What is it?
During the weeks and month leading up to race day, you should schedule a long run once a week. If you’re relatively new to marathon training and have at least 16 weeks before the big day, your first long runs should be around 10km in distance. From experience, I’ve found that increasing this by 0.5-1km per week is the most effective way of allowing your body to adapt while not exerting too much pressure on it. You’ll complete your final long run, of around 20 miles or 30km, approximately three to four weeks before race day, allowing your body enough time to recuperate fully and give it it’s all.
Why is it important?
The long run won’t necessarily be the most physically challenging element to your training but it will be the most psychologically challenging. Running for multiple hours at a time can be lonely at times and even very boring at worst. The long run will give you the opportunity to practice concentrating and finding a rhythm that carries you through. It will give you a chance to experiment with endurance techniques, refuelling and recovering and simulate some of the emotions and sensations you will likely be exposed to on race day.
How to plan it
It sounds obvious, but make sure that you set aside enough time to complete your long run. This is not the time to do speed work and you will likely be running much slower than during your other training sessions, so make sure you’re not under pressure to finish fast.
It might be an idea to block out a couple of hours in your calendar at the same time every week. Most people like to do it on Sundays, to avoid having to work before or after, but I find that a weekday evening can be just as suitable, especially during the early weeks of training when you’re long run will last around 2 hours at most.
You can complete your long run on a treadmill, especially if the weather is poor, but personally I think that it is more effective if you can get outside. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, it will be a more accurate simulation of the real thing, and secondly, you are less likely to get bored. Listen to music or an audio book if you fancy, but make sure that you are still able to hear traffic and pedestrians around you, to avoid collision and injury.
If you run outside, make sure you plan a relatively flat route. A few undulations are fine, but the sheer duration of the run will already be so physiologically taxing that you don’t want to exert too much additional pressure with steep hills or lots of steps.
Some experts also recommend completing your long run at the same time of day as you’ll be running the marathon. That way you’re giving your metabolism and digestive system the chance to prepare and practice. While I think this is sensible, especially during the latter stages of training, I know it’s not always possible. My advice would therefore be to simply schedule the long run for a time that is convenient for you, when you are least likely to be stressed and aren’t under pressure to finish at a specific time.
How to master it
During the long run, especially when you’re surpassing the 10-mile mark, you will need to refuel at least a couple of times. Plan on carrying at some food and fluids with you, using a Fuel Belt or Camelback for example. If you’re not comfortable with this, plan to pass a water fountain or corner shop around the one-hour mark so that you can pick something up.
I still find water to be the most effective hydration liquid for anything up to 10-miles, but it’s a personal thing. The secret to finding your perfect refueling snack or liquid is trial-and-error.
Guidelines recommend that you practice drinking a few sips at least every mile split so you'll be accustomed to drinking at the intervals provided on the marathon course. It is also recommended that you take in some form of calories (gels, bars, sports drink) during your run. Timing for your fueling can range from 45 to 60-minute intervals but again, experimenting with this should be part of your training.
I know its common sense, but make sure you know your route well before setting off and consider telling a friend, housemate or relative exactly where you are going. If you regularly head out alone, you should get used to carrying a phone with you and it might also be worth downloading some kind of tracker app so that someone knows where you are in an emergency. Chances are you will never have to rely on it, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry. More on this later.
How to recover
As I have stressed in other posts, nothing is more important than recovery. There are several different techniques and every athlete will have his or her own preferences, but one thing you should never neglect is refuelling.
Directly after your long run, make sure you get out of your sweaty clothes immediately. Your immune system will be weakened by intense exercise so you want to keep the risk of you catching a chill to the minimum. If you’re not immediately able to have a shower, at least wash your hands and face to rinse of some of the salt and grime.
The best post-long run snack is something that is both liquid and calorific. Try energy drinks, protein shakes or smoothies. Some people find it hard to stomach milky drinks after an intense workout, but do make sure that whatever you choose contains both carbohydrates and protein as your stores of both are likely to be severely depleted.
Also think about getting some salt in your system. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that anyone exercising for more than one hour should consume 500 to 700 mg of sodium for each liter of water they consume. I’ve found salted nuts to be a great source of energy, protein and sodium.
Once you’ve consumed a snack and before you eat a proper meal, spend a short amount of time lying on the floor with your feet up. During the run, blood will have rushed to the muscles pumping away in your legs and it’s also likely that a lot of lactic acid will have built up in the lower part of your body. Lifting, or elevating, your legs higher than your heart after exercise will recreate a balance and above all, will simply feel really good.
Some experts recommend keeping your legs elevated for as long as one minute per 15 minutes of running, but my advice would be to do it as long as feels good.
As soon as you’re back on your feet, get a proper meal in your system with plenty of protein. Eat slowly and enjoy it and consider taking a nap if you have time. Make sure to keep snacking regularly throughout the rest of the day. You’re body will continue to burn at a faster rate than if you had not exercised, so now is not the time to fast.
Allow yourself to indulge in sweet treats too if you like, just make sure that it’s nothing too heavy or rich as your digestive system might protest after such an intense physical effort.
Finally, congratulate yourself on a great effort and don’t dwell on having to do it all again next week. Chances are that by the time the next run comes around, you will feel 100% rested and ready to take on the challenge anew. It might seem unlikely, but trust me on this one!