4 Long Runs to Include in Marathon Training (If Your Life Doesn’t Fit into a Schedule)

Last week I gave you four workouts to include in your buildup for the marathon, but we know that the long run is just as, if not more important than the hard sessions, especially when it comes to actually seeing evidence that you can in fact cover 26.2 miles very soon.

This is written with someone with a busy schedule in mind. If you are unable to work with a coach or follow a training plan, because your schedule is so tight or all over the place. You are who I had in mind, but anyone who is training for a marathon could include these four long runs. Each works on a different system to get you ready for race day.

Before I get to those, if planning our your own schedule seems like too much, the Running For Real marathon training plan has worked for many runners, and because it is 100% effort based, it works well for anyone who has aspects of life they cannot control.

In the workouts to include article, I gave you a few warnings before I shared them, and I want to go over a few of these again today, as they are just as important:

  • Always give AT LEAST two days between your hard runs and long runs. 
  • If you have a busy few days and skipped a few runs, do NOT try to make things up, put it down to a bad week and move on. A race is not made by one workout/long run or one week, it is the accumulation of many runs and miles
  • If you are in the first few miles of a long run and have a gut feeling it is not a good idea to run hard/push yourself today, LISTEN TO THAT VOICE! Yes, even if this is your only day this week to do it, back off the intensity or cut it short. Do not make that choice before you are 15 minutes into your run (we can sometimes feel bad to start, but warm up into it), but even if it means you miss a critical day, that is better than fighting through it and ending up with an injury
  • On that note…If this is your only day to get a hard day in, but you are feeling rough, resist the urge to do it anyway. Make it an easy day, and remind yourself that everyone misses at least one important day during each build up

Got it?

Before I get to the long runs themselves, let’s talk purpose and meaning behind them.

Most runners know that the long run is a critical part of getting ready for a marathon. It is the run that makes us feel confident that we can in fact do this. 26.2 miles seems like such a long way, and it is difficult to see how easy shorter runs could possibly be enough. The long runs give us the confidence that we can at least cover the distance.

The long runs are also the place to practice. Practice pacing yourself and expending your energy right, practice the fuel you intend to take on race day, practice your clothing and shoe choices. In fact, the more practice of each of those you can get, the better off you will be. Learn more about my suggestions on that here.

I can send you a cheatsheet with all the information you need. Enter your email below, and I will send it to you within an hour, so you can print it and stick it somewhere you can see it often.

Marathon Nutrition Cheatsheet

Don't leave race day to chance! Nail your marathon nutrition using this plan

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Not every long run should be the same distance or intensity. To get to race day as ready as you can be, you need to incorporate different types of long run, each with a purpose. That is why I have given you five long runs you should be including during your training.

As much as I will not be your favorite person for saying this, i recommend doing most of these long runs (at least the progessive and race long run), WITHOUT music/podcasts/books. Just you and your thoughts. You HAVE to be able to allow those voices in, yes, nasty thoughts and all, so you know what to say back. This is a lot of where my mental training course comes in. If the mental side of running is something you struggle with, and what has been holding you back, this course might be just what you need. 

I know it feels like those are the ones you WANT motivation, you need distraction, but you will go into your race more prepared if you know what your negative voice says. You will learn what does and doesn’t work to say back to it.

I have not included mileage for most of these, because that really has to be your call. If you have done 25 marathons, and your body is used to doing 4 hour long runs, your long runs will be different from someone who is doing their first marathon and has never run more than 40 minutes.

I would not add more than 2 miles a week to your long run at any point, and I would not suggest doing more than three over 20 miles during any one build up.

Now, let’s get to those magic long runs that will help you get race ready:

Progressive long run

This long run is the best workout to help you experience the feeling of fatigue that you feel towards the end of the marathon. It will teach you how to handle that build up in your legs, but keep moving forward…hopefully at a faster pace. You will learn to control your effort over a long period of time, which will teach you how to be conservative at the start of your race, so you are able to crank it and be the one passing at the end of the marathon.

The goal is to get a large volume of work done at a moderate intensity when you are already running on tired legs from your training and the first part of the run.

The Logistics:

I recommend doing one to two of these long runs throughout your buildup, one shorter long run earlier in your buildup and one with about a month to go before the race.

Find an area that simulates the course you will be racing on. If you are training for a hilly race, find a 16-17 mile (25-27k) loop with rolling hills. Try to make it as quiet as possible, with few road crossings. If you are racing a flat marathon, find a rail trail or something similar.

It is important to make sure you get into a rhythm as best you can. You do not want to choose a workout spot where you have to keep doing 180 degree turns often. Try to find an uninterrupted path.

Start your long run at your regular easy pace, by the middle of the run, you should be running slightly harder than usual running pace. If your usual easy/recovery run is 3/10, you should be building up to a 5/10.

After the halfway point, start to push a little harder every 1-2 miles (2-3k), building up to a 7-8/10 effort by the final few miles. In those final few miles, you will be straining to keep up the pace, but should still be getting slightly faster.

This workout might seem daunting on paper, but you will learn your limits well, which will help you on race day to feel confident. 

Walk for a few minutes after the run to allow your body to cool down.

Time on your feet run

These ones can be frustrating and a real struggle, because you already have a lot of tiredness, fatigue, buildup in your legs. It can feel like your body is just fighting you, and your mind is filled with self doubt. Remember though, these have one purpose, to get your body used to being out there for that long. It IS a mental game, and it will be good for you to do this.

At the end of the day though, the only goal is to get it in. Listen to your body, run VERY easily. There should be no straining, very limited heavy breathing, and although you are likely to have sore legs from the rest of your training, you shouldn’t feel the same way you do in your workouts.

Do not be surprised if you feel tired and sore, if you have to run much slower than you think you *should* be at this point. You may have to run much slower than you have in other weeks. The accumulation of miles will be in your legs.

The Logistics

This should be one long run about 3 weeks before your race. This run should be 3-4 hours in length, and will be your longest run (time wise) of the entire buildup.

Keep the effort at a 3-4/10, don’t get carried away, yes, even if you feel good. The goal is to keep this easy and practice your nutrition. This is the best time to practice getting all your fuel in (if you are planning on taking 4 gels, this should be able to get you at least 3 at the intervals you intend to for the race).

Steady long run

This is also called a medium long run in my training plan, but steady makes it easier to understand the intensity level required.

The goal is to run the 2nd half of the long run slightly harder than the 1st half. The key is start out nice and easy, and work into the run. 

You should feel smooth and strong most of the way through this, and feel confident as you finish. After you reach halfway bring the effort level up gradually to about a 5-7/10.

Notice that this is different to the progression run in that it is essentially two levels. Imagine a spin bike, after you reach the halfway point, you crank the dial one half turn, and then another half turn. In the progression run, you are slowly, continuously turning the dial, but by the end you are two full turns harder than the halfway point.

The steady long run does not get above a 7/10 effort, ideally around a 6 (compared to the profession where you will be getting to a 7-8). This run you should finish feeling like you could have kept going a few more miles, you should feel strong, like there is more in the tank.

The Logistics

These long runs will occur once a month during your build up. Do these on regular weeks you do not have a race and you feel good. If you have had a stressful week (in life), keep the effort on the lower end of the scale. These could be considered a “basic long run”. During your first month of buildup, you can do these type of long runs for every week.

While you are increasing your long runs, be sure to hone in on your nutritional plan. I would recommend starting as early as possible, the more chances you have to practice, the less likely it is that something will go wrong. If something doesn’t work for you, and you have given it a few chances, try something else. I can email you a cheatsheet with everything I recommend doing to make sure your nutritional plan for race day is perfect for you. Just enter your email below and I will send it within an hour.

And if you want my suggestion of what to use? I am a huge fan of UCAN. I carry it with me in marathons and feel no crashes in energy or stomach upsets. You can get big discounts and find out more here.

Race long run

I recommend doing two of these, and have broken it down below as such. One shorter race long run in the first half of your training buildup, and one longer race with 4-6 weeks to go.

This races do not need to be a big race, but just a local race you can get a race effort in. One of the most important parts of this is that you get to practice your fueling in a race situation. You should be testing out what you think is your most likely race fuel (yes, including the night before and morning of), and see how it sits with you when you run at a race effort (that you may not hit in training).

You want to make sure you practice aspects of your race as possible to make sure you are confident with your race plan. This includes: night before meal, pre-race meal (morning of), fueling during the race, race day outfit, and racing shoes. These race long runs are also helpful for getting used to the nerves associated with race day, so it is not so scary on the big day.

The goal for these is to get a good hard race effort in as well as your mileage for a long run day. See it as a long run with lots of friends.

This is one of the coaching “secrets” to getting more out of less. Especially if you are short on time during the week. 

The Logistics

Arrive 80-90 mins before that start of race to allow plenty of time before having to start warm up. Collect your number as soon as you can (if it is REALLY local, they may not even have the registration booth set up! If so, come back after your warmup). 

If you are racing the 5k

Go for a 3-5 mile warmup VERY easy.

Run this race all on effort. Try not to look at your watch, and start out controlled at a 5-6/10 effort Focus on catching people as the race goes on. Each mile increase your effort, build your effort level throughout the race to an 8-9/10 by the final half mile.

Once you finish the race, give yourself 3-5 minutes, then jog to either somewhere quiet on the course, or in a nearby flat area. Reset your watch. Start with 1 min easy jog at 2-3/10 effort and go straight into a 1 min moderate run at effort level of 5-6/10, then go straight into another 1 min easy jog.

Repeat until you have completed 6-8 sets of 1 min off (easy) 1 min on (moderate).

If you are racing the 10k

Go for a 3-5 mile warmup VERY easy.

Run this race all on effort, try not to look at your watch, and start out controlled at a 4-5 effort Focus on catching people as the race goes on. Each mile increase your effort, build your effort level throughout the race to an 8-9/10 by the final half mile.

After the 10k take a little break, run 3-4 miles easy for cool down.

If you are racing the half marathon (10 mile or something similar)

This is your dry run for the half marathon. The goal is to practice every part of your race to make sure you are confident with your race plan. This includes: night before meal, pre-race meal (morning of), fueling during the race, race day outfit, and racing shoes.

Warm up with a 3-5 mile (5-8k) easy run (depending on the distance of your race). 

Run the race at your marathon effort of 4-5 for the first half of the race

This way you start to understand how it feels and solidify in your mind what every aspect of running this speed feels like.

In the second half, start to increase your effort with every mile, working from the 4-5 (which is probably more like a 5-6 to maintain the same speed at this point), into a 6-7

You should be at an effort of 8 in the final few miles, and edging into a 9 for the final half mile

Trust your body to tell you what it is ready for. Try to go into the race with no expectations and just use this as a dry run to see how you handle the adrenaline, nerves, and race day situation.

Take a short break and cool down with an easy 2-4 miles (3-6k) easy for cool down.

If anything rubs, chafes, or does not feel good, consider practicing it more often in the final month with little tweaks (such as using Vaseline or eating with longer to go before the race), or modifying.

Down week long run

DO NOT skip this one.

I know, I know. You have committed yourself, you want to give this your best shot, and especially if training has not been ideal, it is tempting to keep pushing this one off, but friends, down week long runs are a CRITICAL part of training.

During my first few marathon attempts, I thought I had to hammer each and every long run. They were the most important workout of the week, and with only 1-2 opportunities to go for it every week (with the rest of the training being easy), you have to make the most of them, right?

Kinda. Yes, you do, BUT this is just as important. And without these, it is very unlikely you will make it to race day peaked. 

Sometimes life will hand you a natural down week. If you are on vacation, and an 18 mile long run is just not realistic. If you have a busy week with family, and only have a few hours MAX to get your urn and shower in. Life may give you those little opportunities (Take them!!), BUT you may also need to force yourself to do this.

These down week long runs are just as important, and should be done about once every 4-6 weeks. That means you are cutting your long run down drastically, and the effort level is easy. I am going to say that again. You cut the distance AND keep it easy, not cut it down, so I can run even harder. This is shorter AND easy.

The logistics

You want to shave ¼- ⅓ off your long run. If you have been at 15 miles for your last long run, your down week will be 10-12 miles. If your last long run was 20, the down week should be 13-15.

And again, KEEP IT EASY. This is a great run to listen to a podcast (hey Running For Real) or audiobook.

So there you have it, my best suggestion for your long run formula. Now obviously it is up to you to make it fit with your schedule. If you would like some more help, my effort based marathon (half and 5/10k plans) are available here.

Finally, if in doubt, go easy. It is better to skip a week or have an easy week than push it and end up injured. Getting to race day slightly less fit is far better than not getting there at all. ESPECIALLY if you have a hectic schedule.

Well, friends, if you enjoyed my writing style, I would love to send you my weekly newsletter. Just once a week with some thoughts for the week (often on topics similar to this), as well as some things I have been enjoying and recommend for you to read or listen to. CLICK HERE to find out more.

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