In this episode, we talk about the long run and answer some frequently asked listener questions such as why we do not need to train up to our full race distance, why we need to run the long run at a slow and easy pace, and what happens if we run the long run too hard. We discuss the physiological changes that occur when we train and how that enables us to run faster on race day.
Why Not a 26 Mile Long Run?
This is one of the most common questions I receive and often pops up, especially during marathon training season.
Why would we run slower on our long runs and then be expected to run faster during our races? Why we only train to 20 or 22 miles when the marathon is 26.2? Shouldn't they run 26.2 just so I know I can complete it?
Well, the answer is NO, don't do that. A lot of it comes down to the purpose of the workout and what we're actually trying to train.
Sometimes you train 13, sometimes train to 15. Sometimes you just go to 10. It just depends on where you want to go with that race.
How Does Running Affect Your Heart?
One of the things that happen when we run long distances is that our heart gets stronger. And one of the first things that happen when we start running is that our heart has the ability to pump more oxygen-rich blood out. So that's why over a period of time we can run farther and farther and eventually we just get used to the distance. And there's a lot of things that happen at the cellular level. Our body is changing completely. When we start any kind of endurance training, our muscular endurance improves.
We develop more mitochondria and our cells. That's what's holding the energy that we use. That's the powerhouse. It's the motor that happens at a cellular level and it increases in size and number. Our mitochondria hold our muscle glycogen and it holds our energy that gets converted when we run. So, it literally increases in size so that we can run longer without fueling.
And then the number of capillaries, the microscopic blood vessels that develop in our muscles grow significantly, the amount of them grows, so they can deliver that oxygen-rich blood and the energy from the fuel they were consuming out to ourselves.
Our breathing improves because our lungs become more efficient at oxygenating our blood. And so we carry more oxygen for each breath that we take. Because of all these things that are happening physiologically, that translates into why we run long runs the way we do. And then when we run at different intensities, the different changes may occur.
How Do We Know How Far to Run if We're Training for Various Races?
Depending on what our goal is, we may run only 10 miles. Other times we may run 15 or 16 miles. A lot of it comes down to the experience of the person. If you're running your first half marathon, you can run 10 miles and be fully trained for the half-marathon because you run in that 10 miles on accumulative fatigue over many weeks of training. So when you hit your taper period where we cut back on volume, you heal up and now you go out on race day and the adrenaline and the fact that you're healed up carries you through.
It’s also important to add that for the most part and your first race of the first half, running ten miles is great. Basically, we're going to end up before you run that half. That's normal. So I don't think that running 10 miles is not it but that's it. If you're going to do a half-marathon for your first time, 10 miles per that, it's when you're really looking to build that endurance, when you're really looking to tear down that PR. You're going to look beyond 12, you're going to look beyond 13, and that's when you're really going to change how you're training for a race.
And if you think about it, if you're going to go out and run six miles, three miles seems easy. So it's the same concept. If you go out and you run, sixteen, thirteen is going to seem easier but there's this diminishing return eventually. As you run longer and longer, then the amount of recovery needed after those longer runs starts to work against you. That's why with marathons we don't train up to 26 miles, we cut back at 20 or 22.
Running over that distance is not going to change your training, it's going to continue to benefit you. When you start hitting that 20 miles, it's going to start working against you.
For the full marathoners, for the ultra-marathon runners, it starts to change things. The full marathon runners have to be more focused on how far they can go before it starts to work against them.
How Long Does it Take to Recover from a Long Run?
When we run our long runs, as the miles go up, the amount of recovery needed goes up as well. And so if we run our long runs too hard, too fast and run them long, then we can set our training back not just days, but weeks in.
And if you do that week after week, then you start to actually have a negative effect and you actually start to harm your running. And this is one of the problems with people who race too much. You're racing every single weekend. You're not recovering.
General recovery rule: One day of rest for every mile raced.
Note: Resting doesn’t mean no running and no exercising, it means no intense training or speedwork.
Why Do Marathon Training Plans Only go to 20 Miles?
Most marathon training plans will take you up to 20, maybe 22 miles, and a lot of it just comes down to preference. If you can run 20 miles on cumulative fatigue, then when you go into your taper period where you cut back and you start to recover, you're going to be able to cover that additional six miles.
So why do some plans go to 20-22 miles?
20 miles is enough to get fully prepared for a marathon. There's no reason to go above that unless you want to give somebody the taste of feeling a little bit of the wall. Not everybody's going to hit the wall at 20 miles.
For a significant portion of people who run, even if they're feeling it’s going to hit a little bit of that wall at 20 miles, it means you're running out of glycogen and you're running out of energy and you just feel like you just don't want to run anymore. Your legs get heavier, you get tired, you just get this icky feeling. You just want to quit. But if you take somebody to 22, a much higher percentage of people, almost everybody is going to hit the wall by mile 22. It becomes mental training at that point. It's not physical at all. It's mental.
So anything over 20 miles, you're physically ready to run it, anything over 22, it's really just giving you that extra confidence. You have to be super careful because if you push yourself on these long runs too hard, then you could set yourself back a couple of weeks or even longer, which means if you're doing your long run, about three weeks out from your marathon, which is when most people peak their long run for their taper, if you run that long run too hard, you run the risk of not being fully recovered on your marathon. So it depends on your intensity and how much self-control you have to hold back on those long runs.
Key Takeaway: Whatever you're doing, whatever training plan you're following, your long run has to stay slow because the whole point is to build the miles, not to build the speed.
Most of us run our long runs too fast and then we don't do our speed work as fast as we need to because we're tired from running the long run fast. And if we think about it, if we push any given run, it takes one to two days to fully recover from for each mile that we race or run hard. We're doing this 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20 miles on our long runs, we start building this debt that our bodies can't repay. Then what happens is our run starts to fall apart and our bodies start to fall apart. We start hitting plateaus and we never pull ourselves out of it.
There are times where we do things like we may throw in a progressive long run, which is a special type of work out where we will practice running negative splits, but we're not running race pace the entire time. We're just kind of finishing at race pace and we're working ourselves up to a quicker pace. So the bulk of the run is still run relatively slow.
Is it Good to Run over 3 Hours?
For most of us, our long runs are eventually going to hit a point where we're going well over three hours almost, maybe four or five, even six hours. The benefit may not be on the cardiovascular side, but it is time on our feet. If you're going out and you have a five hour, five and a half, six hour marathon time, you need to stand on your feet or be on your feet for very similar amounts of time you're training because you're going to have really sore legs and square feet if you don't.
So you're still building up muscular strength and muscular endurance, but you have to throttle back your intensity so that you're not burning yourself out so that when it comes time to race day, you're fully recovered.
What is the Common Tapering Mistake?
So taper is one of the most common mistakes that people make. They screw up their taper by running too hard, either in their taper period or they don't taper at all. And the idea is really to rest up so that because you're only running 20 miles, you can now run 26 and you're doing it because now you're fully rested, plus, you have the adrenaline. There's a lot of adrenaline that's going to kick in during that last mile when people are cheering you on as you see the race finish coming.
To wrap it up, just believe in yourself, believe in the running, believe in what you're doing, and understand that every workout has a purpose, including the long run. Don't overthink it. Just don't overrun it either. And so with that, thanks for joining us and happy running.
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