Take Your Marathon Long Runs To The Next Level

Photo: Jeff Clark

Hit a plateau? Here are two workouts to help you smash your existing personal best. 

It’s not uncommon for marathoners to get stuck at a plateau, especially if you’ve already taken large chunks of time off your existing personal best. Taking your marathon training to the next level means getting smarter and more specific with your key workouts, particularly the long run. Transitioning from slow, time-on-your-feet affairs to aggressive, energy-specific efforts that challenge the physiological systems you’ll rely on during the race are of the utmost importance.

When examining the training schedules of faster marathoners who’ve plateaued in their race times, I have found a nearly universal reliance on a greater number of moderate long runs rather than a few specific, challenging longer efforts. Over the course of 12 weeks, some schedules have as many as six or seven easy 18 to 20-mile long runs. These runs provide limited aerobic benefit once you’ve reached a certain fitness level. As famous elite marathon coach Renato Canova says, “What does a 2-hour easy run have to do with the marathon? Nothing.”

RELATED: How Fast Should Your Easy Long Runs Be?

It’s this shift in thinking – from believing that six 18 to 20-mile easy or moderate long runs is the best training approach to understanding that you absolutely must include hard, marathon-specific long runs – that will ultimately take your marathon times to the next level.

Get Specific With Marathon-Pace Runs

The first thing to note is that these long run workouts are not for everyone. Before transitioning to more challenging long runs, you should have a few years of training under your belt and be running at least 50 to 60 miles per week. While many coaches might argue that you need more training under your belt, I have had a lot of success with runners at this volume level. The long runs will test your limits and put you on the edge.

One of the most important elements to marathon success is being able to burn a higher percentage of fats versus carbohydrates when running at marathon pace. The longer you can maintain your glycogen stores, the farther into the marathon you can go before the brain and muscles, in the absence of glycogen, start to slow you down.

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Running slower than marathon pace will burn a higher percentage of fat compared to carbohydrates, but you need to be able to do that at marathon pace to have success on race day. To accomplish this, you must run at or near marathon pace for extended periods of time. Obviously, one of the best places to do that is during the long run.

Over then next few pages I’ll explain two extremely specific, very challenging marathon long runs you can implement in the last six to eight weeks of your marathon training schedule that will help you break through your existing plateau.

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