There’s just no way of getting around the fact that the most important element of any marathon or even half marathon training program is the long run. It is absolutely essential that every aspiring marathoner consistently logs numerous long runs during the three or four month marathon buildup period.
It’s quite simple: Do the long runs and you will become stronger and tougher (mentally and physically). Neglect them (or don’t run them well) and your chances for having a successful marathon (or half marathon) diminish greatly.
Even though the long run is critical to marathon success, it is also the hardest obstacle to overcome for many runners. Especially beginners. There are certainly numerous ways to make your long runs more manageable and easier to complete, but you must keep in mind: The long run is a marathon. And the marathon is just a very long run. That is, you must treat your long runs with the same respect and attention to detail as you do the marathon. If you do, you increase your chances of success in the marathon.
Here are a several tips to make the long run more palatable:
Rest. Before any long run, get plenty of rest the day before. Don’t do anything physically taxing that you wouldn’t do the day before a big race. If you run the day before a long run, make it short, relaxed and very easy. Get it out of the way early. Then, if it’s the weekend, avoid such activities as soccer, golf, mowing the lawn, long bike rides or moving furniture. Pick up a book or watch a football game. The night before the long one is not a good time to go clubbing on 6th Street. Go to bed at a normal time and get plenty of rest. You’ll need it.
Plan. Decide beforehand, how long you’re going to run and where. Pick a course, map it and if it’s unfamiliar, drive it the day before. Or bring the map with you, especially if you’re following the Austin Marathon or 3M Half Marathon course. Just make certain there won’t be any confusion which way to go while you’re running. You don’t want to get lost or go too far (or too short). Also since you are going to need to hydrate every half hour or so during the long run, you’ll need to hatch a plan so you can drink along the way—either at drinking fountains, carry water or bring money to use at convenience stores along the way. If you’re planning to use Gu, Shot Bloks or Hammer Gel, map a strategy for carrying them.
Get loaded. That’s right, carbo-load for your long run the night before just like you’ll do for the marathon. You don’t have to get fancy. Simply eat a healthy meal, rich in carbohydrates to fuel your muscles for the long run the next day. Pasta always works.
Partner up. Find someone to run long with. A long run can get awfully darn boring and a friend (or several) can only make the run seem shorter by sharing the miles. Try to find someone who can run your pace range and who is willing to go as long as you. Or find someone who can run at least a good part of the long run with you. If it’s impossible to get anyone to go, ask your spouse, child or a good friend to ride a bike at least part of the way with you (and make sure they bring water).
Group runs. Even better than running with a friend, is doing a long run with a group that is training for the same marathon. The dynamics of the group are almost always helpful in completing a long run and if the group meets regularly, it becomes one long social gabfest. There are numerous marathon training groups in Austin such as Rogue Running, Gilbert’s Gazelles, Luke’s, Twenty-Six Two and the Austin Runners Club has a training program. (Go to “training” on this site and click on “Training Groups” for a list of training groups in Ausitn and San Antonio.)
Pump it up. Before heading downtown or venturing outside for your long one, put on some AC/DC, Tom Petty, Santana, Grupo Fantasma or some other high-energy music to get your blood pumping and ready to rock…er, run. Starting your long run energized by some hard-driving rock can have a positive effect on your attitude.
Go early. When doing a long run, earlier is better than later. There’s less traffic (especially on Sunday morning in Austin), the air is cleaner, it’s cooler and once done, you have the rest of the day to recover. Beside, all marathons and half marathons, including the the Austin Marathon, start early, usually at 7 a.m. so get used to running early.
Dress right. The problem on most long runs in Austin isn’t staying warm; it’s being cool enough. You’d be amazed how much heat your body will generate on a long run and if you overdress, you will get way too warm. It takes some experimentation to find the right clothing combination (and obviously depends on the weather), but generally if you’re comfortable in the first couple of miles, you’re probably overdressed. In the fall, you should be a little chilled in the first few miles. Generally, the most you’ll need to wear in Central Texas is a long sleeve T-shirt, shorts and possibly some light gloves and a hat. Unless it’s below freezing, you won’t need tights or a jacket.
Wear “fresh” shoes. Clearly, you need to wear a high quality pair of training shoes, but what many marathoners don’t realize is if there shoes are worn down, it will compromise the cushioning greatly in the latter stages of a long run (as well as the marathon). The last few miles are tough enough without having to run on a “flat” shoe. (Any shoe will lose a substantial amount of cushioning in two hours of pounding. A “fresh” pair loses less than a worn out pair.) A “fresh” pair with plenty of life still in the shoe will provide cushioning for the length of the long run and make the last few miles easier on your legs. Get a new pair of shoes a couple of weeks before your marathon.
Segment your long run. Break it up into less intimidating, manageable chunks. Instead of thinking you have to run 20 miles, envision it as four runs of five miles.
Simulate the marathon course. If you’re planning to run the Austin Marathon or Half (February 15), you will need to long run on plenty of hilly courses. The first 10 miles of the race have several challenging hills so you should plan to do long runs over a series of hills at approximately the same point as in the race. Better yet, run the course several times, broken up in chunks. Familiarize yourself with some of the key hills on the Austin course, especially the tricky hills on Enfield and the long, gradual climb up Congress and Exposition. And don’t forget practicing on the final series of hills on San Jacinto. They might not seem like much on a short run, but you’ll see just how formidable they are if you finish your long runs on them. Check the Austin Marathon site (www.youraustinmarathon.com) for a course map.
Visualize the marathon. Try to equate certain mile markers of your long run with how you’ll feel at certain points of the marathon.
Practice proper pace. There are different schools of thought on what the ideal long run pace is, but suffice it to say it should be slower than the pace of your normal training run. If you go out too fast, the last few miles will be agonizing (just like in the marathon). Rather than suggest you run a minute or two (or more) slower per mile, my advice is to do the long run under a controlled pace. That is, a pace you can maintain for the length of the run—and even pick up in the final miles. Finding that perfect long run pace, is a matter of conditioning and experience. The more long runs you do, the easier they become.
Punt. That’s right. Just because you have a long run scheduled for a specific day, doesn’t mean you have to do it at all costs. If you’re dinged up or extremely tired, don’t bother doing it. If you turn an ankle during the course of the long run, don’t assume you must finish it. Doing so, will just further your chances of having a more serious injury. And if you miss a long run (due to a commitment, injury or whatever), don’t necessarily reschedule it for the next possible day. Let it go. There’s plenty of time to get one in next week. Assuming you complete several long runs before the marathon, missing one (or even two) along the way won’t make a substantial difference.
Recover. You should have rested before the long run. You should also rest and recover afterward. There’s no getting around it; long runs are tough. They’re supposed to be. And you will need at least a few hours immediately after it to recover. Give yourself plenty of time to rehydrate and refuel your body with carbohydrates. Something I’ve always done is the night before a long run I make more pasta for dinner than I can eat. Then, I have plenty left over for the next day after I finish my long run when my body is starved for more carbs. Whatever you do, eat what your body craves after the long run. You’ve earned it.
Walk or ride. Assuming you’ve done your long run on the weekend and have some free time in the afternoon, go for a walk or gentle bike ride with your family. It’ll help your recovery and keep your muscles from stiffening too badly.