How long should your longest long run be when training for a marathon? It’s a common question so I thought I’d provide my advice.
+/- 3:00 marathoners
If you plan to run three hours or faster for your marathon, then my recommendation for your maximum long run is:
Maximum long run = [Marathon time] up to [marathon time + 30-45 minutes]
For example: A 2:45 marathoner’s longest long run would equal 2:45-3:30. 2:45:00 is her marathon time and 3:30:00 is her marathon time + 45 minutes.
Just a quick note that is represents the LONGEST long run in the training plan. It does NOT suggest every long run in your plan must be this long.
+/- 4:00 marathoners
If you plan to run around four hours for your marathon, then my recommendation for your maximum long run is:
Maximum long run = [Marathon time-15-30 minutes] up to [marathon time + 15-30 minutes]
Example: A 4:00 marathoner’s longest long run would equal 3:30-4:30. 3:30:00 is the marathon time (4:00:00) minus 30 minutes and the 4:30:00 is the marathon time plus 30 minutes.
Another note: The runner should build slowly and gradually to this longest long run over 2-3 months.
+/- 5:00-6:00 marathoners
If you plan to run around five hours or longer for your marathon, then my recommendation for your maximum long run is:
Maximum long run = < Marathon time (4:00-4:30)
Unlike faster marathoners, five-hour marathoners (or longer) can’t follow the same advice. The main reason is that the long run will take so long to complete and will result in so much additional recovery time that it interferes with the upcoming training.
A few notes:
- This is for your LONGEST long run in the plan. It is not saying you have to do this every weekend. You would build up to this level near the end of your plan. Most runners find that running their longest long run 3-5 weeks before the marathon is best.
- Necessarily, the pace is slow. This type of super long run isn’t about speed. It’s about time on your feet so make sure to run within the long run pace range (and often toward the slower end) and just let the time roll by. This is not a run to push the pace and try to run fast.
- You can’t rely on mileage when discussing long run distance because of the different in pace (and thus duration) of the runner. So if someone says, “You should never run 20 miles.” or “You must run 20 miles.” Ask them how long that will take. My pro runners would do 20 miles all the time but that only took them just over 2 hours to complete. So telling me that running 2-2.5 hours on a regular basis is wrong makes no sense. Likewise, having a 5-hour marathoner listen to a pro and try to run 20 miles frequently (and thus taking several hours to complete) makes no sense either. The recover would take so long that it would interfere with the upcoming training. Therefore, we must make it relative so I think talking in time is best.
- A range should be provided for each long run so the runner can run the longer or shorter end based on how he/she is feeling. Feeling great? Shoot for the longer end of the range. Feeling bad? Stop at the short end. Be your own coach and adjust on the fly based on how you are feeling.
- Endurance Monster runners typically do well with these really long long runs. Speedsters sometimes struggle so adjust your expectations based on your runner type.
- New marathoners should use a process of gradually building to the longest long run. This is typical in most new marathoner programs where the long runs gradually increase week to week with some “down” weeks for recovery.
- Experienced marathoners should run more long runs that are longer. I call it decreasing the delta and there is an article that discusses this. As your body and mind get used to longer long runs then you can include more longer long runs in your training plan. Again, not necessarily the maximum long run distance as described above but simply longer than was used in the first few marathon plans.
- Injury history and how quickly the runner recovers plays a role in the long run strategy. For example, I’ve run 2:31 for the marathon but could never do same long runs as others I’ve coached that ran the same time. I was too injury prone and long runs really beat me up. So, the individual recovery rate and injury rate of the runner plays a role in the long run sequencing as well. Runner know thyself! If you are frequently injured, then be cautious of the really long end of the maximum long run range. And, make sure to add in extra recovery days after your longer long runs.The goal of the long run plays a role as well in your longer long runs. Two long run goals in particular change the sequencing. If you are working on low glycogen long runs (low/no carb) to improve fat burning (again, there is an article on the marathon long run) then the long runs will be shorter than if you are fueled.
- Second, if muscular durability is your limitation (your legs fail you late in the marathon), then you may want to extend long runs to provide a deeper stimulus for the legs to get used to the stress of running long. Again, it’s somewhat individual so whenever you read about long run guidance, it often requires more info on what the situation is for that runner.
- Final Thoughts
The marathon may be 26.2 miles (42.2Km) for all runners but I suggest that the event is very different from runner to runner. Training to run as fast as you can for two hours (like pro men) is much different than training to run as fast as you can for six hours. So, when you read training advice, don’t just think about the race distance but think about how long that race will take you (or your athlete).
This way of thinking allows you to better evaluate the training advice. There will still be lots of conflicting information but I find it provides an easier way to decipher the advice and see if it is relevant for a runner like yourself.
You can now try McMillan training plans for FREE! For a limited time, I’m offering a 14-day free trial of my training and coaching system called Run Team. Take a plan for a spin. Kick the tires as they say. If you like it, do nothing and your subscription will start. If you don’t like it, just cancel and you owe nothing. It’s a great way to experience training on what has been called, “The best training system on the planet.”
Click to try it for FREE for 14 days and you get set up instantly.