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Optimal Long Run Pace
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Optimal Long Run Pace

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When I started running, several “rules of thumb” were used to inform training. Over time, these rules of thumb became antiquated or more fairly, in need to adjustment based on the type of runner. A good example is the guidance on long run pacing.

I was told that long runs should be run at one to two minutes per mile slower than your marathon pace. This guidance came from coaches and elite runners in the 1960s and 1970s – the first running boom in the US. And it worked at the time.

It’s hard to imagine now but at that time, there weren’t many runners, and most were high-performance runners. For example, the 1980 Boston Marathon had only 5,417 runners. And in the first New York City Marathon, the average finish time of three and a half hours is over an hour faster than the average finish time today.

For runners like Frank Shorter, the 1972 Olympic Marathon Champion, cruising along at six to seven minutes per mile on long runs was easy-peasy. After all, his marathon pace was five minutes per mile so six-to-seven-minute pace was quite a bit slower than his marathon pace. Using reverse engineering, coaches and runners deduced that long runs should be 1-2 minutes per mile slower than marathon pace just like Shorter was doing.

Best Long Run Pace for ALL Runners

This rule of thumb was great for a while but then the second running boom happened in the 1990s and 2000s. With big thanks to Hal Higdon and Jeff Galloway and charities like Team in Training, the sport grew exponentially. No longer was it just former high school and collegiate runners hitting the roads, but every man and woman learned that they could, in fact, complete a marathon and it became a bucket list item for many.

With all the new runners coming into the sport (and I coached a lot of them through the Arthritis Foundation’s Joints in Motion program), it was clear that the old 1-2 minutes slower than your marathon time rule needed adjusting.

In the second running boom, the bulk of finishers were between four and a half and five and a half hours. Marathon pace for a five-hour marathoner is 11:27 minutes per mile. Using the old 1-2 minutes slower per mile rule for long runs, the runner would never do any running or if they did it was uncomfortably slow.

Luckily, I focused my graduate research in exercise science on connecting running performance with physiology. From this research, I knew that ideal endurance development occurred at three and a half (at the fastest end) up to 10:00:00 race pace (at the slowest end). That means that if you run at a pace that you can race at for three and a half to ten hours, you get optimal endurance adaptations. (This is called Race Pace Relativity and you can read more about it here.)

As a result, I knew that for my five-hour marathoners, it was better if they ran at or even slightly faster than marathon pace for their long runs since their marathon pace was right between the two boundaries of the endurance zone.

Boy was it a relief to the runners. Instead of stumbling along at 12:30-13:30 minute pace, they could run or run/walk at a pace that felt more natural. They felt they were really training, and they could cover more distance on long runs, which made them feel more confident they could finish the marathon.

The point is that some of the old rules need adjusting because they cause confusion. It’s not that they are bad. It’s just that they are being applied to the wrong runner. If you read a rule about running, make sure it applies to you and isn’t a holdover rule for runners faster or slower than you are.

Caveats

All that said, there are some caveats to the long run pace guide:

First, pace is not the best metric for endurance training. Instead, focus on effort/breathing (see my Talk Test article). Run at the “conversational” effort/breathing rate and afterwards, check your pacing. I suspect you’ll find you start toward the slow end of the long run pace range from the McMillan Pace Calculator and then settle into the middle of the range for the bulk of the run. And when you feel great on a long run, you may even approach the faster end. And remember, faster is not always better. Never force a pace but instead let your body guide you based on how you feel that day (aka do you feel like Kipchoge or Eeyore on the run – video here).

Second, runners are different in their natural pacing. Some runners are “fast trainers” – meaning they tend to feel best from the middle to fast end of the pace range. Others do better from the middle to slow end. Read my article on Fast Trainers vs. Slow Trainers for to see which you may be.

Third, ignore pace, even as a secondary metric after the run, when you are running on undulating terrain, trails and/or in the heat/humidity/wind. Again, effort/breathing is a much better guide in those conditions.

Final Thoughts

I hope this article clears up some of the confusion with the long run pace guidance and you see that for some runners, optimal long run pace is slower than marathon pace (like the rule of thumb I was taught). But for some runners, optimal long run pace is at or even faster than marathon pace (like what physiology and coaching experience has taught).

Optimal Long Run Pace Frequently Asked Questions

Finding the right long run pace is crucial because it helps optimize endurance and build aerobic capacity. It also aids in maximizing the physiological adaptations necessary for long-distance running and prepares the legs for more and faster training in the future.

Your ideal long run pace can be determined by utilizing the McMillan running calculator that takes into account your recent race times and current training data. Alternatively, using the conversational pace method or heart rate training can help identify your appropriate long run pace.

Yes, incorporating pace variations during long runs can provide several benefits. For instance, including slower segments can help improve endurance and allow for better recovery, while adding faster segments can enhance speed and simulate race conditions.

No, running at your fastest pace during long runs is not recommended. Long runs are primarily meant for building endurance and should be performed at a conversational pace or slightly slower. Running too fast can lead to increased fatigue, increased risk of injury, and hinder the desired training adaptations.

It is advisable to reassess your long run pace periodically, especially when there are significant changes in your fitness level or race performances. Additionally, it’s beneficial to evaluate your pace when training for different race distances or after completing a training cycle to ensure your long run pace remains appropriate for your goals.

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Written By Greg McMillan
Called “one of the best and smartest distance running coaches in America” by Runner’s World’s Amby Burfoot, Greg McMillan is renowned for his ability to combine the science of endurance performance with the art of real-world coaching. While getting his graduate degree in Exercise Science he created the ever-popular McMillan Running Calculator – called “The Best Running Calculator” by Outside Magazine. A National Champion runner himself, Greg coaches runners from beginners to Boston Qualifiers (15,000+ and counting!) to Olympians.

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