The Long Run


If you are training (or have trained) for marathons or ultramarathons, you know the importance of the long run – but what exactly does that mean?

For years, to me, the long run was simply about getting out there for a few hours and doing close to twenty miles. By using this “long slow distance” approach, I got down to a 2:53 marathon. Unfortunately, I plateaued there and was stuck for a few years. At some point, I realized “long slow distance” was not the best way to get faster, but any time I tried to increase speed or mileage, I was getting injured. So what did I do?

First, I consciously changed my form. I worked on running more efficiently. Second, I got rid of three or four extra pounds that had been hanging around for far too long. Third, I started adding more tempo and speed to my other workout days so it wouldn’t come as such a shock on long-run day.

This approach is not for everyone. If you are just starting to run marathons or ultramarathons, you should probably begin with “long slow distance.” Also, if you are coming off an injury, you should definitely work up slowly as well.

With that being said, if you’ve run several marathons, generally remained injury-free, and you find yourself plateauing, here is what I recommend:

First, I started adding in tempo right at race pace. I would generally do two or three miles and it was right in the middle of the workout. Over time, this increased to three or four miles at race pace. While doing this, I became less concerned with hitting twenty miles. Sure, I still wanted it to be a “long” run – but I also didn’t feel the need to suffer for two and a half hours or longer. Maybe two hours was enough.


This approach started working right away! In my first marathon after implementing this strategy, I dropped my marathon time to 2:48. I was onto something. I didn’t stop there.

Those workouts included sections at race pace – but what if I put in sections at faster than race pace? It was worth a try. Instead of doing three or four miles at marathon pace, I started inserting one, two or three-mile sections at ten, twenty or even thirty seconds faster than marathon race pace. After those sections were done, I went into a recovery phase that was not so different from “long slow distance” pace. I implemented these sections at the beginning of workouts, in the middle of workouts and even occasionally at the end of workouts. My marathon time dropped to 2:42 (I haven’t run another one yet but I expect additional improvement).

I didn’t invent this strategy. Hanson has been promoting something similar for awhile. Not only that, Ryan Vail, a 2:11 marathoner, also posts about it regularly on his blog:

Ryan doesn’t do just long runs. For example, while training for the NYC marathon, his Sunday workout would look something like this – 4 mile tempo in 19:06, 10 mile run in 58:00, 3 mile tempo in 14:12. Obviously, those times are incredible, but don’t ignore them or brush them off just because they’re fast – the point is this —> four miles at 10-15 seconds/mile faster than race pace; 10 “easy” miles; three miles at 10-15 seconds/mile faster than race pace.

What Not To Do
Do not run your entire long run faster than your easy pace but slower than your race pace. For example, if you race eight-minute miles and your easy pace is nine-minute miles, do not run your entire long run at 8:30/mile – this accomplishes nothing! Not only that, it will probably hold you back from setting a PR. This is a common mistake and should be avoided.

So there you have it! The secret of the long run. I’d just like to reiterate, this is not for everyone. However, this has worked for me and I encourage you to give it a try!

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6 Responses to The Long Run

  1. That’s a valid theory in my opinion and I’m glad it worked for you. I wish I could pull it off but I think I’d get injured pretty soon.

    • Jason says:

      Unfortunately, that is a risk. Even if you’re able to add a little bit of speed – three or four minutes at marathon pace – I think it can be helpful in the end!

  2. runrodrun says:

    I’m anxious to put this into action. Unfortunately there are only a couple of areas that I run in that will allow me to push the pace unimpeded by vehicular traffic for stretches at a time and these areas are not well maintained in the winter months. Mental note for myself to try this as soon as the spring thaw comes and see what it can bring me for my fall marathon and ultra.

    Thanks for the great read and insight.

  3. Interesting “what not to do” section! I trained for my first marathon using the LSD method and it worked out pretty well for me… since then I guess I’ve kind of gone back and forth between running easy/workouts on long runs… currently: I need to get out of my head and realize I can still do long runs…

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