How Much Training Do You Need to Run a Half Marathon?

How much should you train if you want to run a good half marathon? There are two distinct types of runners who ask this question: the first-time half marathon runner who runs just 2 to 3 days a week for 3 to 5 miles.

On the other end of the spectrum is the runner who has raced several half marathons and wants to race faster. Thus, the key distinction between these two runners is the 13.1-mile distance—the first athlete has not run a 13.1-mile run whereas the second one has run 13.1 miles or longer several times.

When it comes to training for the half marathon, the key workout each week is the long run. If you make the long run the focus of your training, you give yourself a great shot of running well come race day. I like to see the first-time half-marathon runner give himself at least 12 weeks to train adequately for the race.

Beginners: Your 12-Week Half Marathon Training Plan

Assuming you’re doing 4 to 5 miles once a week, 12 weeks gives you plenty of time to build up to a 10- or 11-mile long run. You don’t necessarily need to run 13.1 miles in training to be confident that you can finish the 13.1-mile race, yet you don’t want your longest run to be just 8 miles. Getting up to the 10- to 11-mile distance for your weekly long run is the goal.

After that, you want to do one aerobic workout a week. Fartlek workouts, threshold workouts, longer aerobic repeats on a track or on a dirt path are all good options.

Once you’ve done that, you can get away with running just two more days a week to be prepared to run the race, giving you a total of four running days per week to be able to finish a half marathon. You should cross-train two days a week and then take one day a week off.

The schedule might look like this:

  • Monday: easy run
  • Tuesday: workout
  • Wednesday: cross-training
  • Thursday: cross-training
  • Friday: easy run
  • Saturday: long run
  • Sunday: off or brisk walk

The running pace calculator helps you to calculate the time, distance or pace of your run. Calculating your pace is not only interesting, but also useful, as it helps you to run and train better.

Want to know what your pace was on your 10K, 50-minute run? Or calculate what your running pace has to be for a sub 2:00 half marathon? Find out with our running pace calculator.

Enter any two values to calculate the third:

  • time
  • distance or
  • pace

You can calculate your running pace for kilometers or miles by choosing the unit in the ‘Unit of measurement’ menu.

Example: calculate YOUR RUNNING pace

Calculate your running pace. Divide the distance you ran with your running time.

If you want to run a half marathon under two hours, enter 2 hours and 0 minutes to Time and and choose half marathon for Distance. When you click Calculate pace, you’ll get your Pace per kilometer/mile. So, to run a half marathon under two hours, you’d need to run faster than 5:41 per kilometer, or 9:09 per mile.

Enter any two values to calculate the third: time, distance or pace.

Example: calculate RUNNING finish time

Calculate your running time. Multiply your running pace with the distance you ran.

Let’s say you know you can run comfortably at 7 minutes per kilometer and you want to know how long a 10K run would take at that pace. Enter 7 minutes per kilometer to Pace and enter 10 kilometers to Distance. You can also choose 10K from the ‘Select an event’ drop-down menu.

When you click Calculate time, the calculator will show you your finish time. Ten kilometers at a 7 min/km pace would take you 1 hour and 10 minutes.

Real life vs. the running pace calculator

When you use the running pace calculator, keep in mind that running is not mathematics.

Elite runners may be able to maintain their pace for several hours. If you’re a less experienced runner, running at a pre-specified pace will get harder as you get tired.

So, a word of caution: don’t estimate your marathon time based on your 100m personal best. Or your 10K finish time based on your 5K pace, for that matter.

And you don’t have to settle for estimations: Track your runs with a premium sports watch to get real-life running data, including pace, distance and more.

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Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.

When we runners talk about running and racing, we often focus on the active part: training, racing, and so on. But one of the most important aspects of improving as a runner and staying injury-free is recovery, especially recovery after a long distance race.

Note that when I talk about recovering a half marathon in this post, I mean recovering from a half marathon that you raced at a hard effort. There’s a difference between racing 13.1 miles as hard as you can and running a half marathon as a long run or for fun. Racing takes more of a toll on the body, so it requires more recovery from a goal race than if you ran the half marathon at a comfortable effort. Even if you did run your half marathon easy, still take the basic steps to recover well after a long run!

Recovery after a 5K and 10K is simple, as you do a few days of easy running before resuming normal training. For a marathon, a full one to two weeks off from running will help your body repair from the physiological damage of running for 26.2 miles. But when you ask the question of how to recover after a half marathon, the answer is often vague and varied. In today’s post, I want to cover the factors that need to be considered when recovering from a half marathon.

How to Recover After a Half Marathon

Why Recovery Matters

Recovery is an essential part of running, especially for runners who train for full and half marathons. We put our bodies through months of higher mileage, speed work, strength training, foam rolling, and watching our nutrition, and then push ourselves right to the edge of our physical limit for 13.1, 26.2 miles, or beyond. I know many runners, including myself, starting thinking about their new goals and next race the moment they cross the finish line. However, in order to make the most of our training, reach our new goals, and continue our love of running, runners must emphasize recovery after races.

Running and racing are both physically and mentally demanding, and toomuch can lead to both physical and mental burnout. Recovery acts as a reset button as it allows your body to fully heal from the race. Your muscles endured several microtears, you put a lot of pounding on your feet, and you depleted your glycogen stores; these can only be healed by rest and should be fully repaired before you resume running. Knowing the right way of how to recover after a half marathon will heal your muscles, replenish your glycogen, and prepare you for your next cycle of training.

Pushing yourself before your muscles, joints, and energy stores have repaired will set you up for injury or burnout later. Additionally, it gives your mind a brief break from running. You’re sure to come back a few days break rested and excited to run again. Recovering from a half marathon or full marathon requires discipline to make yourself rest, but even the elites take a complete break from running to recover after their peak race of the season.

Immediately After the Race

As soon as you cross the finish line, you shift from racing mode to recovery mode. Take a moment to bask in your accomplishment and celebrate a PR if you earned one, but then be sure to get some food and water to jumpstart the recovery process. Your muscles worked hard, and now they need protein and carbohydrates to start repairing. Since your appetite may be a bit off from the hard effort and since you deserve a treat, don’t worry about your post-race meal or snack being “healthy” – just eat what you want and can within 60 minutes of finishing the race.

Later that day, foam roll and elevate your legs up against the wall for a few minutes each. The mild compression of foam rolling will release any adhesions that might have formed in the connective tissue of your muscles and the elevation will reduce swelling in your feet and working muscles and help return your circulation to normal.

How Long Should You Take Off After a Half Marathon?

When decided how long to take off after a half marathon, there are a few factors you must consider:

  • Finish time: The body responds differently to running hard for 90 minutes and running hard for over two hours. Total time on your feet is a significant factor in how long you need to recover. If you finished your half marathon in approximately 90 minutes or less, you can quickly resume running after just 2-4 days off from your goal race. If your finish time was more than two hours, you may need up to a week off of running to recover.
  • Experience level: Your body adapts, so you will need less and less time off after your fifth or tenth half marathon than you would for your first half marathon. First time half marathoners may not have covered the full distance of the race until race day, while experienced runners may have run 14-16 miles as their peak long run in half marathon training.
  • How the race went: A race in which you felt strong from start to finish will require less time to recover than a race in which you struggled with muscle cramps, fatigue, low energy, etc. Part of the reason you want to take more time off after a bad race is for mental recovery – you likely will need a bit of a break from running to avoid mental burnout and to reignite your love of running. If you experienced any sharp pains or injuries during the race, you want to take at least a week off to ensure that there’s nothing wrong. It’s better to take one week of downtime than to be off for weeks due to an injury.

Ultimately, you have to listen to your body. If you feel like you need more time off, take it. If your first run back feels off or sluggish, considering taking another day or so off and try some cross-training instead.

Three to seven days may seem like a long time to take a break from running — you’re probably worried about losing hard-earned fitness. However, delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) can occur anywhere from 24-72 hours after a race. By waiting at least four or five days before you resume running, you avoid adding further stress and fatigue to your muscles. You will only lose a minor about of fitness, which you will easily gain back once you start running again. Consider a recovery week or two as an investment in injury-free training.

Yoga or Pilates are excellent activities during your recovery period, since they are low-impact, low intensity, and focus on stretching and realigning tight spots. Pick a practice that emphasizes simple poses that stretch and gently strengthen your muscles, loosen your joints, and increase your circulation.

Once you resume running, you want to stick to easy runs. Running fast places more strain on your body, which is not ideal when your goal is to recover. A general rule of thumb is to wait a day for each mile raced hard before you run hard again – so after a half marathon, that’s almost 2 weeks out from race day before you want to consider doing speed work. There’s no need to add any additional fatigue to your muscles!

What’s After the Recovery Period?

Recovery can expand beyond the one to two weeks after a race. If you race regularly in the spring, summer, and fall months, or just finished a big fall race, consider taking an “off season” from racing. Spend your off season months focusing on base building, so that you can begin your next training cycle with a strong aerobic base and no injuries.

If you plan on training for another race shortly after your half marathon, don’t jump right back into normal training. After a couple days off, follow the protocol for returning to fast running and do just easy runs at slightly lower mileage until 2 weeks after the race. You want to be ready to run fast again by your next race – not overtrained.

As a coach, I guide all of my athletes through the complete training process, including post-race recovery and base building. Learn more about my coaching services and contact me to start training today here!

Linking up with Coaches’ Corner and Wild Workout Wednesday!

How do you recover after a half marathon?

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How Far Do You Really Need to Run When Training for a Marathon?

The first thing you do after signing up for a marathon (besides question your sanity) is find a training plan. And when you pick your training plan, the only thing scarier than knowing you’ll run 26.2 at the end of it is realizing that you’ll have to run nearly that far at least once before race day. Yikes.

Most marathon training plans call for a 20-mile run four weeks before the race. When I trained for my first marathon, my running coach told me to try and hit 23 miles if I could—her point being that not knowing what those last 3 miles will feel like is a whole lot better than not knowing what the last 6 miles will feel like. But while training for my second marathon, my longest run clocked in at just 18 miles, thanks to knee pain from overtraining (whoops). On both race days, I was thrilled with my performance (I finished!) and even scored PRs.

Why 20 miles, then? “Scientifically, there is absolutely no reason why you should run exactly 20,” says Elizabeth Corkum, a USATF-certified running coach and senior instructor at Mile High Run Club in New York City. “Mentally, training to the 20-mile mark can give a runner confidence when heading toward marathon day; physically, it also helps simulate the late miles in the marathon.”

If 20 isn’t the magic number, then how far should you run? Well, it really depends on your goal…

If you’re a first-time marathoner or you just want to finish…

But you’d probably do better focusing less on mileage and more on time during your long runs. “The purpose of the long runs is time on one’s feet,” Corkum says. “For example, at my long-run pace, a 20-miler will take about 2.5 hours. For someone else, that could take 4 hours. Those are two completely different levels of stress on the body!”

Running coach John Honerkamp recommends capping long runs at 3.5 hours. “A 20-mile run is more mental than physical,” he says. “In most cases, there is no benefit to running more than 20 miles before race day, and there can be significant risks of overuse issues or injury.”

That said, you don’t want to run less than 16 miles or less than 3 hours, whichever comes first. “You want to get your body used to being tired and then asking it to run more,” Honerkamp says. “You’re callusing your mind and body to push when it doesn’t want it.”

And don’t freak out if injury, a tight schedule, a slower pace, or other really intense workouts during the week are cutting into your long-run distances. Instead, “focus on even pacing for your biggest long runs, fueling on your feet, and simply trusting your training,” Corkum says.

If you’re trying to beat your last marathon time…

Once you know what 26.2 miles feels like, long runs become less about boosting confidence and more about just putting in the work. But the same rule still applies: Keep your run under 3.5 hours.

Faster runners, though, can cover a lot more distance in 3.5 hours. This is where your goal time comes into play: If the average marathon finisher runs a 10-minute mile, their longest run should be 21 miles. Someone racing 8-minute miles could literally finish a marathon in 3.5 hours. Honerkamp recommends PR-chasers cap their long runs at 20 to 22 miles. “This increases their chances of staying healthy,” he says.

Instead of trying to get close to the full marathon distance, Honerkamp suggests focusing on different types of quality work. “You should run hard one to two times a week, and running hard is intervals, hills, tempo, and speed work,” he says. “The easiest way to get faster is by running faster—and that goes for any race distance,” he says.

But remember, long runs are practice. “Many runners get caught up in the numbers and often burn out or peak before marathon day,” Corkum says. Whatever the mental boost, “it’s not worth hammering out a 23-miler a few weeks before the marathon if you get to the starting line beat up from that epic long run.”

The Bottom Line

There’s no one-size-fits-all marathon training plan, and you know your body better than anyone else. If you feel like you need to hit 20 or more before race day, and you’re healthy and can get it done with enough time to recover, go for it. If you want to protect your legs and be more conservative about your mileage, that’s fine too. Long runs are crucial to marathon training, but it’s not about an exact number. The most important thing is that you do all the prep work—running, regular strength training, and recovery work like yoga and foam rolling.

“It’s tempting for marathoners to compare themselves to others,” Corkum warns. “When a runner starts rambling about their training achievements, it can make someone question themselves and their dedication. There are a dozen ways to get to the starting line. What’s important is what’s right for that individual. Be your best when it counts: on race day.”

If you’ve just signed up for a 50K, or you’ve planned to sign up for one, or even if the thought has wandered across your mind, you might also be considering how long it takes. At just barely under 8 kilometers longer than a marathon, it seems daunting enough to be hesitant to try, but not a large enough leap from the marathon distance to truly drive you away.

Because of this, it might seem like there aren’t many more factors in a 50K to cause you to run that much slower than your current or predicted marathon time. It’s only 5 miles longer, right?

Turns out, there are a few factors to consider. But first, let’s answer the specific question: How long does it take to run a 50k? Every runner is different in how long it will take to run a 50K, but a safe bet would be to run 10 to 30 seconds slower per mile than your marathon pace. For example, if your best marathon time is 4 hours (9:09/mile), then your predicted 50K would be around 4:50 to 5 hours (9:20/mile – 9:39/mile).

If you have yet to run a marathon, use a race prediction calculator to estimate your finish time based off previous race times. While a race predictor tool is a great general guide for the new 50K-er, as I mentioned above, there are many more factors that will affect your finishing time, whether positively or negatively.

One should never rely on such a tool— you may run slower or faster, regardless of the preparation (or, sometimes, the lack thereof). It’s better to rely on yourself, your training, and your own goals. And if you’re still lost in this 8-kilometer void between marathoner and ultramarathoner, keep reading— I’ll explain preparation, whether or not you can/should walk during the race, and more.

How do I prepare for a 50K?

Training

A basic training plan for a 50K is not much different from that of a marathon training plan, with perhaps the exception of slightly extended long runs. Just because you’re venturing into the ultramarathon territory doesn’t mean you get to forget about the extras: including speedwork, tempo runs, and strength training into your routine on a regular basis.

Your legs need that pop and strength to get you through the downhill sections, uneven terrain, and late-stage fatigue. The stronger you are, the better.

As far as the speedwork and tempo runs themselves, they don’t need to deviate in terms of distance and/or duration of the workout from marathon speedwork or tempo runs. If your previous marathon workouts has called for, for example, 3-mile reps, then you can add that same workout to your 50K training plan.

To structure your training weeks/cycles in the months leading up to your first 50K, a good rule of thumb is to complete three weeks/cycles (cycles are typically one week, but some athletes like their training cycles to be longer, and it has its benefits), each cycle building in mileage and/or intensity by around 10% from the previous cycle, then followed by one cycle of a “down week,” where your mileage is dialed back 10-15% and the intensity is reduced.

Also read: What is a Good Trail Running Pace?

This “down week” is to allow your body to recover from the miles you’ve put in; a crucial element in getting stronger.

In each cycle, it’s imperative that you practice fueling during a long run as you would during a race. They say to never jump into a race trying something new, and if you never practiced your fueling strategy, everything will be new on race day— leaving you susceptible to an upset stomach.

Ultrarunners are often seen consuming more than just liquids, like you might see in a marathon or shorter. At the aid stations, there are whole foods such as bananas, pretzels, gummy snacks, bagels, even bacon. That’s because the longer you go, the more fuel you need, and the more often you need to consume it.

Play around with different energy chews, electrolyte mixes, and foods that are easy on your stomach on a few long runs. Expand on what fuels already works for you— if you know Gatorade works for you, try a Gatorade chew. If you’ve had some gummy worms during a race and you felt good, maybe try some real fruit, like a banana.

And while you’re considering your race fueling, you may also be considering how long your long runs should be. The notion of running longer in training to prepare for longer races is a long-held one, and while it’s important to, at the very least, extend the length or your long run (up to 22-25 miles in a single run), it’s not necessarily the end-all-be-all in ultramarathon training.

In fact, there are quite a few talented ultrarunners who’s weekly mileage doesn’t average above 70 miles per week. While increasing your mileage does increase your endurance, you need to focus on proper recovery to combat the damage and fatigue on your muscles.

Recovery

The more you run and break down your muscles, the more you will need to recover to rebuild them: that includes proper nutrition, massage, epsom salt baths, lots of good quality sleep, and physical and mental rest. Recovery IS training, even when you feel like you’ve been laying on the couch a little too long.

And recovery is especially important for ultrarunners, given the damage done to your muscles over the course of an ultramarathon is greater than the damage done during a marathon or shorter. And if your race is on the trails (which means that you will be, hopefully, training on the trails to prepare!), your muscles will be even more fatigued.

Patience is the name of the game for ultramarathon recovery. If your body feels overworked, or you feel a twinge of pain anywhere, take a few days completely off or with very light cross training, like biking, swimming, or meditative yoga. Keeping your body healthy and in fighting shape is a long process, and one that cannot be rushed or pushed through when you start hitting your limits.

Nutrition

Ensuring your fueling your body properly throughout the training process is crucial. As runners, we want to but the best fuel in our tanks, and to do that, we should eat as much natural, homemade food as we can— that means making your own granola versus buying store bought, or opting for a homemade meal rather than grabbing some Panera after work.

However, it can be tough (and expensive!) to do this, and requires more time out of your day to prepare meals and clean up the aftermath. There are plenty of easy, quick meals that pack that ratio of 60% carbs, 25% fat, and 15% protein recommended for ultra runners. One of my personal favorite cookbooks is Run Fast, Cook Fast, Eat Slow— most recipes don’t take longer than an hour to prepare.

Or, you can cook versatile foods in bulk for the ability to mix and match you meals— make a batch of rice, chicken, roasted veggies and/or sweet potatoes, overnight oats, granola, etc. at the beginning of the week. That way, when you come back from work or a run, your food is cooked and ready to heat up, dress with some sauces, butters, balsamic vinegars, or whatever else your heart desires, and eat.

In regards to hydration, and in case you didn’t already know, it’s crucial to not only athletic performance, but also to simply living. Proper hydration helps you feel fuller and flushes out toxins from your body.

You should also aim to drink electrolytes— sometimes water is not enough. And if you’re committed to making all of your own food, you can make your own electrolyte drink— blend together your favorite dark fruit juice, coconut water, water, salt, and a sweetener (like honey or molasses) and enjoy.

How long should I train for a 50K?

A race of this distance doesn’t have a popular online couch-to-50K training plan (although you can read about one man’s attempt here). Most races covering nearly all distances suggest at least three months, but for an ultramarathon, err on the side of preparedness and aim for four months, especially if you haven’t raced in a while or been endurance training in a while.

Ultramarathons take a huge toll on your body. Not simply in terms of damaged muscles, but also in terms of your susceptibility to illness post race. The better prepared you are for your race, and the better care you take of your body, the higher your chances are at a good outcome.

Do ultrarunners walk?

Yes. Walking is not only accepted, but widely done by nearly every ultra runner. Running for hours on end, especially on trails, rolling or steep hills, and through sometimes crazy weather, it’s almost best to walk sections of the race. As long as you’re moving forward, you are making progress.

Ultramarathons may seem like the opposite, but they’re not a proud event— runners don’t avoid certain “taboos,” like walking, sitting down at aid stations and socializing, or drinking a Coke mid-race (which many ultrarunners will do and have done during nearly every race). Better to walk than to risk collapsing before the finish line because you refused to walk up that last steep vertical at mile 24 in your 50K.

If you have a 50K coming up, or you’ve done one before and have some tips for newcomers, let us know! Good luck to you on taking the leap from runner to ultrarunner!

Up Next In Trail Running:

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Longest long run for the marathon? My Guide

How long should your longest long run be when training for a marathon? It’s a common question so I thought I’d provide my advice.

+/- 3:00 marathoners

If you plan to run three hours or faster for your marathon, then my recommendation for your maximum long run is:

Maximum long run = up to

Just a quick note that is represents the LONGEST long run in the training plan. It does NOT suggest every long run in your plan must be this long.

+/- 4:00 marathoners

If you plan to run around four hours for your marathon, then my recommendation for your maximum long run is:

Maximum long run = up to

Another note: The runner should build slowly and gradually to this longest long run over 2-3 months.

+/- 5:00-6:00 marathoners

If you plan to run around five hours or longer for your marathon, then my recommendation for your maximum long run is:

Maximum long run = < Marathon time (4:00-4:30)

Unlike faster marathoners, five-hour marathoners (or longer) can’t follow the same advice. The main reason is that the long run will take so long to complete and will result in so much additional recovery time that it interferes with the upcoming training.

A few notes:

  • This is for your LONGEST long run in the plan. It is not saying you have to do this every weekend. You would build up to this level near the end of your plan. Most runners find that running their longest long run 3-5 weeks before the marathon is best.
  • Necessarily, the pace is slow. This type of super long run isn’t about speed. It’s about time on your feet so make sure to run within the long run pace range (and often toward the slower end) and just let the time roll by. This is not a run to push the pace and try to run fast.
  • You can’t rely on mileage when discussing long run distance because of the different in pace (and thus duration) of the runner. So if someone says, “You should never run 20 miles.” or “You must run 20 miles.” Ask them how long that will take. My pro runners would do 20 miles all the time but that only took them just over 2 hours to complete. So telling me that running 2-2.5 hours on a regular basis is wrong makes no sense. Likewise, having a 5-hour marathoner listen to a pro and try to run 20 miles frequently (and thus taking several hours to complete) makes no sense either. The recover would take so long that it would interfere with the upcoming training. Therefore, we must make it relative so I think talking in time is best.
  • A range should be provided for each long run so the runner can run the longer or shorter end based on how he/she is feeling. Feeling great? Shoot for the longer end of the range. Feeling bad? Stop at the short end. Be your own coach and adjust on the fly based on how you are feeling.
  • Endurance Monster runners typically do well with these really long long runs. Speedsters sometimes struggle so adjust your expectations based on your runner type.
  • New marathoners should use a process of gradually building to the longest long run. This is typical in most new marathoner programs where the long runs gradually increase week to week with some “down” weeks for recovery.
  • Experienced marathoners should run more long runs that are longer. I call it decreasing the delta and there is an article that discusses this. As your body and mind get used to longer long runs then you can include more longer long runs in your training plan. Again, not necessarily the maximum long run distance as described above but simply longer than was used in the first few marathon plans.
  • Injury history and how quickly the runner recovers plays a role in the long run strategy. For example, I’ve run 2:31 for the marathon but could never do same long runs as others I’ve coached that ran the same time. I was too injury prone and long runs really beat me up. So, the individual recovery rate and injury rate of the runner plays a role in the long run sequencing as well. Runner know thyself! If you are frequently injured, then be cautious of the really long end of the maximum long run range. And, make sure to add in extra recovery days after your longer long runs.The goal of the long run plays a role as well in your longer long runs. Two long run goals in particular change the sequencing. If you are working on low glycogen long runs (low/no carb) to improve fat burning (again, there is an article on the marathon long run) then the long runs will be shorter than if you are fueled.
  • Second, if muscular durability is your limitation (your legs fail you late in the marathon), then you may want to extend long runs to provide a deeper stimulus for the legs to get used to the stress of running long. Again, it’s somewhat individual so whenever you read about long run guidance, it often requires more info on what the situation is for that runner.
  • Final Thoughts

The marathon may be 26.2 miles (42.2Km) for all runners but I suggest that the event is very different from runner to runner. Training to run as fast as you can for two hours (like pro men) is much different than training to run as fast as you can for six hours. So, when you read training advice, don’t just think about the race distance but think about how long that race will take you (or your athlete).

This way of thinking allows you to better evaluate the training advice. There will still be lots of conflicting information but I find it provides an easier way to decipher the advice and see if it is relevant for a runner like yourself.

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3 Reasons to Stop Doing a 20 Mile Long Run

In marathon training, there is one main goal: run longer and farther until your body is ready for the full 26.2. Because of this, most standard marathon training plans ask runners to gradually increase the length of their runs until they reach 20 miles. Many plans use the 20 mile run as the peak of training, the Holy Grail, after which the runner is ready for the distance. However, research shows that the 20 mile long run might not be necessary for most marathoners after all.

This is controversial topic. A few weeks ago, I suggested that a good marathon training plan will not have you running longer than 3 hours, and your long run should only be 25 – 35% of your total weekly mileage.

As a result, a handful of people commented or asked a variation of the following question:

…how, then, can you run your 20 mile long run if you are running slower than 9:00 min/mile pace?

My quick answer was, “you don’t.” To be clear, the 20 mile long run can become problematic for those running significantly slower than 9:00 min/mile ( I say this as someone who has run 3 marathons slower than this). I also want to be clear, there is nothing wrong with running a 4, 5 or even 6 hour marathon. We all have different goals and reasons for running.

I realized that I didn’t have a very good answer to the 20 mile long run question, and so I recently spent some time digging into books, reading articles, and talking with coaches to gain some insight. Below is a quick summary from a few of those experts.

Assuming it will take you considerably longer than 3 hours to run a marathon, here are 3 reasons you might want to stop running a 20 mile long run:

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1. The 20 Mile Long Run Increases Your Chance of Injury

By running longer than 3 hours during your marathon training, you significantly increase the odds that you will develop an overuse injury. Many beginner marathoners have strong aerobic capacity due to biking, swimming, skiing or other non-running activities, but their muscles, bones, ligaments and other body systems are not used to the pounding on pavement that comes from running for 3+ hours.

In the same way, your recovery time is lengthened the longer and further you run. If you run a 3+ hour long run on Saturday, you may need double the recovery time compared to if you were running for only 2 hours.

Steve Magness, writer of the quintessential running book The Science of Running, writes,

If too little recovery is allowed, then the body never fully recovers or adapts and can enter Selye’s exhaustion phase; this is what is commonly referred to as over training (Magness, p.122)

2. You Won’t Get Faster

Research has shown that the bulk of your aerobic development happens at or around the 90 minute mark. Beyond that, you don’t see a whole lot of improvement. Jeff Gaudette of Runners Connect, a popular online running website, says:

The majority of physiological stimulus of long runs occurs between the 90 minute and 2:30 mark.

Running longer than 3 hours may help you mentally, but physically it could do more harm than good.

My own coach, Antonio Vega, has said that long runs that are much longer than 3 hours could potentially take away from the time of your next run. Additionally, if you cap yourself at 3 hours, you can incorporate other things (speed, marathon pace, etc) to maximize your long run. You may not be going as far, but your running will be of better quality.

Luke Humphrey of the famed Hansons Running, an elite distance program in Michigan, says;

…after 3 hours of running, you have crossed the point of diminishing returns…. the structural damage to your muscles, along with fuel depletion, that you are going to have to take several days to recover from a singular run.

3. You Neglect other More Important Physiological Systems

Shifting your body to burn fat as fuel is key to running a marathon. Being able to run at a given pace for 26.2 miles is the crux of the marathon, and in order to do so you need to teach your body to burn less glycogen at that pace – whether that is 8, 9 or 12+ minute pace.

To support this idea, Gaudette says this;

The total amount of time on your feet during a 3-hour plus run adds considerable fatigue to the legs… In the long-term, this means you can’t complete more marathon specific workouts throughout the following week, which I believe, and research has shown, are a more important component to marathon success.

He suggests beginner runners (anyone running 3:45 or slower), focus on more marathon specific work like building aerobic threshold. He touts the theory of accumulated fatigue which involves a shorter long run and some marathon-ish paced runs (a harder effort) before that run. This helps to simulate the fatigue your body feels in the later miles of the marathon, and thus training your body how to handle the distance.

So… Should YOU Stop Doing a 20 Mile Long Run?

As with most things, you have to combine research with personal preference. I’m not a coach, but if you are going to run slower than a 4 hour marathon, yes, I think you should stop running a 20 mile long run.

Jack Daniels, (legendary running coach, not the distiller) suggests:

…your longest long run be no longer than 30% of your total weekly mileage (for those running 40 or fewer miles per week), and 25% or 150 minutes (whichever comes first) for those over 40 miles a week (Daniels Running Formula, p. 50).

This means someone planning to run a 4 hour marathon would only be able to get in about 16.5 miles, which is even more conservative.

In short, most would say you could run a 10k after only doing a long run of 2 miles. Similarly, an ultra marathoner could complete a 100 miler by only running a 30 mile long run. So why do marathoners need to run 75% of the total distance?

What is your Experience with the 20 Mile Long Run?

I know that there are tons of runners out there running less than 40 miles a week with a 4 hour, 20 mile long run. Thousands finish the marathon all of over the country every year at this pace.

I am curious what would happen if people focused on increasing their overall volume of running, rather than simply that one big long run?

I would love to hear about your experience on this topic. What has worked, and what hasn’t? Share in the comments below or send me an email.

Training: How should I feel after running 20 miles?

Joe English – 1:17 pm

A lot of my runners, and a lot of others, are right in the midst of their longer training runs. This weekend, after one of my groups ran their first 20 miler, I was looking around at the faces to see what was going on. I would ask them, “how are you feeling?” and the resounding answer was “tired!” It occurred to me that it might be time to talk about what long runs should feel like – and how that’s different from the way you’ll feel in your first marathon.

There are two points that I want to make really clear:

First, you SHOULD be tired after running 20 miles. It’s a long, long, long way. Think back to the start of your training when you ran a few, maybe three or four miles. Back then that probably felt like a long way to run. 20 miles is way, way, way longer than that.

So with that in mind, you should feel tired. But more than likely, you’ll be back up and going again after a good nap and maybe a day or two of rest. If you’ve trained properly, progressing your distance up slowly over time, then you’ll bounce back pretty quickly from a run of even 20 miles.

With that said, it will take two to three weeks for most first-time marathon runners to fully recover and reap the benefits of runs 20 miles and longer. That’s why you likely won’t run much further than 20 or 22 miles in your training: it just takes too long to recover from the effort. The benefits of these runs will come out later after your taper, which is the time in which you recover from your training and prepare for your effort in the marathon itself.

Second, the marathon is going to feel very different from your 20 mile runs. Think about in these terms. If you ran 18 miles a couple of weeks ago and you’ve now completed 20 miles, the difference is only two miles. For most runners that would equate to 15 to 30 minutes more running than that 18 miler. When you step up to the marathon, you’ll be adding another 6 miles – an effort of 45 minutes to an hour and a half for most. That’s a very significant difference.

What this means is that the marathon is going to treat you to whole new range of emotions and physical experiences that you won’t have felt in that 20 mile run. These new experiences are quintessentially what makes a marathon a marathon. Especially the first time.

When running 20 miles you were tired. Perhaps more tired than you’ve even been after a physical effort. In the marathon, you’re likely going to reach that point at 20 to 22 miles, but then you’ll have to push through it and keep going. This is where the struggle and epic battle of the marathon occurs. It’s what everyone has told you about that they are completely unable to describe for you.

Here’s something else to keep in mind: this epic struggle and effort in the last few miles of the marathon is not an indication that you are not well trained for your effort. If you weren’t well trained, you wouldn’t have made it nearly that far. Everyone has to push in the later miles of the marathon, no matter how well trained they are, if they’re running at or near their capability. (A marathon doesn’t have to be an epic struggle if you run below your trained capability. See a note related to this below in the comments and a somewhat related discussion on recovery between marathons.)

You may be thinking something along the lines of this: “shouldn’t I run longer in training so that the marathon isn’t such a big effort?” or “Why not run 24 or 26 miles in training then?” There is a great deal of debate over these questions. The answer is typically that the extent of the recovery is so long and the potential of injury is so high that they off-set the benefits of any further training. In other words, you’ve logged enough time on your feet at 20 miles to make it safely through the marathon and it might just hurt you to keep training at longer distances.

As an example, look at ultra-marathoners. Runners training for races in excess of 50 miles most likely will run 25-40 miles in training – or perhaps 20 miles on back to back to days. But they won’t likely go beyond these distances in training. (They may use intermediate distance races as long training events.) But the effort and risk of injury, and the amount of time needed to run say 80 miles in training for a 100 mile run is just so high that it isn’t something that most people would do. This doesn’t mean that these runners are unprepared. They are well trained, but this is the practical balance of training for such long running events.

Getting back to the topic at hand, as a first time marathon runner you will be well trained having made it through a 20 mile run. You should be tired from the effort, maybe exceptionally so. But you should expect the marathon to be an even more difficult task. It will be a task that takes a physical toll on you. You’ll need much more time to recover from the effort. But you’ll make it through it and you’ll be rewarded by experiencing something different than anything you’ve ever done before.

Congratulations to all those that made it through their first 20 mile runs. It’s a milestone that may be overlooked, because it happens during your training, but it’s a big, big, deal. And it is a huge step to getting you to the finish-line of your first marathon. On marathon day, just remember that you have a long road ahead and to make sure that you pace yourself out there. You’ll do great!

To read more on this topic, click here for a follow-on article: More thoughts on late marathon miles.

How much should my legs hurt after a long run?

More thoughts on late marathon miles

How long should I plan between marathons?

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon USA
Running Advice and News

Running 20 miles a day

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