How Long Should Your Long Run Be?

So you’re going to run a marathon. Or maybe you’ve already run a few but want to improve. If you’re running the Chevron Houston Marathon set for January 14, then your training is already in the bag, and good luck! But if you’re running the Ascension Seton Austin Marathon set for February 18, then you’re still in build-up mode. The first thing you’ll probably focus on in your training program is your long run. It’s the key to marathon success. Long runs bring about physiological changes—building blocks of endurance—that include increased muscle mitochondria and capillaries. But that’s not all. Long runs also increase  VO2 max as well as blood volume, both key to running economy. And let’s not forget that being out on the road for two to three hours builds the kind of mental toughness you’ll need in the final miles of a marathon.

But how long should you go? While many runner settle on the conventional buildup that includes two to three 20 milers, experts offer varying opinions on how far you should go. Former Olympian and running coach Jeff Galloway, for example advocates long runs of up to 25 miles or more for beginners and experienced runners alike.

“Veterans will increase their chance of time goal fulfillment by increasing the length of the long run to 28 to 29 miles. This builds extra endurance, which gives your legs the capacity to keep pushing during the latter stages of the marathon itself,” writes Galloway in his  book Marathon!

Still, not all coaches advocate for pushing your long run that far. Former Austinite Greg McMillan, a top running coach now living in Scottsdale, AZ, believes that running for time is a better way to gauge your long runs.

For marathoners training for a sub-three effort for example, McMillan suggests running up to 30 minutes longer in training—meaning a run of about three hours and thirty minutes. He adjusts long run times for runners looking to run four hours or greater, recommending running up to four and a half hours but not more. Thie is because longer times would mean that recovery would simply become too much of issue.

Still other expert coaches offer differing approaches. The Hanson brothers (Keith and Kevin), well-known for coaching elite marathoners, like their runners to go no more than 16 miles for a long run. But they may do back-to-back long runs on the weekends. The idea is that their runners can get in higher quality runs and that the second run will be on somewhat fatigued legs.

Whatever your approach is, remember that your long runs are the key to building the confidence that will lead to your marathon success!

Upcoming Races: Sunday, January 7, 7:30 a.m., the Pflugerville Resolution Race 5K and Half Marathon at Lake Pflugerville. Saturday, January 13, the Go for Good 5K at 8:00 a.m. at Jack C. Hays High School in Buda.