Should You Be Doing Race Pace Long Runs?

Steph Bruce covers when to run long and slow—and when to speed up your long runs.

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A Fan Question from OCRunner via twitter: Some say long runs should be done slower than race pace, while others say race pace. Which is it?

Marathon training is like a fine wine. You want to sip and savor it as opposed to gulp it down in one swig. There is a method to the madness of marathon training. Rushing it will only lead to risk of injury or over training. There are several different schools of thought as to how you approach the long run during marathon buildup. I’ll share with you how our coach designs the long runs and what we give our athletes at #runningwiththebruces.

During a typical marathon buildup, you would most likely train for around 12-16 weeks, which would include 12-15 long runs. In the beginning these will just be a little bit longer than most of your easy runs. For example, if you run 50 miles a week, averaging 7 miles a day, you might start your long run around 10 miles for week 1. The next few weeks, you’d probably increase that by 2-3 miles each week, building up to a 20-22 miler if all goes well. A majority of these long runs will be easily paced runs throughout the cycle. When I see easy paced, I mean easy paced. If you were a 3:30 marathoner whose marathon pace equates to 8:00 minutes per mile, these long runs would be just about time on your feet, pacing between 8:30-9:45 minutes per mile. These long runs serve a purpose of getting your body used to running long and on tired legs. It’s also great mental practice to be out on the road for quite a long time. In our training program if I have “easy long run” I might run 90 seconds to 2 minutes slower than marathon race pace.

Now what about race pace long runs? These serve a special purpose and should be written into the training plan with specificity. You might aim to have 2-4 marathon pace long runs within a cycle. One could be at the beginning of the cycle to see where you are at and what pace at that time feels like marathon pace. Then schedule 1-3 more every three weeks leading up to the race, with your last one 2-3 weeks out. The distance for these can range from 12-15 miles, where the target is to run most of the miles at or close to marathon pace effort. Of course different terrain and elevation in which you are training at will affect pace so this is where “effort” comes in.

Let’s take the 3:30 marathoner again and sketch what these race pace long runs look like. 8-minute pace is the target goal. For a 15 miler you could warm up with 1-2 miles of very easy jogging, perform some light strides and head into the tempo. You don’t want to rush right into 8 min pace so your first few miles might be between 8:05-8:15. This is similar to how you would approach the actual race itself. Let your body naturally find it’s rhythm those first few miles and then settle into pace. For the remainder of the tempo, you could aim to average around 8 minutes per mile, working on even pacing and staying relaxed. These runs are also a good chance to practice taking in fluids that you might use during the race. Marathon tempos are very taxing on your body, which is why you only want to have three or four of them throughout a training cycle. It’s tempting to run all your long runs at a fast pace but remember each run of the week serves a purpose. The closer you stick to the exact purpose, the better off you’ll be in the long run—pun intended.

So now you are ready for the marathon, right? Well almost, you still have to get in the miles, get your sleep, recover, and hit the roads with the knowledge of how to run your long runs vs. race them.