The 20 mile long run
by on Wednesday, May 29, 2013  (8 comments)

Can you run a marathon PR without running a single 20 mile long run? Ask Allan. This spring, he twice ran under 4 hours after entering this year with a PR over 5 hours.

I've been asked a few times recently about long runs in marathon training. It seems people are beginning to question the need for the 20 mile long run. As anyone who knows me well, I'm celebrating these questions!

First, more about Allan and the story of his astonishing 66 minute PR, followed 62 days later by another 6 minute PR. Allan began running in 2011, completed a half marathon on a typical 12 week plan, then stopped running and fell into some bad health habits. In the spring of 2012, he began running again. After building up for a while, he again followed a standard marathon plan that included two 20 mile long runs. In October, he had some knee problems starting shortly after halfway and ended up walking a lot on his way to a 5:05 marathon.

In early December, we began working together. One of the first questions he asked me was about the long run. Having read up on the Hansons training philosophy, he was interested in how I felt about the need for the 20 mile long run. What a match! I don't think he knew when he asked the question that I've long argued that 20 miles is not necessary. At that point, we planned to cap his long runs at 18 miles.

With his long runs capped, Allan was able to do more workouts and was able to get more intra-week consistency in his training. Previously, the long run was such a big part of his week that the rest of the week was largely about recovering from the prior long run and preparing for the next. By reducing his maximum long run distance by as little as 10%, we were able to put more focus into getting some real training done between the long runs.

I'm not going to claim the lack of the 20 mile long run was the only factor in these great improvements he achieved. There were many factors that led to a 72 minute improvement in 6 months. However, it should be obvious that he didn't suffer by dropping the 20 mile long run.

That's just the point. The 20 mile long run, while considered necessary by many, is too long for some runners. When the long run throws your whole week out of balance, it's not doing you any good. By reducing the distance of the long run, even just a little, you can get more out of the rest of your week. Balance in training matters. If you can drop your long run by 2 miles but get an extra 10 miles a week and add a speed workout into the mix, you're going to come out ahead, even in a long race like the marathon.

Now, the shorter long run isn't for everyone. When I was running my best, my long runs were up to 30 miles but my weekly mileage was up to 150-160 miles at times and regularly topping 140. Another runner I'm coaching needs her long runs. If we don't get enough 20 milers in, her marathon performances suffer. We found that through experience and adjusted accordingly.

So how do you know if you need 20 miles? First, consider your training balance. Is the long run about the only thing you can focus on or is it just another day in your overall training week? If it's just another day, you're probably fine where you are. If it's the only thing you can focus on, you might be doing too much and a decrease in your long run distance may be warranted. Once you make this decision, try it and see how it works. Be sure to take advantage of the benefits of the shorter long run, though. Cutting the long run distance isn't going to help without other changes. Get in some meaningful workouts with the extra energy you have, log a few more miles over the rest of the week, make the long runs mean more by adding some faster miles late in the runs. Figure out what your training is most lacking and make sure you are adding some of that in.

In the end, we are all different. Some people do in fact need long runs of 20 miles or even longer. The key I want you to take away from this is that not everyone does. Consider the possibility that you might only need 18 or even 16 miles. Weigh whether this shorter long run would allow you more balanced training that would not leave holes in your fitness on race day. Then don't be afraid to go against convention. You might find out that a shorter long run allows you more well rounded training and will be one step toward a PR.

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8 comments
Charlene

Great topic!

I also notice that a lot of people run their long run way too fast. If it is the only focus of the week this may be easy to do but I am still always somewhat mystified about how fast some people report running their long runs as it is normally much faster than I run even though I am 15 to 20 minutes faster in a half marathon.

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Ryan

There is a place for fast running in long runs. This is something else I'm thinking about writing on. However, a lot of people do run their whole runs at near marathon pace. For some people, this might be the right thing. For most people, this should be done rarely if at all.

That said, I love fast finish long runs. The fast finish doesn't have to be terribly long or fast. Sometimes even a mile at the end of a long run at marathon pace can be great. It gets you moving and gets your legs used to running at a faster effort while tired.

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Double

I would agree everyone is different. Many today have just recently began running, or have returned to running perhaps to achieve a goal. Not many people on the streets running in the Wisconsin winters. Dozens upon dozens in the fair weather. I am not trying to define who is and isn't a runner, but one thing is clear if it is primarily a 2-4 times a week habit then 20 milers are a stretch. It just might be better to run enough today and save some for tomorrow. I'd rather see a lower mileage person practice running most days then leaving it all on the weekly long run. Sure, get out there for a couple easy hours occasionally, but don't compromise the week.

I could write a love story about running. I enjoy talking to new runners and try to offer the Dehart lite version of the sport. I like to fuel the passion, but it is not something you can give to someone. Many of us can provide antidotes to just about anything about running. Injuries, training, motivation, clothing, shoes, technique, supplements, etcetera; just based on experience. For some odd reason some people seem to think there is something different about us. Perhaps there is. I just attribute it to lacing up the threads and going for one. Like Frank Shorter once said, "It's not all good looks and a secret recipe."

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Ryan

Double, I think you hit on one key type of runner I think is well served, generally speaking, by doing less than 20 miles. If you have to choose between a 20 mile long run and 3-4 days a week of running or 16-18 miles and 5-6 days of running, give me 5-6 days. Of course, the underlying statement that I find reinforced almost daily through coaching, everyone is different but I believe we should always start by assuming we are the rule, not the exception, because chances are that we aren't the exception.

For so many of us, the most important part of training is just getting out there. That's largely my point here. You need to get out there as often as possible. When the 20 mile long run hampers your ability to do that, it might be doing more harm than good.

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Ed

This was very good for me to read. I was worried about my mileage getting up nice and high for the planned 1/2 marathon in late fall. I can see how 15-16 would be more than enough if my other days are all there to serve their own purpose and not serve the long run.

Now - I just gotta slow the long runs down a bit. Although, hitting 12-13 miles at a 7:35 pace after a good full week of work is a tremendous confidence boost.

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Ryan

For most people, I would argue somewhere around 15 is ideal for a half. The half is a little different than the marathon because there is much more of a speed component to it so going over distance, if you're racing, matters. That said, you don't need to go far over distance and doing so at the cost of the rest of the week is a mistake.

There's a time to inject pace into the long run and there's a time to just cover the distance.

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Charlene

What I meant about people tending to do their long run too fast is not when they add a fast finish or do part at marathon pace. What I witness is people racing their long run each week. It is so dominant in their marathon training plan that they try to do each week faster than the last even though they are adding more miles each week. What is really confusing to me is that the paces they brag about are much faster than what they tell me their goal pace is. In the end they either get hurt or run their marathon much slower than planned. I offer them no advice as I have no experience in marathon running but I have read enough that I have a general idea of what not to do.

As I do not do marathons I only run up to 15 or 16 miles. I like to keep my fitness at a spot where I can do this anytime throughout the year with no build up. I have thought about next winter adding in some 18 or 20 milers in base training just to see if it would enhance my endurance. What do you think of this?

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Ryan

Oh, I absolutely agree. A lot of people think the long run is a hard day so it should be run fast. They don't consider that the distance itself makes it a hard day and you don't need to be dead on your feet after every hard run.

I personally haven't gone longer than 17 miles in years. I don't think going longer is all that helpful for someone focusing on shorter races. There are better uses of that time and energy. That said, I'm not totally opposed to the idea of once a month, give or take, doing a long run that is a little longer than the typical long run.

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