Ditch The Long, Slow Marathon-Training Distance Run
Revising the traditional long run with a focus on intensity will get you to the finish line faster—but you need to be creative and careful.
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Times, they are a changin’, and the traditional marathoner mentality that long, slow distance gets the job done is becoming a thing of the past. If you’ve completed a few marathons and want to run faster, running long, hard runs could be a key training stimulus for you.
“The focus has changed from simply preparing for the distance of 26.2 miles to preparing for the pace that would allow for running fast over that distance,” says Scott Simmons, who heads the American Distance Project, a group established in Colorado Springs in 2011 to help American runners compete on the international stage.
In other words, instead of simply training to finish 26.2 miles and relying on whatever speed you bring, runners are training to run 26.2 miles faster with workouts specific to the demands of sustaining a challenging pace over the miles. While the trend sprouted among elite runners and has been a key reason for the recent drop in times at the international level, the same principles can help recreational runners get faster, too.
One of the key workouts in this new training regimen is a long, hard run at marathon race pace, which marks a move away from the long, slow distance run (aka, an “LSD” run) age-group marathoners traditionally complete once every weekend.
Indeed, the best East Africans are running as much as 40K (about 25 miles) at near-marathon race pace at 8,000 feet of altitude as part of their marathon buildup. That’s not an option for most runners, but there are similar workouts that can help ambitious age-group runners achieve the same effect.
Bigger and Bigger Chunks of Intensity
“Instead of starting from a position of volume and having that be the largest determining factor, we are now starting from a position of intensity,” Simmons says. “We begin with intensity and then hope to extend that intensity.”
Two of the elite runners Simmons coached, Alisha Williams and Wendy Thomas, benefitted from this style of training in the past.
“When they were approaching the Olympic Trials Marathon, they couldn’t do what [2:03 Kenyan marathoner] Moses Mosop might do,” says Simmons, who works with Mosop’s former coach, Renato Canova, who, along with Meb Keflezighi’s coach, Bob Larsen, is often credited with the philosophies behind this marathon training shift.
Instead, the women focused on getting bigger and bigger chunks of their long runs at marathon pace. Thomas, who only began running in 2006, made her marathon debut at the U.S. Olympic Trials in January 2012 in Houston and placed 12th in 2:34:25. Williams ran a 2:35:09 in her debut marathon in the same race and placed 14th. In December 2012, she won the Cal International Marathon in Sacramento, Calif., in 2:34:57 — her second effort at 26.2 miles.
“We ran our long runs pretty hard,” Williams says. “The goal is to run a big chunk of that at marathon pace. It’s not about time on your feet, necessarily—it’s about finding the balance between quality and quantity.”
Dividing to Conquer
One of the key sessions in a typical marathon build-up for Simmons’ athletes is two 13-mile workouts—typically intervals or tempo runs—done over the course of a single day, for a total of more than 26 miles with the warmups and cool downs. The morning workout is meant to deplete the body of glycogen, and when it is combined with the evening workout, which always includes lactic acid-inducing intervals at faster than threshold pace, the body actually begins to learn how to use lactic acid as fuel—an important tool in fast marathon running.
Age-group runners looking to shift their marathon training shouldn’t just blast 15-18 miles this weekend. For age-groupers looking to implement the Kenyan-esque long run into their training regimen without overtraining or getting injured, Pete Rea, the elite athlete coach at ZAP Fitness, a North Carolina-based organization designed for post-collegiate American runners, suggests breaking it up into manageable chunks.
For example, instead of doing a full 25K (or 15 miles) at marathon race pace, alternate between long hard efforts and easy jogging. For example, run 10K, 10K and then 5K at marathon race pace with 4-6 minutes of easy jogging (or walking) in between. The next time you do an intense long run, perhaps break it up into a 20K and then a 5K, or perhaps run 30 minutes at marathon race pace followed by 20 minutes, then 10 minutes and then 5 minutes, all with 2 to 3 minutes of easy jogging in between.
“Physiologically, there’s not much difference between that and a 65-minute hard run, but mentally it’s easier to stomach,” Rea says.
The warmup for such a workout should include four minutes of extremely easy running, four minutes of building up to a pace that is 30 or 40 seconds faster per mile, and then building to “short conversation pace,” Rea says.
Another way to achieve the same goal would be to start a 3- or 4-mile tempo run 30 minutes before racing a half-marathon, with the key being to focus on a consistent, hard effort in each segment.
The cool down for any long hard run should include a few easy miles followed by light stretching and an ice bath, if possible.
“It is something that’s going to take a little more time to recover from,” says Michael McKeeman, who is a coach at Run Mammoth Performance Coaching and a longtime training partner to marathoning great Deena Kastor. “But I think that even if you have to give yourself another day or two of easy running after the hard long run, the benefit you’re getting out of the harder long run overrides anything you’re losing by having to run easy for an extra day or two.”
These long, hard training runs aren’t something to be completed very often, either. Elite marathoners typically do them no more than once a month.
Training programs with long, hard runs built into them are typically based on an athlete’s individual recovery time instead of the standard seven-day training cycle. So if you typically do long training runs on weekends, you’re going to have to listen to your body and tweak your schedule to make them fit.
“You’re not going to run the really hard, longer runs any more than three times during a 12-week marathon buildup,” Rea says. “But the real key is recovery.”
Updated from an article originally published January 2013.