Marathon training – The long run

When it comes to marathon training, the long run can be the most intimidating part of the plan for anyone new to distance running. A lack of confidence and the fear of doing wrong can hold you back. With a bit of planning and a slow build up of mileage, you will ace your weekly long run.

This year, I was originally training to run 3 marathons in 7 weeks in aid of Muscular Dystrophy UK. Manchester Marathon, London Marathon and Edinburgh Marathon. I had to adapt my training plan according to the race postponement. However long runs remain a key component of my training.

My success in achieving the marathon distance is largely down to mastering my weekly long run. I will share some of the lessons learned from my own experience of the long runs and how I got the most out of them.

I remember thinking, why would anyone ever want to run that distance again?! I swore I would never be able to run a marathon!

Focus on process, not outcome

Before setting out on a marathon training plan, you should build up your running miles slowly. Set yourself achievable goals. These goals should give you the chance to celebrate your running progress and set you up for the next step.

I discovered running over 3 years ago when I started the “Couch to 5k” plan. The journey wasn’t easy there were tears, blisters and chafing! However that commitment paid off and I completed my first 5k run at the Supernova Kelpies.

I progressed to 10k and then onto half marathon – my first one being the EMF Half Marathon in 2017. As I crossed the finish line I remember thinking, why would anyone ever want to run that distance again?! I swore I would never be able to run a marathon. Four months later, I secured a charity place to run London Marathon in 2018.

The training started early in October 2017 with RunEveryDay. I followed the idea that it takes 4 weeks to create a new routine. During the month of November, I established a running routine of 4-5 runs per week. I was then ready to start the 16-week training plan mid-December.

For me, consistency in training is key. When the “Beast from the East” hit early in March 2018, I was so far into my training that I had no other option but to run. The long runs of 18-22 miles in sub-zero, icy and snowy conditions were brutal but I like to think of them as character building.

I finished the 2018 London Marathon with a respectable time of 4:49. It was a hot day, and I found running in the heat really tough. I knew my training long runs had helped me that day. The long runs where I practised my nutrition strategy. The long runs getting the base miles comfortable and knowing how to keep myself going mentally. They all helped me run through the tough miles and carried me to the finish.

How to conquer the long run

There are many things that you need to think about before tackling the long runs. The questions swirling round my mind when I thought about starting out included “Where will I run?” “How fast should I run?” “Should I go if the weathers miserable?” “How far should I run?” “What should I eat before and after my run?” “What nutrition shall I use?” “When should I take it?” “Should I take water?” “What will I wear?”.

1. Building the base

The long slow run for marathon training is probably the most important run of the week. This is where you build up your endurance and start to get a real feel for what it’s like to run marathon distance. You discover how your body and mind will cope and how you recover. Running a marathon is as much about mental strength as it is about physical fitness.

Time on your feet is important from the start, not pace. The long slow run should be exactly that – slow. I am also a firm believer in getting the base miles feeling comfortable (for me this is 16 miles) and by that I mean managing to run these miles at your long slow run pace but feeling like you can go further.

I build my long runs in 2 mile increments (16 miles, then 18 miles, then 20 miles) and then I have a lighter week of running to let my body recover. This works for me now, but when I ran my first marathon I was building 1 mile at a time before dropping back and having a lighter week.

The ‘long slow run’ is probably the most important run of the week as this is where you build up your endurance.

2. Route

Planning the route and distance is key for me. I plan which day and time I will run and go out regardless of the weather. You never know what it will be like on your race day. I like to think of the long runs in wet, windy and miserable conditions as character building!

Mapometer is an online map-based route planner that I use to plan my route before heading out for my run. I know when I am due to go out for 12 miles or 20 miles I am only running that distance. I also like to run in a loop where possible as I hate an out and back route. If I can’t run in a loop, I may run along the canal bank into Edinburgh and get the train home. This way I am not running back on myself.

Photo by Emma Simpson on Unsplash

When considering the route, I take into consideration the race route. If it is a trail or road race then I’ll run mostly on that surface. I like an undulating route as I feel it’s good to have a variation in elevation and always love the reprieve of a downhill!

Strava is a great app to keep you motivated. Check out our article Stay Motivated with Strava Challenges.

3. Pace

Your long run pace is very specific to you and your current training pace. For me I run my long runs at a conversational pace so I’m able to string a sentence together but still gaining the aerobic benefit from the run. I have more recently started to run a few miles at marathon pace and have done these miles towards the end of the run so they are on tired legs and I’m able to push myself.

Pacing yourself is important as the aim for the long run is the distance or time on feet not the actual pace. You need to make sure you run at a pace that you can sustain for the distance you are doing. You will also find that you need to fuel in order to maintain your pace and to make sure you don’t hit that dreaded wall!

4. Nutrition

Fuelling before a long run is important. This will determine how well you can hold the pace initially and how quickly you need to consider fuelling during the run. There are lots of various nutrition options for fuelling during your long run. From gels, bars, blocs, drinks to more traditional fuelling such as raisins, date bars and jam sandwiches.

This reminds me of a gentleman I served in the Maybury shop who used cold cooked potatoes that had been rolled in butter and salt. I did try this on a training run in the Pentland’s. They were a great source of nutrition but they were just a bit messy for my liking! I have used lots of different forms of nutrition. My current choice is Maurten gels and drink mix. I find the gels very easy on my stomach and for the first time I have been able to use a caffeine gel with no negative effects.

I take on every long run with a smile on my face and make sure that I have the all-important ‘selfie’ for uploading onto Strava later!

It’s a good idea to try out your nutrition on a short run first of all. That way if there are any adverse effects, you don’t have to bail on your long run. You also need to practise getting the nutrition out of your pocket or running belt. Opening it up and consuming it whilst running can take a bit of getting used to.

I always carry a 500ml running bottle as I like to have water with me. You may wish to consider carrying a hydration pack / vest to carry fluid and nutrition in.

I would generally fuel 45mins (or 5 miles) into my long run. And then continue to refuel at 45 minute intervals. I find this means I don’t hit the wall!

Fuelling after your long run is equally important. I usually have a banana washed down with a High5 tablet in a pint of water.

Check out this previous Journal article for more on nutrition plans.

5. Clothing and shoes

It’s important to get your clothing right as you don’t want to be too hot or too cold. As you are meant to be running slower than your average pace then I always wear an extra layer which I can take off and tie round my waist if I get too hot. I would always take a waterproof jacket on a long run as you just never know when the heavens will open! My jacket of choice is the Ronhill Infinity Fortify Jacket which is as waterproof as it is breathable and has always reliably kept me warm and dry on long runs.

Shoes are so important for your long run as you want to wear a shoe that offers you the most cushioning but also support you as your legs tire. For me my shoe of choice is the Brooks Adrenaline GTS which has seen me through many well cushioned miles.

6. Belief

When taking on the challenge of the weekly long run I have found that if I can plan everything from the route, the miles to run and the pace, the clothing, the nutrition I will need and a cracking playlist of tunes then the only thing I need to do is believe in myself that I can do it.

The long run still doesn’t come easy to me and the first 3-4 miles don’t feel the best. When I get into my stride I’m there, present in that moment and enjoying the run. There are sometimes mental battles going on in my head when I’m struggling, but I try to push on. I take on the distance in smaller chunks. When I get to a specific distance, I reward myself with a short rest break before carrying on.

I take on every long run with a smile on my face and make sure that I have the all-important ‘selfie’ for uploading onto Strava later!

My 3 marathon challenge

In 2020 I have set my biggest challenge yet. Not only in trying to raise £10k for Elliot’s Fighting Fund for Muscular Dystrophy UK but running 3 Marathons in 3 Cities in 7 weeks.

There was a slight change of plan with the lockdown and the races being postponed or cancelled. Instead, I ran 655 laps around my (short) driveway on Saturday the 4th of April, to cover the 26.2 miles of the marathon distance. 

If you want to support the cause, you can find more information on my Facebook page and fund raising website.