How long is TOO long?
You have probably noticed that the duration of your Saturday long runs has gradually been increasing throughout the season. You may have also noticed that your longest run scheduled this season is 3 hours, and this probably has most of you wondering why it isn’t longer.
So how long is too long? Popular opinion says anything over three hours.
The main issue with running longer than 3 hours just to complete the “infamous” 20 miles (or more) has to do with the amount of stress that we place on our bodies during a long run, not to mention the amount of time it takes to recover from runs this long. The recovery time that is needed after completing excessive miles like this significantly interferes with our ability to complete the equally important workouts that follow our long runs (recovery runs, easy runs, speed workouts, etc.).
The Law of Diminishing Returns sums it up perfectly:
“To continue after a certain level of performance has been reached will result in a decline in effectiveness.” Essentially, your return on investment (logging extra miles) drastically decreases and the risk of injury drastically increases the longer we run. Running is an extremely stressful sport as it is a high impact activity. The amount of “impact” force that is placed on our bodies with each foot fall is approximately 3-4 x our body weight. Think of how much repetitive stress we create when running 1 mile. Now think about the stress created when running 20 miles or more.
We have all heard of the saying that “more is not always better”. This is a perfect example of that.
How do you maximize the effectiveness of a 3-hour run?
Here are SIX important points to consider:
1- Focus on the QUALITY of training vs. the QUANTITY of training. Marathon training is not about what we do on one day but the accumulation of training (i.e. recovery runs, strength training, weekly workouts, etc.). Your “TOTAL” volume of training is much more important. It is imperative that you focus on the frequency of your weekly runs and workouts and not just on the duration of one individual run.
2- Complete your recovery runs or cross training workouts the day after your long runs. These are key for marathon runners to get used to running on tired and fatigued legs. Recovery runs give slower runners the opportunity to “stack” or split their long runs (i.e. 3 hours on Saturday followed by 8 miles on Sunday will be much more beneficial and productive then trying to run excessive miles in just one day).
3- Incorporate strength training into your weekly training program at least 1x/week as scheduled. Completing a program that includes movement in all three planes of motion will help us improve our mobility, flexibility, stability, endurance and overall strength. The stronger we are, the less fatigued we will become during our long runs and on race day. A stronger runner equals a healthy runner as stronger muscles help absorb and dissipate the impact forces we create when running, thus reducing stress on other tissues (e.g. bone, joints).
4- Finish your long runs at your estimated marathon pace. Complete the end of your long runs 1-2x/month at your estimated marathon pace. A faster pace/mile at the end of the run will mean more miles covered within the 3-hour time limit and will build your confidence exponentially come marathon day. Otherwise, ensure you are running the proper long run pace – which, on average, is approximately 1-minute/mile slower than your estimated marathon pace.
5- Post-long run spin (optional). After a long run, for those who want a longer workout, go to the gym and spin out your legs on a stationary bike for 30-60 minutes to increase your TOTAL time of exercise. This will assist you in expediting your recovery and increasing your overall cardiovascular fitness. For those runners concerned with the 3-hour time limit, this will get your bodies used to exercising for longer periods of time without the added stress of running. Focus on maintaining a cadence of 90-95 RPMs while cycling; this is key in order to mimic a similar cadence to running.
6- Complete your weekly speed workouts (repetition, interval and tempo). The goal of these workouts is to help improve your VO2 max and anaerobic threshold. In simpler terms, these workouts will improve your overall cardiovascular fitness, thus making your easy and marathon paces feel that much easier. The correct intensity of these workouts is often compromised when runners are still extremely fatigued from a previous long run (especially for those runners who choose to run longer than 3 hours). These runners often have to skip their recovery run or cross training workout to take an extra rest day or two because they require additional time to recover.