The long endurance run is one of the most important units in marathon training!
Yes, it is probably even the most important training unit for the marathon. Because only if you have already run more than 30 kilometers (18 miles) in preparation for a marathon, then your body is prepared for the marathon distance of 42.195 kilometers.
The long run is usually run on Sunday, because most marathon competitions are also held on Sunday and therefore our bio-cycle has adjusted to the fact that a long sporting activity is imminent on Sunday. In principle, however, this training can also be planned for any other day.
The long training run should be over a distance of 30 kilometers or longer. But for what physiological and psychological reasons should we integrate such long endurance runs into our marathon preparation? And is there an ideal distance for this? A controversial topic is also the pace for these long runs. All of these questions will be answered or addressed in this article.
The advantages of a long endurance run
There are, of course, many arguments in favor of a training run that is longer than 30 kilometers. On the one hand, our body gets used to the fact that it is exposed to sports for at least two hours. In addition, during a marathon we are dependent on additional energy in the form of carbohydrates, since the glycogen reserves stored in the body are not sufficient to survive an entire marathon without additional food. During long runs, food intake can be practiced, i.e. which drink can we tolerate and which not and which drink or food gives us extra energy and which not. Every runner reacts differently to certain foods, of course, and this must be determined during training. The so-called energy gel, for example, leads to stomach problems for many runners and is therefore not recommended for all runners during a marathon.
What also speaks for a long aerobic run: The number of mitochondria as well as the capillaries in the muscles are increased by such runs. This in turn leads, among other things, to a delayed onset of fatigue. In addition, more type 1 muscle fibers (S-fibers) are activated. These "slow fibers" are highly important in endurance sports and increase endurance performance.
How long should the "long run" be?
There is no perfect distance, as every runner responds differently to a marathon program. At least one run in marathon preparation should be at least 30 kilometers. Exception: If within 3 to 3.5 hours, this distance of 30 kilometers is not reached, it is recommended to do a long endurance run after 3.5 hours at the latest. Basically, there is also a time limit for the long endurance run, which is 3 to a maximum of 3.5 hours. Anything longer than that can affect recovery too much and increase the risk of injury.
Ambitious runners can run a distance of 35 kilometers or longer three or four times. However, hobby runners should never run more than 35 kilometers, as the risk of injury increases significantly with such a high volume. The risk increases the less training experience you have. For those who plan to run a marathon in well over three hours, 30 to 32 kilometers is absolutely sufficient.
Marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge integrates his long training run every Thursday. He alternates between running 30 kilometers and 40 kilometers. He runs this program for 12 weeks. This means that Kipchoge runs a total of 6 40-kilometer runs and six 30-kilometer runs (more about Kipchoge's training here: This is how Eliud Kipchoge trains for the INEOS 1:59 Marathon Challenge!).
How many long endurance runs make sense in a marathon preparation?
Twelve long endurance runs, as Eliud Kipchoge does, are of course not necessary for hobby runners or even ambitious runners. For hobby runners, this would most likely even lead to overtraining and a performance leg fracture or injury.
For the first marathon, a long endurance run that is about ten kilometers shorter than the marathon (i.e. 32 kilometers / 20 miles) is sufficient. However, you should also train carefully for this distance. This means 20 kilometers in the first training week, 24 kilometers in the third training week, 28 kilometers in the fifth training week and 32 kilometers in the seventh training week - roughly as an example.
But once you've completed a marathon, you usually can't get by with just one long run in future training phases for another marathon. Then it should be three to six runs of at least 30 kilometers. There is also a psychological reason for this. Because those who have completed several long runs in preparation go into the marathon with a higher level of self-confidence. However, it is always important to listen to how your body feels. It doesn't make sense to push yourself beyond 30 kilometers with cramp, because that increases the risk of injury immensely. At such a high level, it is therefore less tragic to cancel a long run, even at short notice. After all, whether you do four or five long runs before a marathon usually has little or no effect on the marathon performance itself.
Regeneration after a long training run
Another important element is the time after a long run. An experienced runner needs at least two days to recover almost completely, while a beginner could well feel the effects of the long run for more than a week. By means of massages and targeted nutrition (high-carbohydrate and high-protein diet after the long run), the recovery period can be actively influenced in a positive way. Also during the long run it is worthwhile to have an energy boost by means of carbohydrate intake (e.g. by energy gels or electrolyte drinks). It is also important not to forget to drink during the run.
But back to the regeneration after the run. It has proven to be ideal if the day after is completely paused and the following day a light unit is scheduled.
- Sunday: Long run
- Monday: break
- Tuesday: easy run
- Wednesday: Quality training (interval training or similar)
In our example, however, you should still not do a very long session on Wednesday. Ideal would be interval training at 10-kilometer race pace or a short tempo run at the anaerobic threshold. By the way, massages are not most efficient directly after the long run, but about two days afterwards, because at this time the muscle soreness is usually felt most intensely.
How fast should the long endurance run be?
This topic is highly controversial. In many less serious guides you can read that the long run should be done as slowly as possible. This statement, if true, only applies to runners who want to finish their first marathon without setting a time goal (the main thing is to finish before the broom wagon).
Top runners run at a pace 15 to 30 seconds slower than their planned marathon pace. Eliud Kipchoge runs about 20 to 25 slower than marathon pace. However, the Kenyan trains in the highlands and on profiled courses, where on flat straights the pace is sometimes increased to a pace just above marathon pace. So if you are twice as slow as Kipchoge in the marathon (4 hour target time), you can add 40 seconds to the marathon pace. In other words, the base run should be run at a pace 40 seconds above marathon pace.
Long runs should also be run at a slightly progressive pace. Example: If the marathon is planned to be run at a pace of 4:00 minutes per kilometer (goal time 2:48 hours) and the endurance run is to be run at an average pace of 4:30 minutes per kilometer, then the first 15 kilometers will be completed at 4:35 min/km and the second 15 kilometers at 4:25 min/km. On the last kilometers you should run a pace that is very close to the marathon pace. This is to prepare the body to run the marathon pace under heavy fatigue.
The lower the performance level, the slower you should approach the marathon pace even in endurance running. Basically, however, even as a hobby runner you should NOT run the long endurance runs as slowly as possible.
Note: The source for this article was the running book "Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide" by Hal Higdon.