The Marathon - The Long Run

©Great Strides 2007Shelly Florence-Glover





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Fueling & Hydrating For Long Runs
Eating  & Drinking After Running
General Hydration
Menstruating & The Long Run
Misc Tips

Runner's Handbook
Recommended Reading


A Little More

Running Coach Shelly Glover is has a master's degree in exercise physiology from Columbia University. She co-authored The Runner's Handbook and The Competitive Runner’s Handbook is a veteran road runner and marathoner. She also coaches The Greater New York Racing Team is available for private coaching. Coaching Services

And miles to go before I sleep.
And miles to go before I sleep.
Robert Frost (1874-1963) Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Eve.

Long runs are the backbone of marathon training. These are your practice runs – your dress rehearsals. They are your chances to choose props and costumes for The Big Show Nov. 4. By eliminating the duds, you’ll find the perfect blister-proof socks, the shirt that makes you feel like you're running the world and the ultimate race day fluid/fuel that works like rocket fuel and the perfect air puffed running shoes.

These runs are a great opportunity to test your body’s reaction to water, sports drinks, gels and pre-run eating habits in marathon -like conditions.

Here’s a laundry list of what long runs do for you:

  • Expand muscles’ glycogen storing capacity
  • Train muscles to run efficiently on fat, sparing gylcogen
  • Enhance the nervous system's ability to recruit muscle fibers
  • Improve the oxygen delivery system
  • Strengthen muscles in the legs, feet and ankles
  • Teach patience and pacing
  • Inoculate the mind against fatigue and discomfort – they bulk up your attitude.

Here are some of our favorite tips to get the most out of your long run:


For the novice marathoner, speed isn’t as important as getting in the distance and time on your feet.

So let’s say, you go running with a buddy who’s faster than you. And you huff and you puff – and you struggle a little,  - okay you struggle a lot – but hey – you finish the run okay. What’s wrong with that?

Running too much too fast really tires you out - lengthening recovery time and denting the next week’s training. Better to get a feel for the distance before you start playing with pace.

Don’t gauge the long run pace by your marathon goal time. Keep it at conversational pace. Train don’t strain. Your first few long runs can leave you pretty wiped out.  As you get used to training, recovery takes about two days.

Long run pace is based on your experience and current fitness level.

For most novice and intermediate marathoners, the best long run pace is somewhat slower than daily training pace.  These runners often lack the fitness to hold paces for long runs and marathons that they can easily hold for short and medium distances.

Many experienced marathoners race the marathon faster than their daily runs. Experienced runners may gauge their training pace by the time they want to run in the marathon --- um ---let’s keep that within reason.   A good mileage base, ample race experience and few marathons under your belt make this excellent preparation. Try maintaining a pace of about 30 seconds to one minute per mile slower than you want to run marathon day. This is usually a bit faster than the pace of your daily runs.

Pacing is important for comfort and to stimulate the appropriate adaptations in your muscles.

Confused?  If you are training by heart rate, start at 60-70 percent of your maximum heart rate. During the second and third hours your heart rate will go up from five to 15 beats per minute despite a steady pace - especially in the heat.  This phenomenon is cardiovascular drift and is partially attributed to dehydration and fatigue. Staying well hydrated helps attenuate the drift.

Fit, experienced, competitive runners can have a little more fun with their long runs.

  • Throw in marathon goal-paced mile intervals every three or four miles.
  • Quicken the pace over the last three -five miles of a long run to marathon pace.

Moving through various stages of fatigue, these practice sessions give you a feel for the real thing. For more practice, try running a half-marathon at goal-marathon pace.


First-time and casual marathoners, work up to runs of 18-20 miles; veteran marathoners 20-23 miles. Build up the length of the runs by increasing the distance about two miles every other week.  On alternate weeks keep your long runs between 10-16 miles or race.

Experienced, fit marathoners extend one run to the same time, but not distance they will be racing on marathon day. Running further than 23 miles seriously depletes a runner’s body.  The longer the run, the longer the recovery. It is not uncommon for 11-12 minute-per-mile pace runners to be on their feet four hours for long runs. Replacing carbs and fluids on the run not only helps during the run, it especially helps these folks recover.

Time versus Distance Some runners prefer going long by time rather than mileage. It’s especially convenient if you don’t have a measured course.   Run for the length of time it takes to complete your goal mileage at the appropriate training pace. It’ll probably be close enough for your body to get the idea and trigger an appropriate training response. A three-hour run over an unknown distance is still a three-hour run, no matter how fast or slow or where you go.

Training Limits Your longest long runs should last about at as long as you think it will take you to complete the marathon.  But, a long run should build up your confidence and stamina, not tear it down. Limit long runs to no more than 3 1/2 to 4 hours. Runs lasting longer than this really take a lot of recovery and cut in the next week’s training.

How can a runner who has to work hard to finish a 20-mile run expect to hold a strong pace for a full marathon? According to Dr. David Costill, the sports science guru, a 20-mile run during training is not equivalent to the first 20 miles of the marathon. With proper tapering and nutrition, the runners should start the marathon better prepared for the distance than when the 20-miler was run in training.

Have faith folks.


After building up to 18-20 miles - an official long run – you can “go long” every other week. On alternate weeks cut back long run mileage. These non long run weeks are a great time to race.  Your last long run is preferably three weeks before the marathon.These next two scenarios provide for two-week countdown.

  • If you are very fit.
  • If you are short on the number of long runs – you can squeeze in one more, but it’s not an ideal situation.

Panic is no reason to force one more long run. If you have to cram in one more, don’t make it your longest run. Schedule that supreme long one with three to five weeks to go.  A compromise? Run 15-16 with two weeks to go for maximum confidence and recovery time. With one week to go run no further than an eight to 10 miler.


Do not attempt a long run every weekend.  You’ll be tired – if not injured – ALL the time. A good goal is every other weekend.  Novice marathoners aim to complete at least three long runs of 18-20 miles. Experienced marathoners should do at least six long runs of 20-23 miles.  Competitive marathoners try running 20-23 miles two of three or three of every four weekends.

Fueling & Hydrating For Long Runs

On longer workouts of one or more hours, snacking can mean the difference between finishing and being finished. 

Ingest 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour using a combination of sports drinks, sports energy bars, gels and foods such as bananas and raisins.  Foods with low water content are condensed carbs and can complicate digestion. Take gels and sports bar with plenty of water.

Some research indicates 20 grams should be consumed every 20 minutes.  This technique extends glycogen fuel supplies for up to four hours. Of course spending all that time snacking through a marathon and a long run can really slow you down.  Fueling up is a balancing act between how much carb intake helps or hurts.

Many small flasks and innovative holders are available for sport foods. Nosh in style with mesh-pocketed RaceReady  (among other manufacturers) shorts and tops.

Eating and Drinking After Running

Once you’ve finished a long run, you aren’t done.  Eat and drink properly to expedite recovery.  After a long run immediately consume 50 to 100 grams of carbs preferably within 15 minutes.

Keep snacking until you eat a regular meal.  It takes about 20 hours to restore muscle glycogen to pre –long run levels. Eating or drinking 20-40 grams of high quality protein (milk, chicken, tuna etc.) within the first one to two hours after a run enhances your muscle and liver’s ability to restock glycogen.

Drink at least 16 ounces. Consume one pint or up to 2.5 cups of fluid for each pound of body weight lost during a run.  Don’t take this all at once or you’ll have a belly like an aquarium.  Drink eight or more ounces every half hour for two to six hours to enhance recovery. Very hot or humid days require more.

Drinks with glucose, sucrose or glucose polymers maximize glycogen restorage rates. Solid and liquid carbs resynthesize glycogen at about the same rate.


Before Running

Drink 16 ounces of fluid two hours before running – particularly before long runs in hot weather.

During Running

Drink six to eight ounces (six to twelve large swallows)  every 15 to 20 minutes. A sports drink is recommended for runs and races of more than one hour.  Hmmmmm – this is a little easier to recommend than it is to do.  If there aren’t any water fountains, try stashing sealed bottles of fluid along the way or make deli stops.

Carrying a water bottle is awkward. Try using a neoprene belt/bottle holder. Models come in various sizes, single and double holsters, some insulated and some with zipper compartments for those little amenities you can’t live without, (cash, lip balm, sunscreen, sunglasses, sports gels, identification…)

Here are a few options for water supplies:

  • Fastdraw – a neoprene adjustable handstrap that fits over the hand and water flask.
  • Camelback – a waist pack soft-shell canteen with a belt and straw. Holds up to 50 ounces of fluid.
  • Fuel Belt contians small flasks at the waiste.
  • Available from Roadrunner Sports.

Menstruating and The Long Run

Planning and training can seem futile in the throes of PMS and menstruation. Periods happen.

Menstruation is not an illness or an excuse.  Most healthy women can run any time during their cycles.  If you really really can’t – plan your training and marathon carefully and have a heart to heart chat with your doctor about conditions that prohibit you from running.

Some women manipulate their menstrual cycle with hormone therapy. Check with your doctor before you go fooling around with your hormone contraceptives or you may end up with unexpected results.

Tampons seem to work better than pads on a long run. But some plugs have a tendency to work themselves out of the body.  Sanitary napkins can chaff, shift and absorb sweat. Sweat is a minor problem compared to getting caught in a good rainstorm – bloated pads do a number on your form efficiency.  A diaphragm, cervical cap or the Instead feminine protection cup can catch flow and avoid stops during your run.

PMS isn’t much fun either. How a body can maintain PMS bloat and still dehydrate has always been baffling.  Sometimes women plan to cut back weekly mileage during PMS or schedule long runs around that week. If you can keep you head into it, running through those times is a real mental toughener and a good preview of the marathon experience.

Missing a menstrual cycle can seem handy, but it’s a signal the body is out of balance.  The Melpomene Institute’s research indicates amenorrhea occurs most often when women do not eat enough to fuel their activity.  Whatever the cause is, check with your doctor. Missed periods long term can cause serious bone density problems and the early onset of osteoporosis.

Final Thoughts for the Road

Savor your long runs. Think deep solitary thoughts or socialize the miles away. It’s time to relax, run slow and easy. Run roads, run trails, run where your feet lead.  Meet the distance challenge.  Other runners understand the desire. Marathoners take the road less traveled. That makes all the difference.