is as important as eating before a race. Figure out what time you need to retire to get a good night's sleep. Also, determine how early you need to rise to take care of needs, such as eating breakfast, hydrating, and visiting the bathroom.

During the race, you need a plan for hydration. How often do you need to drink during the marathon, and should you consume sports drinks at every aid station or alternate between drinking water and sports drinks? These are very important questions you need to decide prior to your marathon.

Finally, decide whether or not you will rely on gels as a supplemental energy source during the marathon (as many runners do). There are many types of gels to choose from nowadays. The key is finding the particular product that works for you. Training runs present opportunities to decide how many packets you will need to consume during the marathon, when to take them (at which mile markers or elapsed marathon time), along with determining whether certain brands or flavors are less likely to cause stomach discomfort.

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