I've targeted the Kingston marathon in October to get a new PB (target sub-3.30, current best 3.38 at Edinburgh in 2014). Over each of the next 16 weeks, I'll be addressing a different aspect of marathon training. Follow me on my journey and tell me about yours!
The long run is something you’re going to have to embrace if you’re planning to run a marathon. I remember setting off for my first 14-mile run - the furthest I'd ever run - and genuinely wondering if I’d make it back home alive. It seems faintly ridiculous now but at the time it was that fear of the unknown that had me worrying. As it was, my legs hurt a lot at mile 14 but it did at least give me the confidence that I probably wouldn’t die if I ran a little bit further each week.
Many beginners - and also some experienced runners - find the long run difficult, and with good reason. Running further than you ever have before is scary. Running for two hours and more is time-consuming, and most importantly, it can hurt.
The most crucial reason to run long distances in training for a marathon is simply that you need to prepare your body to run a long distance in the race itself. Yes, it’s possible to complete a marathon without running very far in training but the reality is it’s likely to be painful and there will probably be walking involved. Incorporating long runs onto your training builds your endurance and prepares you physically for doing so in future runs and the race itself.
Give yourself a boost
The mental side of running long distances is what makes many people hesitate even starting on their marathon journeys. However, you soon discover that your body is far more able to go the distance than your mind initially believes. So, far from convincing your body you can do it, it’s invariably your body that convinces your mind. The further and more often you run, you more you grow in confidence, and the easier the long runs become.
Figuring out distance, pace and frequency
Most marathon training plans will have a progression of distance for your long runs, increasing as the weeks go by and peaking at 18-22 miles, 3-4 weeks before the race. How far you go, how fast you run and how often you do these long runs will depend on your experience and your race goals. If you’re just starting out, a single 20-mile run may not only be enough mentally to get you through the marathon, but maybe also be so tiring physically that attempting several runs of this length could mean such long recovery periods that they’re not worth the effort. If you're more experienced, you'll probably want to get a few in, and possibly at different paces.
As for pace, this again depends on experience. When starting out, it’s all about time on feet, getting used to keeping moving. If this includes walking, so be it, as far as I’m concerned. Of course, if you can run continuously without stopping that will give you an even bigger psychological boost on your road to marathon glory. The more you run, the more you are likely to focus on pace in long runs, be it running them easy finishing strong, or a combination of different paces. If you have many years of marathoning in your legs, you’ll recover far more quickly from your long runs and be able to include more of them in your training programme. You may even want to run further than a marathon in training. The key is knowing your body and how long you need to recover so that you don’t put your race goal in jeopardy.
Beyond the running itself, long runs provide an ideal opportunity to test out your running kit. This means everything. Up to an hour, sometimes longer, I can wear any technical t-shirt without worrying. After that (or sometimes before, depending on conditions) and jogger’s nipple surfaces with a vengeance, so the plasters go on for longer runs. Likewise, socks and shorts can start to be problematic after a certain amount of time. It's far better to find out during a training run that chafing occurs than on race day.
Then there’s the matter of nutrition and hydration. Do you know how much water, electrolytes, energy gels, dates, cereal bars you need to get you through 26.2 miles with hitting the dreaded ‘wall’? You may not be able to recreate race conditions completely but you should at least have an idea of which brand of gels don’t upset your stomach or how often you need water to optimise your performance on race day. I only took gels on my first marathon and died horribly at mile 17. At my next marathon I had a cereal bar at halfway and felt at my best from 20 miles onwards. You won’t be the same but it’s worth trying a few things out to see what works for you.
Finally, run in all conditions because you never know what it’s going to be like on race day. Your favourite shorts could prove very uncomfortable in the rain when normally they’re fine. It also gives you the peace of mind that you can run that far in the worst possible conditions. You can’t control the weather on race day but you can prepare for it.
Tips to get out there
There will be times when you don’t want to run, particularly when it's the long run. Here are some ideas for making sure you get out there and get it done.
1. Run with other people
Even if you’re a confirmed lone runner, having someone to run with, help push you, even just talk to, can do wonders to while away the hours.
2. Listen to something
Whether it’s music, a podcast or an audio book, having something distracting in your ears can really help the miles go by.
3. Make your destination more appealing
Many people run a loop or out and back route as it’s the most practical way to do a long run. But getting a train to 20 miles away from home and running back, or heading to a friend’s house can be a great motivator to getting your long run done. Just make sure you have an exit strategy (i.e. alternative way to get home in case you get injured).
4. Enter a race
There are plenty of races (especially in the spring) that cater for people preparing for marathons. Often 20 miles, these will enable you to test out the practical stuff (see above) and get you used to that race day feeling i.e. the nerves, what to have for breakfast, your poo strategy, all that fun stuff. And if you can't find a 20-mile race, tag 7 miles onto a half marathon and you've bagged yourself a medal as well as your long run.
One final thought. Long runs don't only benefit you if you're running a marathon. Even if 10k or a half marathon is your maximum distance, runs longer than that will make you stronger, mentally and physically. You never know, you may want to step up to a marathon...