When you train for your first marathon or half marathon, long runs are one of the biggest challenges of training. Over time, you adapt to long runs, and they begin to feel easier. Your goals may also shift from finishing the distance to running a PR. In order to train for these new goals and your new fitness, your training progresses. One method for training to progress in the marathon, half marathon, and ultra distances is to add some deliberate faster running into long runs. Long run workouts can come in many forms and should be programmed carefully.
Long Run Workouts
The Benefits of Long Run Workouts
The purpose of these workouts is not to make a long run harder for the sake of it being harder. A long run workout must be both purposeful and appropriately scaled. Too hard and you compromise recovery – which thus compromises adaptation. Rather, long run workouts are meant to serve as progressive overload for an athlete already well adapted to easy-paced long runs.
Long run workouts also provide mental prep for the race. You learn how to sustain your goal pace in a context similar to the long-distance race, with fatigue, fueling, and mindset all coming into play. There is no having to guess if you can eat your fuel while running at half marathon pace, for example, because you can practice that in race pace long runs.
Additionally, you prepare your body for the metabolic and biomechanical demands of race pace for a long-distance race. For example, half marathon pace has different metabolic demands than easy pace, as it requires a greater contribution of carbohydrates for energy production. Race paces will produce more muscle damage as well. Tired muscles can be a cause of fatigue at the end of long-distance races. By training for these demands, you prepare yourself better for delaying fatigue in the race.
Finally, long run workouts can concentrate stress. For example, in marathon training, long runs are a hard effort, even if the pace is easy. For some runners, a long run plus an interval session and a tempo run can prove too demanding. So, instead, combining goal pace and the long run into a singular session and then only doing a tempo or interval session allows more recovery between hard efforts.
How to Include Long Run Workouts in Your Training
Long run workouts are NOT exhausting efforts. You should not try to PR in a distance during a long run workout, nor should a majority of the run be at a faster pace. The fast running should be in segments proportional to your fitness and overall training volume. And remember: faster workouts are not better workouts. Long run workouts have specific pacing, often slower than you would run in an interval session.
Long run workouts are best incorporated after you have developed a substantial base of both endurance and running economy. They are not something to rush into during your first marathon or half marathon or if you are a low-mileage runner.
Long run workouts do not replace easy-pace long runs, even for the most experienced runners. Long run workouts require more recovery, have a higher injury risk, use different metabolic systems, and require more mental effort. Do them too often, and you could end up overtrained or injured. In peak training, you will likely alternate between easy long runs and long run workouts.
Types of Long Run Workouts
Long Run with Surges
Surges serve as a safe introduction to long run workouts. As the name suggests, surges involve shorts bursts of faster running build into a long run. These bursts will only last 1-2 minutes and are followed by a generous recovery (4-8 minutes). The intensity varies but typically is at a more sustainable effort such as lactate threshold to marathon pace.
Long runs with surges offer a whole host of benefits. These safely introduce faster running into long runs, whether it is your first long run workout ever or for the season. You start to use different energy systems, without incurring too much fatigue. Long runs with surges simulate race day pacing for more competitive athletes, who need to prepare for mid to late-race surges to stay in front of their competition.
90-minute surges long run: After a 20 minute warm up, alternate a 2-minute surge to half marathon effort with 6 minutes of easy running for the middle 60 minutes, then cool down with 10 minutes easy.
Progression Long Run:
I first encountered progression long runs when I first read Canova’s training approach. I’ve used these workouts for years and found them to build both confidence and fitness in athletes. The caveat: you cannot let your running form deteriorate. Once it does, the progression run may do more harm than good.
Progression long runs are simple in concept, although sometimes challenging in practice. You start at a controlled pace and finish faster. These runs demand both the ability to control yourself early and to dig deep later. For the marathon and half marathon, these skills are invaluable to smart race day pacing.
The intensity of progression long runs can be scaled based on the training season. During base building and early season, you may simply finish a long run at a more moderate (not hard!) effort. Later in a training cycle, you may complete the final few miles at goal race pace or slightly faster.
2 hours long run: easy pace for most of the run, then final 15 minutes at a moderate to moderately hard effort
A tempo long run does not mean the whole long run is at tempo effort. Rather, you fold in a short duration (20-30 minutes) or 1-2 mile intervals at a moderate to moderately hard effort. Tempo typically refers to a moderately hard effort that will challenge your body’s ability to clear metabolic waste while sustaining a faster effort. You may not run as fast as in a threshold run; the tempo may be faster to half marathon to marathon effort.
These are demanding workouts, so they are best reserved for experienced and injury-free runners. Tempo long runs combine two hard training stimuli into one session. By concentrating stress, they allow athletes to include more intensity in their week without compromising recovery between quality sessions.
Tempos are best built into shorter long runs (think 90-120 min), due to the increased demand. A sample workout would be 20 minutes at 15K to half marathon pace wrapped into a long run (this workout comes from pioneering trail coaches at SWAP Running). Since you want to ensure good biomechanics during the tempo, that segment would occur earlier in the run after a 10-25 minute warm-up.
Alternatively, you can also break up the tempo into shorter segments (such as 1-2 mile segments) to accommodate a higher volume of faster running. In my experience of coaching, I have seen advanced athletes (typically 1:40 half marathoners and faster) respond very well to a supercompensation workout of 2-4 x 2 miles at half marathon effort at two weeks before their race.
20 minute warm up
2 x 2 miles at half marathon pace with 1/2 mile jog in between.
60 minutes easy running
Marathon Pace Long Runs
If it is your first marathon, the goal is to finish. Once you are training for subsequent marathons, you can start adding marathon pace miles to your long runs.
For intermediate to advanced marathoners, marathon pace workouts in long runs provide an appropriate progression in training. The marathon itself is a very long race; these workouts provide the opportunity for a larger volume of marathon-specific work.
It’s worth noting that marathon pace is a physiological zone (near the aerobic threshold for athletes running 3:30 or faster). So if you do not have a goal pace in mind, you can still do marathon pace long runs by running at a moderate effort. Likewise, marathon pace in these workouts should be based on your current fitness or slightly faster), not a pie-in-the-sky goal. (For example, if your goal pace is faster than your current threshold pace, you could seriously overtrain running that pace in these workouts).
Marathon-specific workouts train your body to efficiently use energy at a moderate pace. They also teach you how to hold a moderate effort and to be mentally comfortable with prolonged effort. Finally, these workouts provide an opportunity to practice fueling at a higher intensity – a skill vital for race day.
3 mile warm up
6-8 x 1 mile at marathon pace/1 mile easy
2-3 mile cool down
Do you include workouts in your long runs?