How far is far enough? This is the question that troubles many triathletes and distance runners when it comes time to plan the long run in their training program.
Regardless of your race distance, there’s probably a long run penciled somewhere into your weekly training schedule. How long you should go depends largely on the distance of your primary race, as well as whom you ask.
In an effort to keep the quality of the long-run days high and instances of injury to a minimum, many coaches emphasise a single weekly long run in favour of a non-traditional “split” long run that is used throughout the training cycle. For more experienced, higher-volume athletes, that means two 90-minute runs in a given day, with the second run preceded by an easy 60-minute bike ride if training for an Ironman. By splitting the long run into shorter segments with a few hours of recovery in between, athletes are better able to practice running with good form, as well as prime their bodies for the physical and nutritional demands of an all-day event.
Hitting the second run already fatigued, you have to force yourself physically and mentally to focus and run with good form, you’re not going to feel as bad as the last 10K in the Ironman or last 5k of a marathon, but it’s pretty close. It’s also to help force your stomach to get used taking in food, digesting food and working out basically all day long.
There’s more than one way to get to the finish line however, many plans and coaches cap the long run for athletes at 20 miles. Beyond that, the risks outweigh the rewards, for many that’s where the break point is. Somewhere in that 16- to 20-mile range for the vast majority of people is enough. Going over that, you’re really just increasing the chances you’re going to get hurt. Does another two miles really make you a better runner at that point?
So their are differing philosophies, a single long run of up to two-and-a-half hours or split runs totalling up to three hours, most coaches prefer to assign their athletes’ long runs in mileage rather than minutes, citing the confidence of being able to complete a percentage of the marathon distance in training as a key factor in an athlete’s success on race day.
There are some coaches and plans that advocate, don’t go any longer than 2:45 or 3:00 hours, regardless of what level you’re at. Experience and feedback has shown that shifting to mileage not only helped newer athletes especially, going on time could result in them doing a long run that was very short, and then over the course of the race they would break down. Even if their ability to metabolise fuel was good, their body just couldn’t handle the pounding as the race progressed. They didn’t have the resilience to deal with it.
Stepping down in distance presents a dilemma of a different sort with regard to the length of long runs, as many athletes training for an Olympic-distance or half-Ironman event are easily able to complete the distance. But just because you can run 6 miles in your sleep or knock off 13 miles on any given weekend, should you? Again, it depends on whom you ask.
Coaches mostly indicate that when someone drops down in distance, the length of the long run changes, but the basic principles of training remain the same. The emphasis isn’t on completing a certain percentage of the race distance during your longest run in training, but instead centres on the accumulation of overall running volume, with the amount dependent on the ability and durability of the athlete.
No matter the distance of your race or the training philosophy you choose to follow, the overarching answer to the question of long-run distance is that it should be far enough that you’re confident you can complete the distance, but not so far that you’re not able to go the distance on race day.