A look at the Long Run and marathon training.

The long run is usually viewed as the center piece of a marathon training program. In the current pop running culture, this means that most marathon training programs work towards the “20 miler”.

This is a topic that I have discussed many times in the past, with many different people, and I thought now was the time to get all my ideas out there to share with fellow runners.

Why I don’t like the “20 mile” Long Run Destination for marathon training:

Reason One:

I don’t like the concept of placing so much importance on a single 20 mile run. Why? In many running programs that I see, runners end up putting so much value on the long run that it ends up taking away from the value and training stimulus they could get by having a solid week of running. (Which means running regularly throughout the week too.)

This doesn’t mean that every runner using these programs puts too much emphasis on the long run, but psychologically it can become a trap. If you decide that the weekend long run is the most important workout of the week, it can be tempting when “life happens” to justify missing a couple runs during the week, as long as you “accomplished” the long run.

This is a trap that often leads to, in the worst case – injury, in the best case – less developed fitness due to less overall training stimulus.

This idea becomes even more magnified if a training program leads towards the 20 miler and a runner develops the belief that they are ready to run the marathon, using the 20 miler accomplishment as their only indicator.

I’m not the only one who takes this approach. Jack Daniels, in his book, Daniels’ Running Formula suggests that the longest run you do be under 2.5 hours. The risk-to-reward ratio (injury risk/physiological reward) beyond that point is often not worth it. I remember Bobby McGee taking a similar stance.

Solution: as a runner begins a marathon training program, set the initial goal to accomplish “x” number of weeks running 3 days and building to 5 days a week before taking on any run over 2 hours. “x” depends on your timeframe, but a typical 18 or 20 week program should give you at least 6 weeks to build up to 4 runs at 40mins+ or 5 runs at 30mins+.

Reason Two:

Does it pass the common sense test to do more than 50% of your running in one day? It doesn’t, but many marathon runners that I see or read about do just that.

When a runner is doing less than 40 miles per week, that is what they are doing when they build to a 20 mile long run.

Again in Daniel’s book he suggests that the long run be no more than 25% of your total weekly mileage. Therefore to have a long run of 20 miles, a runner must be doing a minimum of 80 miles a week. That kind of mileage is not all that common for the average age-grouper hoping to finish a marathon.

An approach that I have reviewed several times that I like a lot (probably because it is how I like to train people too) is the way the the Hansons train their runners (their age-groupers, not their elite… that would destroy all of us).

In their approach, the longest run that a beginner or advanced runner does is 16 miles. (I know your are screaming in revolt as you just read that.) The advanced runner will see more training stimulus throughout the program, but the longest run distances are the same.

What a refreshing display of understanding an average runners needs and ability. Someday I would love to get some closer looks and discussions with the Hanson-Brooks guys, but from the outside looking in, I like what I see.


So you are freaking out about not running longer than 16 miles prior to your marathon day – that’s normal. But it is normal due to the fact that the 20 miler has become ingrained into every running groups mindset around this country, not because there is a physiological or training stimulus significance to that distance.

I personally don’t have a 16 mile limit in many of the programs I help with, I schedule the longest run at 2.5 hours and allow a little more if the runner is running well, consistent and injury free. In fact, the most recent versions our our training programs extend out to 3 hours for those without overly extended fatigue or nagging minor injury. While I continue to believe that single run durations of 3 hours plus are unnecessary in training and require a little extra recovery, it has proven to be a still safe duration for most that also allows those runners to gain some confidence.

However, I am extremely sensitive to this single workout and change it if there’s any hint that it could create undue recovery time or risk injury.

What is a better method to address the psychology behind “being ready”?

The Double Long Run Weekends.

I have to admit this is not my idea originally. It was a style of training that a professor I had at UNL (Nebraska-Lincoln) put me through (in late 2000) when I went to her for a solution to my 2 previous failed attempts at running a quality marathon.

The basic Idea: is to alternate weekends, doing a longer run on week one, then two medium long runs on Saturday / Sunday of week two. Then repeat that pattern throughout your training program. An example might look like this:

week 1 – Saturday: 12 miles / rest
week 2 – Saturday: 8 miles / Sunday: 8 miles
week 3 – Saturday: 14 miles / rest
week 4 – Saturday: 10 miles / Sunday: 10 miles

That is a basic example, it would be changed based upon athlete, scheduling, along with other variables that could impact the schedule, such as races. I personally prefer to use time goals than mileage goals, but the same pattern would apply with either method.

What I found was that this pattern allowed me to be incredibly more consistent in my running. I would spend less time recovering from the mega long runs. I also found I could easily handle more total running stimulus in a week compared to situations when I was trying to stay fresh for the weekend long run.

Those two things improved my running greatly – consistency and greater overall training stimulus.

How to approach the Double Long Weekend?

These weekends can be tough sometimes, but they can also provide a great deal of training stimulus and self-confidence. Here are some tips that I like to share about those weekends:

1. Saturday’s run should be relaxed and comfortable. I rarely get excited about how fast or slow the runs are, because the main goal is to feel strong. Many times the Saturday run will be finished with the runner feeling a little anxious about not having done enough. Especially when they have reached a point where 10 mile runs could be done each day they run.

2. Make sure you allow your legs to recover after Saturday’s run. Proper post run nutrition, stretching, cold baths are all good ideas.

3. Sunday’s run should be done at an intensity slightly higher than Saturday’s run (but much less than the Tuesday,Thursday runs during the week.) Ideally, the runs would be completed at a pace that is 45 seconds to 1:15 per mile slower than the goal marathon pace.

This depends upon the runner’s current fitness though! Don’t run those times if they are picked out of the air, know that your fitness is prepared for them.*

4. Make the back half of the Sunday run the most intense of all the weekends efforts. Often this will happen naturally as the legs fatigue, but a very fit runner may need to push that portion of the run in order get the training effort up. (Still should be around 45 seconds off marathon pace.)

5. Once the runner has found they have the ability and durability to manage double long weekends, I begin to add specific “quality” workout sessions to the program. The specific workouts depends on the runners goals and ability, but often it is centered around finishing Sunday’s run near goal marathon efforts.

Using these double long runs in this manner, especially approaching the Sunday run this way should give the runner confidence in their ability to run the marathon’s 26.2 mile distance. It can also be a huge learning experience to feel the legs achy and tired prior to Sunday’s run and still being able to finish the distance or duration.

As mentioned, this structure also allows recovery to occur faster and decreases the risk of injury when compared to the single long run days.

Expanding this concept (even to triathlon).

This idea can be taken one step further for the more advanced runner. An example that I can share is my approach to our (Nikki and my) run programs leading up to Ironman Wisconsin September.

Knowing that putting in a long run didn’t fit the schedule or our ability to maintain regular workouts in the other sports, we built up to a “broken marathon”. This was different for the two of us as we were different in our running needs.

My program built to this series: 12.6 am run / 6.8 pm run (included some tempo) / 6.4 am run. That got me to 25.8 miles with a little tempo built into it within a 30 hour period.

Nikki’s program built to this series: day 1: 10miles, day 2: 10miles, day 3: 6miles. That got her to 26 miles within a 48ish hour time period as the day one run was an evening run and the day 3 run was a morning run.

Keep in mind that this isn’t a prescription to copy, just an example as to how the idea of stacking runs in a 24/36/48 hour time period could be done. This method was easy enough on my body that I was able to get in an hour recovery swim during the evening of the second day.

(As a sidenote, the longest run I did in the Ironman build was 15 miles.)

Final Thoughts on Approaching your Marathon Training Program’s Long Run.

The long run is an important piece to any marathon program, but don’t be fooled into the dogma that the long run has to follow the staircase to 20 miles. It might just be the worst thing you could do for your training, because training and racing become difficult if not impossible when you are nursing an injury.

Try a double long weekend… you just might see your running improve like I did.

* This deserves another post that I hope to get to soon, but for now you can read Daniels’ Running Formula or search google for “VDot running”.


  1. Shane Cummins says

    loved the article !thought provoking! I am 43 year old nurse and personal trainer . I have ran since I was 13 . I have ran 3 marathons and intrested in having a running coach for a spring Marathon my goal is a 3:30 marathon .
    I have also looked at the Hanson program and it has sound concepts. please e-mail me your rates for coaching thanks again … Shane.

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