Preparing for the Long Run During Marathon Training

Definition and Purposes of the Long Run

For the purposes of this discussion, the distance of a long run is considered to be 10 miles or longer as well as runs that last over 90 minutes. It should be run approximately one minute slower than the pace you plan to run during the marathon or stated another way, one to 1-1/2 minutes per mile slower than your present 10K race pace. If your training schedule calls for a long run of 16 miles, the distance must be run at one time rather than splitting the distance into an 8-mile morning session and an 8-mile evening run.

The long run is the most important component of marathon training because it teaches the body to both mentally and physically tackle the challenges presented in completing the 26.2-mile event. Physiologically, the body must learn to tap into and utilize energy reserves from fat storage sites after the glycogen (fuel stores in the muscles, converted over from carbohydrate food sources) have been depleted. Through long run training, the capacity to store more glycogen within the muscles increases. An increase in glycogen stores translates into the ability to maintain one’s pace during the marathon and delay the onset of fatigue. Conversely, trouble is on the horizon when you run out of glycogen, as your pace will significantly decrease.

One must also be accustomed to running for very long periods of time, and the mental toughness that develops from completing long training runs pays off handsome dividends during the actual marathon.

The long run also provides an excellent opportunity to experiment with a variety of issues and concerns (e.g., shoes, nutrition, pacing, etc.).

Above all, marathon training schedules must be designed so that runners are adequately rested prior to undertaking their long runs. One who completes at least two long runs of 20 miles or longer prior to his or her marathon will no doubt reduce the possibility of visiting the dreaded “wall” (the point in time when glycogen stores within the muscles have been depleted and as a result, the runner’s pace slows considerably, oftentimes to a walk).

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

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Benefits of the Long Run

    • Provides the necessary endurance to complete the marathon.
    • Strengthens the heart (increases stroke volume) and opens the capillaries, both sending energy to working muscles and flushing waste products from fatigued muscles.
    • Other physiological benefits include the increased number and size of mitochondria and increased myoglobin concentration in muscle fibers.
    • Strengthens the leg muscles and ligaments, thus improving your endurance.
    • Recruits fast-twitch muscle fibers to help with slow-twitch tasks (like running a marathon).
    • Develops your mental toughness and coping skills, thus increasing/enhancing your confidence level that you can go the full marathon distance on race day.
    • Increases your overall speed, even for shorter races.


Preparing for the Long Run

While completing long runs can be sometimes difficult, preparing properly for these training sessions will make this important workout much easier to accomplish. Listed below are areas of concern that require your careful preparation prior to, and during your long run. Let’s assume that your long run is scheduled for Sunday morning.


    • Get lots of rest Saturday night, aiming for 8 hours sleep.
    • Make either Friday or Saturday a complete rest day for the legs.
    • If you do train on Saturday, make it a very light workout on the legs.



    • Drink lots of water all day Saturday.
    • Eat meals high in carbohydrates for lunch and dinner Saturday. Selecting the “right” foods is an important area of experimentation.
    • Avoid foods high in salt and excessive protein and/or fat all day Saturday.
    • Drink about 16 ounces of water Sunday morning prior to your long run.
    • Eat a light snack Sunday morning prior to your long run. This is also an important experimentation area in regard to food selection.
    • Drink lots of fluids while running. Be sure to stop for water frequently throughout the run. For runs longer than 90 minutes, you MUST drink sports beverages (such as Gatorade, PowerAde, etc.) at every two to three mile interval. Drinking on the run requires careful planning of the route (making sure there is water frequently available along with places to stash sports drinks).
    • Consider trying gel carbohydrate replacement products. Be sure to chase these supplements down with water to avoid stomach cramps and insure absorption. A final thought: Please dispose of gel and energy product wrappers properly by throwing them away in trash receptacles or placing them in your fanny pack. Let’s all work together to keep the environment clean!
    • After the run is over, continue to drink fluids (water, sports drinks, and/or juice products are all great choices).
    • As soon as possible (ideally within 15 minutes), grab something nutritious to eat to replace your depleted glycogen stores. Research indicates that to avoid muscle fatigue the next day, carbohydrates should be eaten as soon as possible following long duration exercise.

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Shoes, Apparel, and Accessories

    • Make sure that you are training in shoes with low mileage wear to maximize absorption of shock.
    • Wear Cool-max or synthetic blend socks, singlet, and shorts that wick away moisture/perspiration and won’t cause chafing to enhance your comfort level.
    • Use Body Glide, Skin Lube, Vaseline, or similar products (on feet, under arms, between thighs, nipples, etc.) to eliminate or reduce chafing and/or blisters.
    • Do not over-dress. Assess the need to wear tights, long-sleeves, etc. as excess clothing can lead to overheating of the body. Doing so makes the “real feel” 10 degrees warmer once you begin running. In cooler weather and/or in windy conditions, consider wearing an old t-shirt that you can discard once your long run or marathon begins, but be sure that you won’t be running into the wind later on your return route. Also remember that if you choose to wear a hat, it will trap body heat (great in cold weather) but a bad idea for a long run or marathon with hot/humid conditions).


Things to Consider While Running Long

    • Run at a conversational pace by starting out slowly to conserve glycogen.
    • Running at an easy pace reduces the possibility of incurring an injury.
    • Stay loose by shaking out your arms and shoulders regularly.
    • Carry your arms close to your waist or hips to conserve energy. Also avoid unnecessary arm swing, particularly laterally across the body.
    • Realize that long runs will sometimes be difficult to complete and that you may experience some “bad patches” in the later miles. Persevering through these stretches will develop mental toughness, an essential skill that will be needed during the marathon.
    • Cool down by running the last half-mile at a very easy pace.


After the Long Run is Over

    • Do some light cycling, walking or other cross-training later in the day to loosen up your legs.
    • Consider utilizing some therapeutic techniques such as dipping your legs in cool water soon after the run, getting a leg massage over the next couple of days to reduce muscle soreness and fatigue.


Guidelines and Other Helpful Tips to Make 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 may lead to staleness or premature burnout. Additionally, you may “peak” too early in your training.
    • 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 to also develop a pre-race routine for which you feel comfortable.
    • Consider running for time, approximating the distance. Doing so will enable you to have more flexibility and spontaneity in regards to the route you choose to run.
    • Do not increase the distance of your long run by more than 10 percent per week. This equates to adding approximately 15 minutes to each subsequent long run.
    • Every fourth week of your training schedule, drop the distance of your long run, providing for an easy week to facilitate rest and recovery.
    • Use your long runs as a means of experimentation regarding future choices of food, clothing, shoes, etc.
    • Schedule you’re longest run no closer than 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!
    • It’s perfectly acceptable to stop or walk to get the fluids down during your long run. Doing so will not have a negative effect on your preparedness for the marathon. Water and sports drinks are your “lifeline” to completing these long workouts.
    • Running with a group will make the long run more pleasurable and easier to accomplish as opposed to running alone.
  • While running with a group is a great idea, be sure you don’t turn long runs into races. This will almost surely lead to injury. Find training partners who run at, or close to your training pace.