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Splitting Up the Long Run

Doing three runs in one day, known as a triple, is a creative long run alternative that can extend your endurance and add quality miles.

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Runners training for a marathon have long known that the weekly long run plays a major role in helping tune the body for the rigors of racing 26.2 miles. But exactly how long these runs should be and how best to do them is a subject of some dispute. If you live in the U.S., the gold standard tends to be the 20-miler, though higher-volume runners might stretch it to 22 or 23 miles. If you live in the metric world you might think in terms of 30 or 35 kilometers (18.6 to 21.7 miles).

But however far your long runs are, the norm for most runners is that they are the only event of the day. Whether you run them on Saturday, Sunday, or some other day, after you’ve finished, you come home, relax, and don’t do much of anything else unless it’s walking the dog, running errands, or playing with the kids.

Thompson’s Sunday Runs

In the 1960s, however, a talented British marathoner tried something different.

“I remember Ian Thompson speaking about his training, and the one things I took away was his ‘Sunday runs,’” says British-born international coach Peter Thompson, now residing in Eugene, Oregon, (no relation to Ian). “As I recall it, he would run 30 miles on a Sunday, but in three 10-mile chunks.”

In the morning Thompson says, Ian would run an easy 10 miles. At midday, he’d run a “stronger” more “structured” speed workout. Then in the evening, he’d run another easy 10 miles.

Ian Thompson isn’t well remembered today, but he was no slouch. From 1973 to 1987, he ran 29 marathons, including a world-record 2:09:12 at the 1974 Commonwealth Games, in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Ian Thompson
British long distance runner Ian Thompson, running the marathon at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand, 31st January 1974. Photo: Tony Duffy/Getty Images

And amazingly, he did this with a 10K PR of only 29:33, which predicts around a 2:17 marathon. Some of the difference was undoubtedly genetics; he was obviously built for the marathon, not for shorter distances. But some was that he clearly found ways to maximize his training for the marathon, and these long-day triples were part of his formula.

Nor was he the only runner of his era to find success with such training. Belgian marathoner Karel Lismont, who took Silver in the 1972 Munich Olympics and Bronze in the 1976 Montreal Olympics (one spot behind American Frank Shorter, both times) did something similar.

Frequent Triplers

Other runners have also used triples to boost their total mileage into the stratosphere. In the 1970s, for example, British runner David Bedford, who in 1973 lowered the 10K world record to 27:30.8, eclipsing a mark set by none other than Lasse Virén, ran triples seven days a week as part of a training plan that totaled 300 kilometers (about 180 miles) per week.

Cameron Levins (center) finishing third in the Men's 10,000 metres final during the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games on August 1, 2014
Cameron Levins (center) finishing third in the Men’s 10,000 metres final during the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games on August 1, 2014 Photo: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

More recently, Canadian national-record marathoner Cameron Levins (2:09:25) has also put in triple days at various times in his career, though not anywhere nearly as often as Bedford (who may have over-trained and burned out shortly after his world-record 10K). The goal, Levins says, was to increase total volume without making any single run too long. “I thought that might not be productive for keeping speed for track events,” he says.

“It worked well for him,” adds his friend, American marathoner Ryan Vail (2:10:57).

Not that frequent triples are anything that should be on the radar for most runners, even if they are looking for ways to boost their mileage. “It’s not a very realistic option for most people with a work schedule,” says Levins.

Quantity and Quality Used Sparingly

Not so unrealistic, however, is to occasionally do weekend triples the way Ian Thompson did them.

In fact, Peter Thompson says that he himself continues to use them with both high-performance and recreational runners.

“I frequently have an athlete do two or three runs on the ‘long day,’” he says, though he notes that he tends to hold the total to no more than 25 to 26 miles. “I don’t see the need to do a 30-mile day unless you’re unsure of your ability to run that far,” he says.

As an example of how to use this as a substitute for a 22-mile long run, he says, a runner could go out for six miles in the morning and evening, doing both at normal easy/recovery pace. That’s 12 miles, leaving 10 miles for the third workout, run at midday.

That workout, he says, might include seven miles at marathon pace, interspersed with up to five randomly placed 1000m surges at 5K to 10K effort. Or, 10 miles that alternate miles at marathon pace and 10K pace. Fairly serious speed sessions, in other words, but focused on endurance and lactate shuttle not raw power.

Clearly this isn’t something for beginners or for low-mileage runners—though Thompson notes that you don’t have to run a 20+ mile day to make the concept work. Instead, you could simply break up your usual long run into three “bites” that add up to the appropriate distance.

That said, he doesn’t recommend it unless you’re running at least 60 miles a week. Nor should you do it every week, even if 1970s champions like Lismont and Ian Thompson appear to have done so. Peter Thompson’s recommendation is to do it sparingly, maybe once every three or four weeks during your marathon buildup.

That way it serves to add variety to your training program—always a good thing both psychologically and physiologically—without becoming overly taxing on either your body or the rest of your life. “Most athletes have ‘real lives,’” Thompson points out, which don’t typically allow for running three times a day—except when they do.