Updated: Feb 6, 2022
The long run is a staple in all marathon and ½ marathon training. It’s the one run that prepares you physically and mentally to tackle the race-day mileage. For most runners, the only goal is the distance. No plan of attack— just head out the door and run 16 miles. Having a plan, beyond only completing the run in one piece, can help you prepare better for the race.
Here are two tweaks you can make to the “just go out and run” approach to long runs that will leave you better prepared to tackle your upcoming marathon or half marathon.
1. Do a Long Progression Run
This is the most basic type of long run that every runner should aim to do for almost all of his or her long runs. A progression run is any run that the pace gets slightly faster as the run goes on, so your last few miles are your quickest. One common misconception is that progression runs need to be run hard. Easy runs, which are more suitable for beginners, can be progression runs as well. Just start off at a super slow pace. Progression runs teach your body to burn fuel (fat and glycogen) more efficiently, increase fitness and build confidence.
If you’re currently the type of runner who goes hard early and slows late in the run, you’ll reap huge benefits from adjusting to a progression-style of running, not mention enjoy your runs more. If you’re not used to running this way, it will take some practice and patience. I suggest practicing this on all your runs, not just the long run.
How to do it: First, take a look at the average pace for your last few long runs. Let’s say it was 10 minutes per mile for 16 miles. On your next long run, start off two minutes slower for the first few miles. For the example above, you’ll want to start off at 12 minutes per mile. This will feel like a crawl, but trust me here. Once you feel comfortable with 12 minutes per mile, increase the pace by a few seconds each following mile. After you’re finished take a look at your splits. If your last few miles weren’t your quickest, next time slow down on the earlier miles. Continue adjusting till you get it.
2. Do a Long-Run Fartlek
For those who aren’t familiar with the term “fartlek,” it's a Swedish term that means speed play. It’s a style of interval training where you’ll run hard for a particular amount of time followed by easy running as a rest period. This pattern of hard/easy is then repeated for a set number of times. Adding a fartlek late in the long run is an excellent way to practice running fast on fatigued legs without beating up your body.
How to do it: What you’ll want to do is divide your long run into three portions: the warm-up, the fartlek and the cool down. The warm-up will include the bulk of the total distance of the run. Actual distance can vary but somewhere around 80 percent of the run can be used as a warm-up. For example, if your long run is 16 miles use the first 13 miles as a warm-up. Run these miles super slow — slower than normal. These miles are meant to deplete your energy stores so the fartlek more closely mimics the later miles of the marathon. After you’ve completed the warm-up you’re ready to start the fartlek. The structure of the fartlek can vary depending on your experience and fitness level. A few recommendations are one minute fast followed by three, two or one minute of easy running. Repeat this hard/easy pattern for six to 12 repeats, or as tolerable. Once complete, finish out the planned distance at a slow jog for a cool down.
Tip: Most watches will have a walk/run setting where you can program the watch to beep after each repeat. Google “setting up walk/run mode on Garmin” for videos on how to do it on Garmin. (Here's a video for the Garmin Forerunner 10, for example.) Another option: Download a Tabata timer on your phone, such as Seconds Pro.
As for how often to do a long-run fartlek, there's really no hard-and-fast rule. It greatly depends on your ability level as a runner. More experienced runners can afford to do long runs that are harder more often, while beginners need to more cautious.
One suggestion I'd offer for beginners is do the fartlek-style long run on the decreased long-run weekends. Most marathon training plans will include weekends where the distance is decreased. For example, you may see something like this: 16, 12, 18, 14, 20, 12. Picking one to three of those shorter days (12, 14, 12) to do the long-run fartlek would be ideal. Doing them on the longer days may be too much. Experienced runners can handle doing them on the longer days because they will spend less overall time running than beginners.