Is It Really Necessary?

As an extension to Rethinking Volume, I'll respond to the question (from Hamburglar):

Is it really necessary to run over 3 hours each cycle?

The true answer is probably along similar lines to answering how long is a piece of string. As far as training goes, I think it comes down to quite a number of individual factors, in particular your own training philosophy. Even the word necessary is open to many different interpretations. While I cannot give a definitive answer to the question, I can at least explain my reasons for including such long runs into my program, and what my current view point is.

Let's begin with the obvious downside of running for longer than 3 hours. Fatigue, injury risk and diminishing returns. These big three have generally become to be accepted as good reason to limit the long run to around 2:30. There are many coaches, and different training resources that make this recommendation. I do agree that with relatively long runs, these three items should be a serious concern. Back in my coaching days, I never advocated a run longer than 2:30 to any of the athletes I coached by correspondence. However, I also believe there is more to it, than simply the amount of time you run for.

This leads to discussing the elements that make up the long run. In order for this to be readable, I'll stay away from the intricate details. So to put it simply the elements include (but are not limited to):

  1. Overall time
  2. Distance
  3. Intensity
  4. Pacing
  5. Environment
  6. Nutrition
  7. Training status

The order of importance is hard to define and will change according to your current goals and training status. None of these seven points operate purely by themselves, each is influenced by each and every point. Keeping in mind that the long run should take into account seven points, and not purely be based on overall time, I'll bring the discussion back to injury risk and fatigue.

To improve you need to (within in reason) train beyond your current performance level. However, extending too far beyond your current level, or Training Status, you run the risk of too much fatigue and/or injury. Simply stating a long run should not extend beyond 2:30 is too arbitrary. My long runs over 3 hours are performed at a low intensity, (typically 60-65%HRmax), and the perceived exertion is very low, in fact I generally finish these runs with much less fatigue than shorter, faster sessions. At the time, these runs almost feel easy. Yet the pace is relatively slow, usually somewhere around 6:00/km. These runs are comfortable, they seem to match my training status. I still remember looking back through my first training diary and seeing a long run listed as 3km. It is all relative. If I was to increase the pace to around 5:00/km, which I know I am capable of, then without doubt I would be doing myself a disservice. There is a big difference on the body between covering 30km in 3 hours compared to running the same distance in under 2:30. At the faster pacing, I know I would not be capable of training well for a few days, and with the extra impact stress there is a substantially higher risk of musculoskeletal injury.

Can I complete the Ironman without running for longer than 2:30, or even 2:00? Absolutely. I have done it before. One year I pulled out a 68min swim with only one fortnightly session in the water in the lead up. Will keeping the training volume down give me the best chance of setting a personal best in the Ironman? Not likely. I am preparing for an event that will take over 10 hours, including about 3:30 of running. Even if the only benefit is mental, then I still believe it is important for me to do some runs at around this time frame.

How do I now approach my long runs? As stated in my last post, I am questioning the need to go so long every training cycle (8-9 day period). This is because I have noticed a gradual accumulation of fatigue, that was starting to effect the quality of some workouts. My approach in my current training phase, will be to include a long run of between 3:00-3:30 most cycles, but reduce this time somewhat if needed. I am calling my current phase IM I, where the main goal is simply to set my body up to be able to cover the distance. Once this is achieved the next phase, IM II, will look to increase the pace I can cover this distance at. In IM II, my long run will vary between 2:20 and over 3:00, using a variety of pacing strategies and other factors.

The key difference between the two training phases is there is a lot more higher (relatively speaking) intensity work in IM II. Without the bank of volume on the bike, in the water and from running that hopefully leads to a high workload tolerance, I believe that attempting the planned work of IM II will almost definitely lead to injury. So in effect, the point of regular very long runs is to prepare my body to not only handle, but respond positively to the 6 weeks of high load before tapering for the main event.

Is it all necessary? The short answer is no. The the slightly extended version is, while it is possible to have a good race from training with smaller volumes, I am more likely to get closer to my potential by training at the higher volume, as long as I do not exceed my recovery and adaptive capabilities. I don't know how to make that last sentence any shorter. How do I know where my capabilities are? If someone could be accurate on that one, then chances are they could make a lot of money. The reality is we are all an experiment of one, there is a lot of trial and error, and educated guess work. That is the art of training.


  1. It sounds similar to distance running training, in that higher weekly volume does pay off, but there's a point of diminishing returns.

    I'm wondering if slow IM athletes need to do more time on long days, as do slower marathoners (slow marathoners need to run for close to the time they expect to take for the race).

    Is it worthwhile trying to become faster at shorter triathlons so you can carry some of that speed over to the IM?

  2. Thanks Jason for taking the time out to answer my question. As always it was informative and made sense.

    Interesting to hear that the pace of your long runs is so easy. I guess my question came from the assumption that you would be running at apx. 5 min k's travelling in excess of 36k.

    I was really concerned that the need to properly recover from a run like this, would compromise a higher total volume in the cycle.

    Good explanation - keep up the good work!

  3. Enjoyed the thought process - logical as always and exactly the same condundrum we all face. Personally, i have set into a pattern of faster easy sessions due to being time poor - but as you pint out, my body tells me i need more days to recover per cycle - balancing the intensity, volume, time, injury risk and recovery needs certainly is the fun of it all. will watch with renewed interest!

  4. re: ewen's comment.
    My background is long distance running. Assuming (big assumption) that most people training for IM have completed a marathon, does it make sense to get one long run of 20 miles instead of a time goal? As a confidence builder?

    I know triathlon training is very different, but I'd like to hear your thoughts.


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