Marathon Long Run – The Complete Beginner’s Guide

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Cross Training For Runners
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David Dack

Whether you’re training for your first marathon or aiming for a sub-3 hour event, the marathon long run is integral for successful training.

In fact, do your long runs right, and you’ll be one step (or many) closer to your fastest marathon. Do them wrong, and your marathon performance will be, at best, subpar. And that’s bad.

Would you like to learn how to make the most out of your marathon long runs? Then I’ve got you covered.

In today’s article, I’m sharing with you the full beginner’s guide to marathon long runs.

More specifically, I’ll dive into:

  • What is a Marathon long run?
  • The importance of long runs
  • What’s the ideal long marathon run pace?
  • How far should you run?
  • How to add long marathon runs in training
  • How to progress
  • What to eat and drink
  • And so much more.

Sounds great?

Let’s lace up and dig in.

What is The Marathon Long Run?

So what makes a run “long”?

Long runs consist of training runs that are longer than your basic workouts and are the ideal time to increase your weekly mileage as you prepare for a marathon race and are, by rule, performed at a comfortable, slow pace.

The distance could be anything from five miles or over.

The goal is simple – prepare your body and mind to endure going the distance.

Useful link – Here’s the full guide to how long is a marathon.

Why Long Runs Matter

Long runs are the most vital part of any marathon training plan.

Sure, speedwork, tempo, fartlek, and other training runs help improve your speed and conditioning, but the key to overcoming these 26.2 miles lies in the long run.

Let’s delve into why.

Improved Heart Strength

Your heart is a muscle. The more you train it, the stronger it gets—and vice versa.

When the strength of your heart improves, your maximum stroke volume, which is the amount of blood pumped by the heart with each beat,  will increase, and your resting heart rate will lower.

Improved Capillary Density

If you’re trying to improve your endurance, the benefit of improved blood circulation through capillarization may seem obvious.

Capillary refers to the blood vessels that deliver oxygen and nutrients to your muscles—basically fueling your training.

Improved capillary density can benefit endurance runners because it improves the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to your muscles while also allowing you to remove and get rid of waste products faster.

The more capillaries you develop, the faster oxygen and nutrients get shuttled, and the longer you can run—as long as you can deliver enough energy to them to maintain the uptake in production.

Additional Resource – Here’s your guide to the Yasso 800 Workout

Improved Mitochondria

Mitochondria are the small cells that convert carbs and fat into energy. Think of them as the “fuel factor” that power cell respiration and movement. The more mitochondria you have, the more energy your body can produce.

Again, long runs can help by forcing your body to produce more mitochondria per cell—that’s what training adaptation is all about.

Don’t take my word for it. Research shows that mitochondria development peaks at around two hours of training at 50-75 percent of maximum cardio power—the exact conditions during long runs.

Mental Resilience

Regular runs over two hours gradually prepare your body and mind for the rigors of running a marathon.

Once you get to the race venue, you’ll, deep down, know that you can go the distance because you have already put in the needed work to do so—and then some.

In other words, long runs make you mentally strong.

Additional resource – How long is a 100-mile race?

Good Predictor

Besides the physical and mental benefits, long runs can serve as a good predictor of your marathon result as well as your marathon training progress.

In conclusion

In short, long runs are a dress rehearsal for the actual event.

That’s why they’re so important for marathon training success.

It’s the very reason I decided today to spill ALL the beans on how to use them efficiently during training.

Ready to learn how to put them into practice? Then keep on reading.

Additional resource – Before you sign up for a marathon

The Beginner's Guide To The Marathon Long Run
Girl runner runs along the road in summer. Jogging in the morning. Active lifestyle.

How To Add A Marathon Long Run To Your Plan

The fast way for you to get hurt/injured is to jump up your long runs by 20 to 30 times at a time.

It doesn’t work that way in the real world.

Even if you have been logging the miles regularly for the past year, patience is critical to successful marathon training.

For this reason, aim to add 5 to 10 minutes each onto your long runs. Follow a sensible progression—or train long enough to get your body hurt or injured. And you don’t want that.

What’s more?

Your first few marathon long runs should include roughly two to three miles at goal pace. For example, if you’re planning to run for 16 miles, run 13 miles at an easy pace, and the last three miles at your goal pace.

Additional Resource  – Should I run in miles or minutes?

How Long Should Marathon Longs Runs Be?

So how long, long runs should be (no pun intended)?

In general, long run duration vary depending on many factors, such as your fitness level and marathon goals.

But all in all,  slow and steady is the way to go.  You’ll want to start with a conservative number, then slowly increase the distance until you peak three or four weeks before your marathon.

More specifically, start at about the 5-7 mile mark, according to your current fitness level and training goals. Your long runs should increase (either in distance or duration) gradually each week, then take a step back every four or five weeks to allow for recovery and consolidate your training gains.

Training progresses, aim to build your long runs to over three hours with the final 60 to 90 minutes at marathon pace (try negative splitting, for example).

How much is enough?

As a rule, your long runs may consist of roughly 30 percent of your total weekly mileage, according to most running experts.

Want more challenge? Check this 50K training plan.

How Fast Should You Perform The Long Run?

Not fast at all. Although long runs are the bread and butter of marathon training, they are not intended nor designed to be a speed workout.

As discussed earlier, long runs have one main goal—to increase your endurance, which means mileage and time on your feet, not pace.

The intensity should NEVER exceed zones 1 and 2. In fact, even if you believe that you’re running easy, you might be actually running too hard.  This easy pace is actually the ideal mix for developing mitochondria in the muscle and training them to effectively burn fat for fuel.

As a rule, keep your long runs at a conversational pace. Try reciting the pledge of allegiance. If you can’t do it without panting for air, you’re going too fast.

Already have a realistic marathon pace goal? Great. Consider doing your long runs 30 to 90 seconds per mile slower.

Additional resource – Jogging Vs running

When Should You Do Long Runs?

If you’re working the typical 9-to-5 job, weekend mornings are the most convenient time for doing long runs.

Keep in mind that you’ll need at least two to four hours to complete your runs, and afterward, you’ll need a few hours to bounce back.

What’s more?

Go the distance when your body is well recovered. Sure, it’s ok to do a long run after a regular training session, but if you’ve been doing lots of 400-meter reps and feeling drained, then you might not perform your best on your long run.

Additional resource – How to determine Marathon pace

How Many Long Runs To Do?

Complete at least three to four long run sessions, spanning at least two hours each in the 12 weeks before the event.

Your longest long run should be completed three to four weeks prior to marathon day. Most experts recommend capping at around 3 to 3.5 hours, or about 18 to 20 miles.

What To Eat On Long Runs

So what should you eat before and during marathon long runs?

Again, the answer depends on you.

I’d recommend experimenting with different options for pre-run breakfasts, snacks as well as fueling on the go and during the run itself.

If you’re looking for a fast way to get fuel fast into your system, try out gels and sports drinks as well as they work for you (and not cause any stomach issues).

Additional resources:

Marathon Long Run – The Conclusion

There you have it. If you’re looking to add a long marathon run into your training plan, then today’s article should get you started on the right foot. The rest is up to you.

Please feel free to leave your comments and questions in the section below.

In the meantime, thank you for dropping by.

Keep Running Strong.

David D.

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