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PT365 Run Plans | How can the marathon long run be just 2 to 3 hours?

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2hour-long-run

Since we published our PT365 Run Plans back in June we’ve been answering the same question:

No, that’s not a mistake, the marathon plan’s longest run is just two or three hours.

Really. Two hours.

Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. (Dr.) Mark Cucuzzella — author of the Run Plans — explains:

The only training purpose of the long run is to create an adaptation — without breaking down your body — that will help you on marathon day. A shorter long run is also beneficial because people are very busy, especially on weekends, and I find anything more than a few hours often has limited returns for the rest of your day.

The key to a long effort is to establish relaxed and efficient movement while teaching your body to burn fat as its primary fuel. Body fat is the most efficient fuel for endurance events, but you have to train your body to use it well.

People looking to run a five-hour marathon would build up to a long run of three hours — ideally a mix of walking and running –  as long as it’s comfortable. The key is starting out nice and relaxed and finishing up closer to the speed you will be running on race day.

Faster runners — marathoners in the three-hour range — can do a two-hour long run. Two hours will create this fat-burning adaptation just as well without breaking you down.

The goal is train — not strain — and to be happy, fresh and relaxed. Many runners leave their race out on their long training runs and wonder why they have nothing left on race day.

Also, stay hydrated but resist the temptation to bring a lot of sugars. What you eat throughout the day also affects your body’s fuel utilization during exercise, so only eat clean-burning fuels such as high quality meats, produce, nuts, eggs, healthy fats and good dairy

The other purpose of the long run is to experiment with some of your equipment, such as clothing and footwear, and get used to the surfaces on which you will be running on race day. If your course is hilly and on the road then do your long runs on a hilly road. Seems like a simple idea but many do not do this. They feel that if they covered the distance it is adequate.

The mantra of a marathon is relax, relax, relax and then relax more. So this is what you are rehearsing every day out there.

Mark explained to us earlier that after three hours you reach the point of diminishing returns. Sure you’re running father, but the extra time and distance will take a toll on your body, meaning longer recovery time and missed training days.

I’m certainly guilty of training this way. In the past, I would torture myself with five or six 20- to 23-mile long runs. What did that get me? Exhausted. Injured. Cranky. I’d get through those runs and get to my start line as an overtrained, overtired and achy runner. I’ve never lined up feeling fresh and optimistic. I’ve yet to hit my goal in a marathon and I think my training is to blame.

This fall I’m looking forward to doing my long runs and being home in time for a late breakfast. As an ultrarunner, I’ll keep up with my easy, long trail runs, but when it comes to pounding pavement I’m more than happy to keep it under three hours. Who has time for that anyway?

The biggest challenge of the short long run will be mental. How can you know you’re capable of running 26.2 if you’ve only run 16-18 miles? If you follow Mark’s plan, and you’ve built and fine-tuned your efficient running engine with intervals, aerobic runs, drills and hill work, then the distance won’t be as much of an issue.

So, bear with us. Give it a try. Go shorter so you can go longer when it counts — on race day.

Sara Davidson

Sara Davidson is an ultrarunner and contributor to PT365. She's run 7 marathons and 32 ultramarathons -- including her first 100-miler. This fall she is training for the Marine Corps Marathon using our PT365 Run Plan. Reach her at sdavidson@gannett.com .