Get the Most Out of Your Long Runs

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Get the Most Out Of Your Long Runs

By: Max Spradley
Assistant Coach – Mile High Multisport

As endurance athletes, many of us do a weekly long run. These runs can be an excellent boost to one’s aerobic endurance. For some, this is the part of their weekly training that they look forward to the most. For others, this is the one weekly workout that you wish could be avoided. Regardless of your feelings toward the Long Run, we can all agree that we want to reap the most rewards (aerobic conditioning) with the smallest amount of risk of injury. To get the most out of your long runs, you need to include instances in which the run is “race specific.” Here are a few tips on making your run more “race specific”, and thereby, more beneficial to your training.
The distance of your long run depends on two (2) key components:

1. Distance of your upcoming ‘A’ race
2. Goal for ‘A’ race is to “race” or “finish”

If your upcoming ‘A’ race is a 5K or a sprint triathlon, then doing a 20 mile long run is unnecessary and could leave you too fatigued to complete some of the more race-distance appropriate, quality workouts (1K Repeats, etc.). On the other hand, if you are looking to race an Ironman, you should probably think twice about capping your long runs at 10 miles. In addition to the race distance, you should also keep in mind your goal for the race. Are you looking to race or are you simply looking to do the training necessary to get you across the finish line? The chart below shows my recommended distances for your peak mileage long run. Those looking to simply finish their goal race should try to include at least 1 – 2 runs of this distance in their build-up. Those looking more to race should try to include three (3) or more runs of this distance. In all cases, you will want to gradually build up to this mileage by increasing the distance of your long run by approx 10% each week and including a rest/recovery week every 3rd or 4th week in which you reduce your long run distance by 20 – 30%.

Race Distance                                    “Finishers” Long Run “             Racers” Long Run
5Ks + Sprint Triathlons                              2 – 4 miles                                       9 – 12 miles
10Ks + Olympic Triathlons                       4 – 6 miles                                       12 – 18 miles
1/2 Marathons + 70.3 Triathlons            10 – 12 miles                                    15 – 20 miles
Marathons + Ironman Triathlons           16 – 20 miles                                   18 – 22 miles

To allow your body to recover fully before your goal race, I recommend running your last “peak mileage” long run about three (3) weeks before your goal marathon or Ironman triathlon. Shorter races do not typically require as long of a taper, so you may perform your last long run two (2) weeks prior to a ½ Marathon or 70.3 and 1 – 2 weeks prior to a goal 5K/10K or sprint/olympic distance triathlon.

For the majority of your long runs, you will run in your endurance zone (Zones 1 – 2). This is a pace that is relatively comfortable (sometimes referred to as “conversational” as you should be able to maintain a conversation while running in this zone). Training in this zone allows you to build your aerobic endurance base. However, if your upcoming ‘A’ race is a marathon or IM triathlon, I recommend including some “race simulation” long runs every 2 – 3 weeks. These workouts ask your body to do what it needs to do in a race: run at a desired pace when fatigued. They are set-up to get you in a reasonably fatigued state without all of the pounding associated with a 26.2 mile run. These workouts are a bit more stressful than your typical long run, so you do not want to include one every week (hence, doing these simulation runs every 2 – 3 weeks). The typical layout I use for my marathon simulation workouts is the following:
• 40% of Run Duration: Extended Warm-Up (Zone 1 – 2)
• 50% of Run Duration: Goal Race Pace (typically Marathon or IM pace)
• 10% of Run Duration: Easy Cool Down (Zone 1)

So…if your long run was a 20-miler, I would recommend starting with a relatively easy eight (8) mile warm-up, and then run race pace for 10 miles and then an easy 2 mile cool down.

Similar “fast finishing” techniques can be utilized if your goal race is shorter than 26.2 miles – you will just want to adjust the distance and pacing to make them more beneficial to your race.

In addition to pace, one can also simulate the race setting. If your upcoming race is in a nearby location, making the trip to do some running on the actual course can prove very beneficial as you can become more familiar (and comfortable) with the course. During your “course recon” you can scout areas that may be strategic come race day (i.e. location of hills, best spot to start your kick for home, etc.). If you are unable to run on the actual course, you can also try to find a map of the profile (many race web-sites include this with their course information) or talk to other people who have knowledge of the course (racers or your coach!). You can then use this information to try and find a local route that mimics the course (or use a treadmill to create your own).
Another way to simulate the race is to time your runs to coincide with the race start time. If you are doing a local marathon with a 7:00am start, it is advantageous to start some of your long runs at the same time. If you are doing a 70.3 or an Ironman triathlon and expect to be running later in the day – try to include some long runs at that time as well. This will allow you to adjust to the light (or darkness) of the hour and get your nutrition and biological functions dialed in.
Fueling (Pre-Race and During)
Another great way to utilize your long runs is to identify what works best for you nutritionally…both prior to the run (to fill up your fuel tank) and during (to restore your fuel). If you have an excellent long run, and you feel well fueled throughout – make note of what (and when) you ate dinner the previous night and breakfast that morning. If you feel sluggish during your long run, make note of that as well and avoid doing the same for the race.
If you know what fuel (sports drink, gels, etc.) will be available at the aid stations during a race – practice with those products. If you find they work well for you – great! If you find that they do not jive well with your gut, consider bringing your own race nutrition on a fuel belt or similar product.
All of these items will help you get the most out of your long run and prepare you for the fun that is race day. Good luck!!
Max Spradley is a USAT Level I certified triathlon coach. Max is a 10 time marathon finisher with a 2:48 Personal Best. He is an assistant coach with Mile High Multisport, LLC. Max and the other MHM coaches provide individualized training plans for endurance athletes from beginners to novice. Max can be contacted at

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