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Why One Marathon Training Method Says No To 20-Mile Runs

Training for a marathon? You may not need that 20-miler. One coach explains a better way to long run.

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Here Is Why You Should Stop Doing 20 Mile Long Runs
Hansons Marathon Method

Adapted with permission of VeloPress from Hansons Marathon Method, 2nd Ed. by Luke Humphrey.

In their recently released book, Hansons Marathon Method, 2nd Ed., the coaches of the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project reveal their innovative marathon training approach. The Michigan-based running squad, which includes 2016 Summer Olympics marathon team member Desi Linden, gained notoriety with their misunderstood “16-mile long run”. The head coach of Hansons Coaching Services shows why 20-mile long runs are misguided and what runners should do instead.

There is an all-too-common misconception that one can prepare sufficiently for a marathon by simply running three days per week, provided one of those days includes a grueling 20-mile (or more) long run. That sounds simple, but the truth is that there’s a lot more to successful preparation than that. All runs are not created equal, and the long run, while key, is merely one component of a larger system that prepares you for success in the marathon distance.

The Hansons program has become known for the “16-mile long run” and a six-day-per-week running schedule that includes several types of workouts. Our approach has sometimes been perceived as renegade when compared with status quo programs on the market, and some runners have had their doubts when we promise they’ll PR with our program. In fact, in the first edition of our book Hansons Marathon Method, we shared the story of Kevin Hanson’s wife performing marvelously using our method, albeit all the while intending to prove the method wrong.

Related: Stay Race-Ready With Long Runs All Year Long

Since then, I’ve gotten similar e-mails, with runners who had been fired up to write a scathing “I told you so” instead thanking us for their PR and confessing that they never should have doubted the process. I don’t write these stories to gloat, but rather to show by example that there is more to successful marathon training than a few runs a week plus a long run. And while people tend to have laser focus on our 16-mile long run, they really have to embrace the whole picture of what the method entails.

Let’s take a look at the long run the Hansons way.

The Long Run

 The long run garners more attention than any other component of marathon training. It has become a status symbol among runners in training, a measure by which one compares oneself against one’s running counterparts. It is surprising, then, to discover that much of the existing advice on running long is misguided.

After relatively low-mileage weeks, some training plans suggest back-breaking long runs that are more akin to running misadventures than productive training. A 20-mile long run at the end of a three-day-a-week running program can be both demoralizing and physically injurious. The long run has become a big question mark, something you aren’t sure you’ll survive, but you subject yourself to the suffering nonetheless. Despite plenty of anecdotal and academic evidence against such training tactics, advice to reach (or go beyond) the 20-mile long run has persisted. It has become the magic number for marathoners, without consideration for individual differences in abilities and goals.

While countless marathoners have made it to the finish line using these programs, the Hansons Marathon Method comes to the table with a different approach. Not only will it make training more enjoyable, it will also help you cover 26.2 more efficiently. While our long-run approach may sound radical, it is deeply rooted in results from inside the lab and outside on the roads. As I read through the exercise-science literature, coached the elite squad with Kevin and Keith, and tested theories in my own training, I realized that revisions to long-held beliefs about marathon training, and in particular long runs, were necessary. As a result, a 16-mile long run is the longest training day for the standard Hansons program. But there’s a hitch: One of Kevin and Keith’s favorite sayings about the long run is, “It’s not like running the first 16 miles of the marathon, but the last 16 miles!”

Related: The 3 Things You Should Do After A Long Run

What they mean is that a training plan should simulate the cumulative fatigue that is experienced during a marathon, without completely zapping your legs. Rather than spending the entire week recovering from the previous long run, you should be building a base for the forthcoming long effort.

For example, let’s take a look at the Advanced Marathon Program in Hansons Marathon Method. The program includes a 16-mile Sunday long run. Leading up to the Sunday long run, the schedule calls for a tempo run on Thursday and easier short runs on Friday and Saturday. You don’t get a day completely off before a long run because recovery occurs on the easy running days. Since no single workout has totally diminished your energy stores and left your legs feeling wrecked, you’ll instead feel the effects of fatigue accumulating over time. The plan allows for partial recovery, but it is designed to keep you from feeling completely fresh going into a long run. Following the Sunday long run, you will have an easy day of running on Monday and a strength workout Tuesday. This may initially appear to be too much, but because your long run’s pace and mileage are tailored to your ability and experience, less recovery is necessary.

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