When you enter the final 12 weeks of marathon training, the long run becomes a key focus in your weekly marathon training mix. Here running coach Nick Anderson from Running With Us gives his top tips for getting this key element right in your marathon preparation.
Before we dive in deeper into how to train for a marathon and get the long runs right, let’s get one thing straight: Marathon training isn’t all about your long runs.
Get the long runs right and you will “put the tiger in the cat”, but push too far too often and you will feel drained on race day or see injury and illness creep up before.
Where should I be?
The long run takes an increasing role in marathon training 12-16 weeks out from race day. A great goal is to get in a consistent weekly long run of 1.75-2 hours at a relaxed and conversational effort when you have about 16 weeks to your race. When you have about 12 weeks to the big day, start to regularly run 2 hours and over, giving some thought to pace/effort and training zones.
How to build?
Even for experienced runners patience in marathon training is key. Adding 10-15 minutes each week onto your long run is a sensible progression. Don’t be surprised if niggles and fatigue sets in if you start jumping up the long run by 30-40 minutes at a time.
When you have about 12-16 weeks to go to your race day, aim to keep your long runs at a fully conversational, relaxed pace of 30-60 seconds a mile slower than your planned marathon pace. This will build your body’s ability to burn stored fats and ensure you are fresh enough to hit your quality sessions mid-week. The marathon is about all your training not just the long runs.
Fuelling the long run
When you have 8-12 weeks to go, your long run will start to extend beyond the two hour mark. From this point onwards, I recommend starting to practise with different options for pre-run breakfasts and also fuelling during the run itself.
Gels are the most efficient and effective way of getting carbohydrates quickly into the system whilst on the run. If you neck them back like a shot on a Saturday night don’t be surprised if your stomach grumbles. Instead, take small sips of gel and look to take one every 30-40 minutes or so during the course of your long run.
About two months before the race, you will see good marathon training plans start adding faster efforts into the long run.
Look to include blocks of your planned marathon pace into the final stages of your long run. This can build over time to peak longs runs of 3-3.5 hours with the final 60-90 minutes at marathon pace, or even tough progression runs, such as 35 kilometers run as 10km easy, 10km marathon pace, 5km easy, 5km faster than marathon pace, 2km hard and 3km easy.
Remember, the effort gradually gets harder in a marathon as you try to maintain pace, so progressing effort/speed in long runs can make sense in the final 8-10 weeks of prep from time to time.
The 20 miler myth
Many experienced runners get too hooked up on how many 20 mile runs they plan to do. Instead, I would encourage you to think about getting the right quality and pace into your key long runs and look to work to time and effort. This could see a maximum long run of 3-3.5 hours or 22-23 miles (if experienced) about 3-4 weeks out from race day.
Go hard, go home
It can be pretty tempting to tackle a 20 mile race in the peaks of your marathon training, but treat these with caution.
Approach them sensibly and structure them as a mix of easy and marathon pace running: 10 miles easy then 10 miles at marathon pace could be a wise move.
If, however, you run a hard and fast 20 miler at or faster than your goal marathon pace, you might well find it hard to adapt and recover in time, leaving your best marathon in a training run…
Using a half marathon race as a marathon paced long run, perhaps adding 20-30 minutes easy before and after can be a great way of building confidence around your goal marathon pace. It’s also a lovely way to complete a long run with good company taking your gels and drinks for perfect practice.
Hit your max
Your maximum long run will likely be 3-4 weeks out from race day for most. We’d recommend that you cap this at a maximum of 3-3.5 hours. Beyond this it’s often a case of diminishing returns and we find runners struggle to recover for the race day.
Don’t panic if this means you haven’t run beyond 20 miles, the collection of all of your training, not just the long run, will result in your best performance.
In your final key long runs, choose a route that enables good running and the ability to hit marathon pace if relevant. This could be a flat rd or path along the river, in a local park or even part of the race course if local.
Wear your race day shoes and even the kit to be sure everything is comfortable and rehearsed.
Above all else, make sure you stand on the start line knowing your long runs were planned, progressed and ticked off – at 20 miles, you will be grateful. Good luck!
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Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.