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Long Run Part 3 - How much and how soon?

We have reached the final blog in our long run trilogy. In part 1 and part 2, we examined the objective of the long run, Maffetone formula and pacing strategy. In part 3, we look at when to start, how frequently and how far to run.

The term periodisation refers to the planning of your run training over a 12 month period or longer. Every runner knows that you can't be at your best for the full year and the art of periodisation is to be at your best when it counts. If you've entered a big event for next year, such as a spring marathon, a summer ultra race or Ironman triathlon, you need to be at your best on the weekend of that event.

Very few people actually manage to be at their best when it counts. Many people often find that their 'form' is amazing at random times of the year and then by the time they reach their main objective, they've completely lost their form and can't understand where it went. The reality is that your fitness gains don't work in a simple 'linear' fashion. If you keep training hard, every week of the year, you don't simply 'get a bit faster' each week. Your fitness may improve initially, they you may well find yourself going backwards or fluctuating from week to week. This will be a complete mystery to you as you are doing exactly the same training as you were 6 weeks ago, when you felt awesome!

So let's presume you've entered one of the following:

1. Spring marathon
2. Summer ultra
3. Summer Ironman

Many people will start training too early, doing too much and running too hard. Generally, this results in an early peak (January) and nowhere to progress to. This results in a plateau, then a decline in form by the time they reach spring (or an injury / loss of motivation). Break your year into blocks as follows:

1. October - December (Base / Preparation)
2. Jan - March (Build)*
3. April - June (Peak)

*If you are running a spring marathon such as London, then January onwards is the start of your peak (16-18 weeks to race day).

You can't train for an event in 16-20 weeks

If you download a training schedule from the internet, it will generally be 16 weeks in length. It's really important to understand that 16 weeks is the optimal time frame to fully prepare for a marathon but that's presuming you are already well conditioned. If you are a runner who runs regularly with a running club, doing intervals, long runs and racing on a regular basis, then you already have great conditioning. This means that if you choose to enter a marathon, then 16 weeks of 'specific' marathon training is optimal. Don't confuse this with thinking that anyone can run a marathon with 16 weeks training. I've met lots of people training for Ironman triathlon, marathon and ultra races who barely train at all, as they have downloaded a 16 week plan and they still have 18 weeks to go. Let's be clear, a 16 week plan is 'SPECIFIC PREPARATION' for an event. You should already be fit and if you're not, then start the base training phase.

What should we do in the base phase?

This is a very generic article so we can only give you rough guidelines. The real purpose is to point out that your training plan should be phased. But here are some general ideas for our 3 scenarios:

1. Spring marathon - General running to include speed work, intervals, hill reps etc. Aim to get fit and fast in this period without overloading yourself, aim to improve 5k/10k times. Long runs should be limited to 13 miles absolute maximum, 10 is sufficient. One long run per week is optimal.

2. Summer Ironman - As above

3. Summer Ultra - As above, longer run/trek should be limited to 6 hours and getting the pacing right is critical (see part 2 of this blog series). One long run/trek per week of 3-4 hrs (peak 6 hrs) should be manageable, if not, you're going too hard.

The build phase

1. Spring marathon - You'll have 16 weeks to go, so this is actually your specific preparation phase. Aim to build the long run up to 18-20 miles with 3 weeks to go, then reduce as you taper. The long run should be easier than your target pace (45-60 seconds per mile). If you need 48 hours to recover, you ran too hard. Include some specific running in there, at your marathon pace. This is best limited to 13 miles to avoid excessive fatigue / damage.

2. Summer Ironman - Continue as build phase, focus on 10k performance and start to increase long run distance. Important as outlined in previous blogs to keep pace easy (45-60 seconds per mile slower than target pace). Don't need to go beyond 13-15 miles at this stage, frequency & consistency is key, so 11-13 miles every Sunday would give a sound foundation and may work much better than doing 16-18 miles one week then missing the next. Consistency is the key to building fitness.

3. Summer Ultra - Continue as build phase, focus on 10k performance and be careful not to slip into 'slow plodder' mode. Continue to build longer run/trek at weekends and distance will depend upon your target distance. You may well increase up to 12 hours, but you must keep the intensity low (more trek than run) to ensure you recover with 24-48 hours. At this stage, doing one long session per week may be too much. Alternate a long weekend (8-12 hours) with a shorter weekend (3-5 hours). The shorter weekend should be same pace as the longer weekend, don't go harder because it's shorter. Build specificity in this phase, include packs and poles etc if you intend to use them during the event.

The Peak Phase

2. Summer Ironman - Continue to maintain some speed work to avoid plodding. During the peak phase, change your focus to include specificity. The long run should build to 18-20 miles (as above, go slow). You should also include some 'specificity' by completing brick sessions (bike and then run at target marathon pace). During the brick sessions, run should be 10 miles maximum to allow recovery within 24-48 hours. Alternate over a 3 week period, long run / brick at race pace / easy week.

3. Summer Ultra - Continue to maintain some speed work to avoid plodding. During the peak phase, change your focus to include specificity. Make sure you are using poles / same weight pack if you intend to in your event. In this phase double days are particularly useful, for example, 12 hours Saturday and 6 on Sunday. If you are doing double days, you should only do these every other weekend, with easier weekends between.

Reverse the pyramid

The suggestions above are based on a 'reverse pyramid'. This means learn how to run fast and then learn how to keep it going for longer, in that order. Traditional training programs are based on a 'standard pyramid' which is slower running first and progressing to faster running. A traditional pyramid only works if you are already a very fast runner for 5k, with poor endurance. By contrast, most amateur runners are not quick, but can run longer distances at a slower pace (ultra runners in particular can run a marathon every weekend but the pace is slow). The reverse pyramid method focuses on 'specificity' as the event approaches (race paced sessions) rather than increasing the intensity and doing shorter / high intensity sessions.

Use events as training?

Be very careful using events as training. My experience is that most people can handle training week after week, but when they start to race frequently, their form starts to drop. Every marathon runner will have been told at some point that they should do a half marathon 3-5 weeks before the marathon. This trend was passed into triathlon, racing a half Ironman 3-5 weeks before a full Ironman. You should question the purpose of this, why do you need to race a half 3-5 weeks before a full? Are you trying to prove that you can run half the distance? Many people will require 3-5 weeks to fully recover from a hard half marathon or half Ironman. Do you really want to feel tired in the final few weeks of training? Of course there is the argument that you can race a half marathon at your full marathon pace as a training exercise. That usually evaporates at the sound of the gun, plus you can do this on your own. Ultra runners are the worst candidates for too much racing and not enough 'peaking' as they shuffle from one weekend to the next in a permanent state of fatigue. Pick your races well, race less frequently, have a specific purpose and race them to the best of your ability.

As always, if you have any questions, post them on the FB page. If you found this useful, please share on social media as it really does help us!

If you'd like a sports science assessment and more detailed schedule, please GO HERE. If you're local to us (Wigan), remember we have a Saturday morning trail running club from October to end of March and every Tuesday is the free Bat Race Series. Fore more information about our shop training and events GO HERE.

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