The long "run" is a strange and mysterious creature. "Long" is already a relative term, and though run means, "to ambulate with both feet off the ground simultaneously for a period of time," very few long runs involve running the whole time.
Most people stop to drink or use the bathroom. Many break up their runs with walk breaks. Theories of long runs, specifically in marathon training, abound: Jeff Galloway has popularized the run/walk method. His beginner plan for completing a marathon includes a 26 mile run/walk.
The Hanson program has an advanced plan with the longest run topping out at 16 miles. Hal Hidgon's beginner plan has its longest run at 20 miles.
So what works? I somewhat followed the Hal Higdon plan for my first marathon. When my competitive nature took over, I started adding workouts from other training plans. Those workouts may have gotten me faster, but they also got me injured.
I followed a Brad Hudson training plan.for my next marathon. That plan had me top out around 22 miles. I dropped almost fourteen minutes off my marathon time from October, 2009 to May, 2010. However, I would not attribute that success to more long runs or longer long runs.
Anyone training for a marathon needs to find what works for them. Consider factors like running experience, time constraints, and what you enjoy. There's nothing magic about long runs. They're an important part of the training schedule, but how you respond to training will be different than how someone else responds.
Chasing a magic number of miles or pace can be a recipe for injury. I can appreciate the OCD of distance runners. We run around the block to "finish" our 20 milers (I've done it many times). But whether you're running 19, 20, 22, or 16 miles, the number isn't nearly as important as the overall training plan.
My issue has always been injury. I don't mind doing strength exercises, but I tend to slack off--especially as my running ramps up. I'm not unique in this among runners.
Others dread longer runs. They may start out to run 14 miles, but after six miles or so, they decide that 10 will be enough.
Don't fall into either of these traps. Skipping or skimping long runs when marathon training generally leads to a long, painful marathon. It can also lead to injury because the body is not ready to go 26.2 miles--it's never been on its feet for that long.
Endless pursuit of hitting a distance or time--for a long run or weekly mileage--can also seriously hinder life balance. Do you have enough time and energy for injury prevention workouts, proper sleep, work, healthy eating, and quality time with friends and family? If you're disciplined and can hold it in balance, great.
If you're like me and running tends to creep into other areas of your life, you might want to re-prioritize.
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