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Long Run 101: Tips for Beginners Tackling Austin Marathon or 3M Half

As a beginning runner, just about the last thing you probably want to even consider is doing an extremely long, grueling run. Just getting through a run completely around Lady Bird Lake is difficult enough, but going twice as far?

Impossible, you might say. But if you harbor any hopes of running the Austin Marathon or Half Marathon (February 16) or the 3M Half Marathon (January 19), a long run every week (or every other week) throughout the fall and early winter is an absolute must.

Now you probably know some runners who seem to go on long runs of two hours or more just about every weekend. Some cover as much as 20-24 miles year ’round. Don’t worry you won’t have to go quite that far, but a long run which takes longer than an hour is a good starting point. Even that may seem a heckuva long time to be on your feet and running which is exactly the point. Still, with a little patience, planning and commitment, a long run doesn’t have to be an especially arduous workout. And once you get accustomed to long runs, you may even find them to be the most enjoyable run of the week.

But the biggest hurdle prospective marathoners and half marathoners have to clear with a long run is…well, it’s a long way and a long time to run. So is the marathon or half.

Before we even get into it, let’s clear up one misconception: Nowhere does it say that you have to run every single step of the long run—or the marathon. In fact, if you’re planning on making the 3M Half Marathon or the Austin Marathon (or half) your first long race, it’s best not to even try to run every single step of the way. Same on a long training run.

That’s right. Instead of trying to run for the entire time of the long run (or race), plan to take walk breaks. That is, incorporate a one-minute break for every 10-15 minutes of running. Simply check your watch and after 10 minutes of continuous running (or every mile), walk for a minute. Do it right from the start of the long run and you’ll be amazed how this will actually extend your endurance. If 10 minutes is too long to go between walks breaks, walk every five minutes. If it’s too short, go up to 15 minutes. Find the comfort zone of walk breaks that works for you.

A common worry is that walk breaks will somehow compromise your training or negate the benefits of the long run. Not so. You’ll get the same endurance benefits by taking walk breaks as you would from a faster, much harder long run without walk breaks. Your body doesn’t know the difference. It responds to total time spent on your feet.

The first question beginners usually have about long runs is naturally enough: How far is far enough? There’s certainly no single answer that suits every runner, but a good starting point for already fit newbies is about six miles. From there, simply add a mile (or about 10-12 minutes of running) to every subsequent long run you do. If you still find it difficult to complete them, just relax and slow the pace. It should be an easy, conversational pace that you can maintain without undue stress.

Speed doesn’t matter. The marathon or half marathon isn’t a speed event. It’s an endurance run and long runs are all about extending your endurance.

The best place to do long runs? Certainly, a complete circuit of the Butler Trail around Lady Bird Lake (10 miles) is a popular, mostly flat route, plus there are water coolers and drinking fountains along the way. You can do all sorts of loops of various lengths along Lady Bird and if you get in trouble (i.e., too tired), can cut it short without much trouble.

Another good, but much hillier route is starting somewhere downtown and running on the Scenic Loop course to the top of Mount Bonnell and back. (Ask any veteran Austin runner for directions.) A considerably easier long run on a point-to-point course is to follow the 3M course by starting at the Gateway Shopping Center and coming south to downtown (check 3M site for course map). Or run north on Exposition to Camp Mabry and extend the run up Shoal Creek and then back. Or go north from Lady Bird Lake to the Northcross Mall and then head east and around the UT campus back to the lake.

One other suggestion for newbies is to join one of the many training groups that have packs of new runners, just like yourself, training for either the Austin Marathon or 3M—or both. Training groups such as Gilbert’s Gazelles, Rogue Running, Twenty-Six Two, Austin Fit, Hill Country and others all have marathon and half marathon training groups specifically tailored for new runners.

(For a list and contact info, go to “Training” on this site and click on “Training Groups.” There are separate listings for Austin and San Antonio.)

Here are tips to make the long run easier:

O Take walk breaks. Take your first break after the very first mile, even though you won’t be tired. Walk breaks will preserve your legs and also give you the opportunity to hydrate and take energy gels.

O Start slow, finish strong. You should start off two or three minutes slower than your expected long-run pace. That way you can finish strong.

O Increase long-run distance by about a mile per week. Never increase it by more than two miles. Don’t try to make a huge jump from a long run of say six miles to 10. Be patient and build your endurance gradually.

O Don’t overdress. Even if it’s chilly outside, you will warm up quickly. Generally, you won’t need tights or a jacket. Even in the chill of fall on early morning long runs, all you usually need is a long sleeve shirt, light shorts, gloves and possibly a hat.

O Know your route. Don’t make up a long-run course as you go along. Plan a good one, map it and know how long it is. You don’t want to run too long—or too short.

O Do long runs with a training group. It is much easier to do long runs with a group of runners who are approximately the same level of ability. Don’t try to do long runs with a group of faster runners. It will be too hard.

O Find your proper long-run pace and stick with it. There’s no great advantage to running long runs faster than what is prescribed–so don’t. Stick with the training plan. You can increase your pace gradually as you get fitter.

O Alternate weeks. Once you get over 12 miles on a long run, do long runs every other week.

O Target 20. The longest run first-timers should do before the marathon is about 20 miles. But 18 is fine. Don’t attempt to go beyond 20. For half-marathoners, shoot for 12 or 13.

O Hydrate and take nutrition. It is crucial you drink on long runs (even if it’s cool) and you should also take energy gels on runs longer than 90 minutes. Practicing drinking and eating on the long runs during walk breaks is great training for the marathon.

O Add some hills. The first half of the Austin Marathon (and half) course is very hilly. The last two miles of the Austin Half are also up some formidable hills. You will need to do some long runs over hilly courses to prepare you for the ups and downs of the race course. The 3M Half course is not nearly as difficult as Austin’s, but adding hills will help you build strength.

O After finishing, walk. Do a proper cool down after the long run by walking for at least 10 minutes. This will help walk off some of the stiffness that may occur later if you just sit down immediately and rest.