How far is far enough? This is the question that troubles most triathletes when it comes time to plan the long run in their training program.
Regardless of your race distance, there’s probably a long run penciled somewhere into your weekly training schedule. How long you should go depends largely on the distance of your primary race, as well as whom you ask.
At Ironman Lake Placid in July, 24-year-old Patrick Wheeler made a huge breakthrough at the 140.6-mile distance, winning his age group in just his second Ironman and finishing in 9:49:51. He capped off his stellar day with a solid 3:10:29 marathon, the 13th fastest among the field of 2,258 finishers. His longest single run in training before Lake Placid.
“Two-and-a-half hours,” Wheeler admits. “And that’s my longest continuous run of the year.”
As an athlete and coach for the Boston-based Quantitative Triathlon Training Systems, Wheeler and his colleagues employ a unique approach to run training, capping an athlete’s single longest run for an Ironman at two-and-a-half hours, regardless of his or her ability level.
“Most athletes we coach are between 2:10 and 2:15; some are only around two hours,” Wheeler says. “Obviously, the more durable a person is and the longer they’ve been doing it, the closer to the higher end of that range they’ll be, but the main goal is to get someone to a point where we feel they’re durable enough to finish the whole thing.”
In an effort to keep the quality of the long-run days high and instances of injury to a minimum, the coaches of QT2 Systems de-emphasize a single weekly long run in favor of a non-traditional “split” long run that is used throughout the training cycle. For more experienced, higher-volume athletes, that means two 90-minute runs in a given day, with the second run preceded by an easy 60-minute bike ride. Wheeler says that by splitting the long run into shorter segments with a few hours of recovery in between, athletes are better able to practice running with good form, as well as prime their bodies for the physical and nutritional demands of an all-day event.
“It’s to hit that second run already beat up and to force yourself physically and mentally to focus and run with good form,” Wheeler explains. “You’re not going to feel as bad as the last 10K in the Ironman, but it’s pretty close. It’s also to help force your stomach to get used taking in food, digesting food and working out basically all day long.”
There’s more than one way to get to the finish line, however, as Will Kirousis and Jason Gootman of Tri-Hard Endurance Sports Coaching will tell you. For the Ironman, Kirousis caps the long run for his athletes at 20 miles. Beyond that, he says, the risks outweigh the rewards.
“That’s where the break point is,” Kirousis says. “Somewhere in that 16- to 20-mile range for the vast majority of people is enough. Going over that, you’re really just increasing the chances you’re going to get hurt. Does another two miles really make you a better runner at that point?”
Differing from the QT2 philosophy of run training based around a single long run of up to two-and-a-half hours or split runs totaling up to three hours, Kirousis and Gootman prefer to assign their athletes’ long runs in mileage rather than minutes, citing the confidence of being able to complete a percentage of the marathon distance in training as a key factor in an athlete’s success on race day.
“There are some people who would say don’t go any longer than 2:45 or three hours, regardless of what level you’re at,” Kirousis says. “Over the years we’ve shifted to mileage only because we found that for newer athletes especially, going on time could result in them doing a long run that was very short, and then over the course of the race they would break down. Even if their ability to metabolize fuel was good, their body just couldn’t handle the pounding as the race progressed. They didn’t have the resilience to deal with it.”
Stepping down in distance presents a dilemma of a different sort with regard to the length of long runs, as many athletes training for an Olympic-distance or half-Ironman event are easily able to complete the distance. But just because you can run six miles in your sleep or knock off 13 miles on any given weekend, should you? Again, it depends on whom you ask.
For Wheeler and the athletes of QT2, when someone drops down in distance, the length of the long run changes, but the basic principles of training remain the same. The emphasis isn’t on completing a certain percentage of the race distance during your longest run in training, but instead centers on the accumulation of overall running volume, with the amount dependent on the ability and durability of the athlete.
“Same thing for a half Ironman—90 minutes to two hours as the longest single run,” Wheeler says. “For Olympic distance, 75 to 90 minutes max. The volume is different depending on the person, depending on their volume when they came to us and what we feel is a safe level to build up to. But everyone will still do the split run, because you do typically run a little farther on a split run day than you otherwise would. I’ve done this now for three years myself and seen it work with the athletes I coach. I’m a big fan.”
Gootman believes that when preparing for a 70.3 or an Olympic-distance event, an athlete can—and should—run a greater percentage of the race distance in training. The physical demands and risk of injury aren’t as great compared to the Ironman, he says, and knowing you can complete the distance gives you confidence on race day, regardless of your ability level.
“As you go down [in race distance], the long-run distances start to become a greater percentage of the race distance,” Gootman explains. “For the half Ironman, I’d say 10 to 14 [miles] is about my range. I think less than 10 for a half iron and a person, physically or mentally, is just not going to feel prepared. Even the person just looking to finish is going to need to feel good about being able to do so.”
At the Olympic distance, Gootman says the length of the long run depends largely on the athlete’s ability level, as the physiological demands differ depending on how fast you’re running. “A really high-level athlete should certainly be doing long runs longer than the 10K,” he says. “Less than that is just not enough of a stress to develop their fatigue resistance because the nature of their race is largely anaerobic. For someone looking to finish their first Olympic, I think six miles gets the job done.”
No matter the distance of your race or the training philosophy you choose to follow, the overarching answer to the question of long-run distance is that it should be far enough that you’re confident you can complete the distance, but not so far that you’re not able to go the distance on race day.
“We try to keep the long run at 35 percent of the overall weekly run volume,” Wheeler says. “In the end, all the fitness in the world doesn’t mean anything if you show up to the start line with an injury.”