Long runs are a staple in running plans, especially for distances including the half marathon, marathon, and ultras. Most runners train with a goal time for their race. The question then emerges: should you run your long runs at goal race pace, so that it feels easier on race day? If not at race pace, what pace should long runs be run at? This article will help you understand long run pace vs marathon pace, and how to use both in your training.
Understanding long run pace
Unless a training plan states otherwise, long run pace is the same as your easy run pace. Long runs develop endurance, so the pace should also support building endurance. Additionally, the goal of a long run is to cover the distance; going at an easy pace helps you cover the distance.
Long run pace is typically 1-2 minutes per mile (40-70 sec/km) slower than marathon pace. If you train by heart rate, long runs are typically done at your zone 2 heart rate.
Some runners may go even slower on their long runs, depending on factors such as training volume and muscle fiber typology. If you are training for your first marathon or will likely finish in 5+ hours, your long run pace may be closer to marathon pace.
Comparing long run pace vs. race pace
It’s important to understand what happens when you run at long run pace vs your marathon pace. If you are aiming for a 4-hour marathon or faster, marathon pace begins to fall into the category of steady to moderate running. It’s not as hard as an interval run or tempo run, but it takes more effort than truly easy running.
At moderate intensities, you produce a little bit more fatigue, as you burn more glycogen to produce enough energy to meet the demands of the run. This is especially true for a long run at marathon pace since the higher energy demands are spread over a longer duration. Even moderate intensity running stresses your musculoskeletal system a little bit more. A bit more biomechanical stress is important in deliberate doses, but too much can cause soreness and potentially increase injury risk. Finally, you tax your nervous system more with the harder effort, due to elevated catecholamine levels compared to easy pace. When the nervous system is stressed too much too often, the risk of running burnout increases.
As a result, long runs at race pace are a bit more stressful on the body. You need more time to recover from them – more time than your training plan may account for. If you do every long run at marathon pace over a sixteen to twenty week training plan, there is a high chance that you are overtrained or burnt out by race day.
Long run pace vs marathon pace also impacts your training adaptations. Long run pace (an easy, conversational pace) improves fat oxidation rates, increases oxygen delivery and utilization, and increases your cardiac output. This easy pace stresses the bones and muscles just enough that they adapt, without causing excessive fatigue or breakdown that could impact upcoming runs.
How do you know if your long run pace is appropriate? You should feel relatively comfortable throughout most of the run. Long runs can feel tiring near the end, but it should not be a struggle to finish every long run. Especially if you are fueling well, you should have enough energy to function the rest of the day.
Training at your marathon or half marathon pace
Intermediate and experienced runners (who have completed a marathon or half before) can include race pace in their long runs. This approach does not mean pushing the pace on every long run – some long runs are still at easy pace.
Instead, including marathon pace or half marathon pace in long runs typically involves deliberate workouts. The long run will include warm-up miles at easy pace, a set number of miles at race pace (sometimes with recovery intervals), and cool down miles at easy pace.
Sample marathon pace long runs (with any of these, add easy miles to warm-up and cool down):
- 5-8 x 1 mile at marathon pace/1 mile easy
- 3-4 x 2 miles at marathon pace/1 mile easy
- 2 x 4-5 mile at marathon pace/2 miles easy
- 6-10 miles at marathon pace
Sample half marathon pace long runs (with any of these, add easy miles to warm-up and cool down):
- 1-min surge to half marathon pace at the start of each mile
- 2-3 x 2 miles at half marathon pace/0.5 mile easy
- 3-6 x 1 mile at half marathon pace/1 mile easy
You should not include marathon pace or half marathon pace workouts in every long run. Depending on the runner’s ability and background, these workouts may be done every two to three weeks during race-specific training.
Long run pace for beginner runners
If you are training for your first marathon or half marathon, long runs may feel hard since you are going a distance for the first time. In this scenario, your long run pace should be as comfortable as possible. You may run your long runs slower than easy pace. Some first-time marathon or half marathon runners may benefit from including run-walk intervals in their long runs.
Take the guesswork out of race training
In summary, long run pace is a comfortable, easy pace. Unless specified, your long run pace is not your goal marathon pace or half marathon pace – especially if you are an experienced runner. If you are training for your first long-distance race, you want to keep long runs as easy as you can and may benefit from taking walk breaks during them.
Want a training plan with deliberate long run progressions and paces? Try one of my downloadable marathon training plans!