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September 18, 2010 / elodie kaye

Playing with Long Runs

A couple of weeks ago, Keith turned me on to a Runner’s World article in response to my progressive 13-miler.  It offers a couple of choices for how to do the long run apart from the usual, slow and steady distance.

As recently as July 24, I had trouble finishing 18-milers and even 16 miles felt pretty rugged.  I’d been doing long runs of 14 miles or more almost every week since the end of June, but the last couple of miles took me to the brink every time.  This is an example of when to resist trying a new workout you’ve read about.  Even though I have a long history of dozens of training runs in this range, it takes time for the body to adapt when you break into the long distances after an absence.  Just like a wound, you can’t coax the body to repair and strengthen sooner than its own time.

I learned my lesson there.  I didn’t need to do 16 miles or more on consecutive weeks.  It’s not the speed of your long runs or the number you’ve completed, it’s the amount of time between them that builds your endurance.  It would have been enough to run 15+ miles on alternate weeks.  In fact, when I stopped marathon training, I continued to adapt on a modest diet of one 18+ mile long run every three weeks.

My body’s preferred period of adaptation to pure endurance is relatively long (6 – 9 weeks) which perennially tempts me to test it.  Throwing paced miles into the mix too early just hurts, and burns me out.  Everyone is different and some runners may respond quickly in only 2 or 3 weeks, but these variations aren’t meant to be done on a weekly basis.

Progressive Couplets

This is the variation I did two weeks ago, and it’s one that my last coach prescribed for me because I am syrupy slow when I go long.  Run the first 2 miles as a warm-up, and then drop 15s off the pace every two miles until you hit 12 miles.  Simple.  Every mile doesn’t have to be progressive, just the combined total of each pair has to be 30s faster than the pair before, which gives some room for short, rolling hills and wind.  The last mile is a cooldown.

Because of the level of concentration required, I don’t try to do more than 12 miles.  I use a 15s increment because I start so slow, but also because that’s about the limit of my perception.  The RW article suggests a 10s increment which is better for most runners, but I can’t adjust my pace that finely.  I suppose I should also add here that I learned to do this workout on a mostly flat, marked path.  As such, I check the split after each mile and run the next one accordingly.  At any given moment, I run by feel comparing it to the mile I ran before, rather than using a GPS or other pacing system.

Couplets can be used during long runs anywhere from 8 – 14 miles.  The key is to decide the pace of the last pair, your total distance, and the increment you want to use.  Your starting pace is least important.  As written, I start at 11:30 – 12:00 mpm and finish at 10:30 – 10:15 mpm, which is a pretty good place for me to end up if I were training for a full marathon.  Two weeks ago, I pushed the last 4 miles a bit more aggressively so I could get them closer half-marathon pace or faster.  That makes it more specific to my races.

Progressive Thirds

Split a 15- to 18-mile long run into three parts and run each one faster, finishing up at marathon pace or a little quicker.  For a half-marathon, run only the last 4 miles at half-marathon pace, and keep the distance to 15 miles.

This one is still too rich for me.  I’m not strong enough to hold form at half-marathon pace for 4 miles on a long run, so I do the marathon version instead, which concludes with the last third at marathon pace.  Thirds require less concentration than couplets, but more than simple negative splits.  The longer segments allow more variation in terrain too, making it a pretty flexible option.

A twist on the thirds progression, courtesy of Caleb Masland, is to run the middle part at a faster pace, instead of the end.  I like this option better for 18-milers right now; in the final miles I still get a bit too depleted to ramp up to marathon pace.  Doing the middle segment at the faster pace is safer when you’re still adjusting to the overall length of the run.  It will also give you confidence to know that you can burn some miles at a faster pace, and recover on the run without dropping too much speed.

How to Work Them

If you already have marathon-paced (MP) workouts à la Hal Higdon, you shouldn’t.  In his novice and intermediate plans, he has a separate MP workout the day before the long run.  Some coaches believe it’s more specific to the race to have MP miles within a long run, but you can do more of them in a shorter training run, and it may be safer to separate them as Higdon does.

If you’re training Pfitzinger-style however, then combining MP miles with long runs frees up a training day to work on something else.  In principle, you would have room for a quality long run, a speed workout, plus hills or form drills.  In practice, it depends on how long it takes you to recover from these long runs and your speedwork.  Adding another quality day doesn’t just remove one day of recovery, it adds the need for more recovery too, so double jeopardy.  Approach with caution.

Although long runs over 14 miles aren’t considered very important for half-marathon training, I like going up to 16 miles.  It makes a half seem very short, both in distance for my body and in duration for my focus.  These variations make them more physically relevant to my training, and gives me a chance to practise staying mentally engaged in a sustained, uncomfortable state.  For the past 6 weeks or so, I’ve been cycling 13-, 16-, and 18- mile long runs.  I throw in paced miles depending on how I feel that week, and I have only one other quality workout, either tempo or intervals.


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