The Marathon Long Run

Running about 240km over two days, and fighting a battle probably isn't exactly the best preparation for a marathon run. I don't plan on announcing "Νενικήκαμεν" and dropping dead at the end. My Greek is non-existent anyway. Still, running long in the lead up to a marathon is important, just done a bit differently than Pheidipipides.

There are so many guidelines, instructions, opinions and criticisms on how the long run should be performed. Naturally not all will be optimal for everyone. So instead of telling others how to run, I will discuss how I do it in the lead up to a marathon.

First and foremost it is important to understand the details aren't very important if a long run isn't being performed reasonably regularly. Just getting out there and covering quite a few kilometers gets you a good way there. Still, I like to geek things up a bit, so time for the details.

If any session was to be chosen as the most important for the marathon it would be the long run. That said, it forms only part of the full training picture. My long run works in conjunction with the other sessions, in particular the medium length run which usually is performed around threshold or marathon pace intensity.

There are three key aims for my long run:
  1. Enhancing lipolysis
  2. Increasing muscular fatigue resistance
  3. Improving low intensity speed

Enhance Lipolysis

The more I can use fat as a fuel, particularly at faster, race (marathon) specific pacing, the more likely I am to do well in the marathon. Since glycogen depletion and hypoglycaemia are key reasons for hitting the wall, and severely limiting performance, then it would be best to get a substantial portion of fuel from your fat stores. The more fat utilised, then the precious and limited stores of carbohydrate can be spared to an extent that will hopefully get me across the finish line at full speed.

Achieving this isn't an exact science. It is predominantly done on feel, with a little assistance added in from heart rate and speed monitoring. It involves really getting in tune with how the body reacts. My usual approach is to limit carbohydrate intake, either start the run fasted and/or aim not to ingest any supplemental carbohydrate during the run. Then my aim is to run a fairly even intensity that should have me glycogen depleted right near the end of the run. Then the hope is to just be able to maintain the pace for the last 10-20 minutes on an empty tank.

Initially the pacing of this run is relatively slow. My first averaged 6:22/km, at an heart rate average of about 70%HRmax, which is a long way from being near the 4:05/km that I would like to run the marathon at. If history repeats, I would expect to head this up to well under 5:00/km at a bit below 80%HRmax for three hours worth of running, over the next few weeks.

Muscular Fatigue Resistance

Quite simply, this is about having the legs to go the distance. The muscles and connective tissue become fatigued. In particular with running, the eccentric loading over prolonged distances can cause a fair amount of damage to muscle fibres and contraction mechanisms. Without adequate conditioning, this will lead to significant reduction in output. The ability to retain efficient and quick running form in the latter stages of the marathon is a neccessity when looking to run close to your potential.

Covering this attribute is about as simple as it gets. Practice holding good form throughout prolonged runs, often. That's it. Week in, week out, my body should adapt to running for about three hours. Muscular fatigue resistance is definitely enhanced with th prolonged threshold and marathon pace runs.

Low Intensity Speed

It would seem the above two attributes lead to improving low intensity speed. However, it is possible to become a fat-burning-machine and have excellent fatigue resistance without becoming relatively quick. This is where the art comes into training. It is about feel. I am looking for that feeling of easy speed.

From my marathon campaign of 2009, I really noticed the substantial differences in technique required for running at different speed. In particular, once the pace was below 4:30/km the contribution from the posterior chain (hamstrings, calves) was significantly greater than at slower paces. There are also different ways of running in the 5-6:00/km range. I could land quite flat on the feet, with an almost shuffling style. This feels efficient, and reminds me of ironman triathlon running. However, for me, it is completely different to my faster running. If I concentrate on a springy feel to my footfall, maintain open hips, a reasonable drive and aim for the what feels like almost a little-bit-too-quick cadence, then I notice an almost weekly improvement in my low intensity running. The 6:22/km initially speeds, gradually transform to feeling even easier when running at 5:00/km or even a bit faster.

This takes concentration. The body is lazy and will always look for the easy way out. It will show a preference to muscles and styles which are already strong. However, they may not lead to improved race perfrmance. Currently I have a tendancy to stiffen my stride and roll my pelvis forward when fatigued. This removes the hamstrings from much of the stride and forces, most of the loading onto the quadriceps. I feel that style of running places a low ceiling over my race speeds. Technique is important. Drills and sprints may play a supplementary role, but it is what you practice most of the time, especially when under stress that becomes your base technique.

What To Expect

Over the next three months my long run should progress from around 70%HRmax, at paces of arond 6:00/km up to a bit below 80%HRmax, while still burning a good proportion of fat, at speeds approaching 4:30/km, and feel like I could keep going once finished. Most of these increases will come from the techniques and guidelines discussed above, rather from really trying to push the boundaries. I still expect not to require more than two days of moderate training as recovery. Any more, and the long run is being run too hard. The other training sessions are still very important.

In the last few weeks, I expect to put in a couple of fast finish long runs. These I have taken from Greg McMillan's description, and should go a long way to incorporating the other elements neccessary for marathon racing into the long run.


Some will notice that I haven't spoken about the exact distances of the long runs. For the most part I don't think it is all that important. The key requirement is that I am actually improving the attributes as listed above. If that takes 22 or 36km to achieve, then that is what it takes, but the number doesn't concern me too much. I have listed 3 hours throughout my training for the long run, but there I am sure there will be a few times when the run will only cover 2:30 or even exceed 3 hours. This will be based on how I am responding to training, both on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.

As it gets closer to the marathon I may base a handful of runs a bit more on distance, rather than just time and feel. The fast finish long runs will most likely be over a measured course, where I change my pacing based on the distance covered, isn't of what ticks over on my watch. What you won't find in my plan is a week by week progression of 24, 26, 28, 30, Yes it does take kilometers to achieve my goals, but it is the goals, not the kilometers that makes the difference.


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