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Can You Train for a Marathon Without a Long Run?

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Training for a marathon is hard work. Miles and miles and miles get added to your shoes and you start to wonder if there’s a more efficient way to go about it. How important are all of those miles? Do you really need to go through all of the pain of a long run before your marathon? We all lead busy lives and, let’s be real, long runs are painful. Maybe there’s a way around them. 

It is possible to train for a marathon without a long run if you are an experienced runner, if you are not racing for a personal record, or if you’ve been specifically instructed by your coach to train in a different way.

Even though they’re a hassle (and painful!), long runs are key components of many marathon training plans. So much so that many runners plan their whole weekends around them. Sounds fun, right? Let’s talk about why the long run is important and under what circumstances you can think about ditching it.

Why are Long Runs Important for Marathon Training?

No one would ever say that a runner should attempt a marathon after a “long run” of 3 miles. It’s pretty obvious that training for a maximum of 3 miles won’t help you cross the finish line after 26.2. But, how much is enough? 15? 20? 26? Training plans differ on the exact number of miles that should constitute a long run, but they generally hover in the 20-22 mile range. Deciding on that exact number, and whether you should include long runs in the first place,  has a lot to do with some physical and mental factors.

PHYSICALLY

There’s a reason why marathon training is a thing. Running 26.2 miles isn’t something that our bodies are naturally equipped to do without prior notice and prep. A huge part of this prep work has to do with developing VO2 max. Studies have shown that there’s a correlation between VO2 max and running performance, indicating that it’s something important to focus on (source). 

Basically, VO2 max measures your body’s ability to take in oxygen and deliver it to your muscles. When you’re running for a few hours straight, this becomes a very important thing. For runners, the higher your VO2 max, the better. 

So, how do you build VO2 max? By running! When you train for a marathon, you’re training your body to work more efficiently. Your metabolism will adapt; your muscles will strengthen; your VO2 max will improve (source). Physically, it’s important that you put a lot of miles on your shoes during your marathon training. Looking at marathon programs, you’ll notice that you’ll be asked to run 40+ miles a week at the peak of your training.

Alright, that’s great and all, but that doesn’t actually answer the question of how long a long run should be. If you’re asked to run 40 miles a week, why do 20 of those miles have to happen all at once? Why not spread them out? 

Firstly, you’ll burn your body out if you try to run 8 miles a day for 5 days. You’ll also fall into a monotony that leaves you prone to injury and devoid of important training components like intervals and speed training. In order to prevent injury and improve your running performance, you need a special mix of mileage and intensity spread out across your week.  In the height of your training, a week of running might look like this:

If you look at a week of training like this, you’ll see that each run has its own purpose. Intervals, tempo runs, easy runs, long runs, they all come together to make a complete training plan. But, all of these types of runs can’t accommodate the same amount of mileage. It doesn’t make sense to do 8 miles of intervals. It also would test the definition of “easy” to do 8 mile easy runs twice a week every single week. 

Just from a math perspective, you need to include the long run in order to fit in enough miles each week.

The long run serves a purpose other than math though. The long run prepares your body to withstand the fatigue and strain of running for multiple hours at a time. There’s a big difference between running for 8 miles and stopping vs. running for 20 miles without a break. These long runs are a really important chance for your body to learn how to develop the stamina it needs to complete a 26.2 race.

If you’re a new runner, at this point, you might be wondering what running a marathon actually feels like. Luckily, I have a post about just that. Learn through my pain and virtually feel a marathon for yourself.

If you don’t know how your muscles are going to feel after 20 miles of running, you might want to find out before race day. If you don’t know how your body will react to another goo at mile 18, you will DEFINITELY want to find out before race day. There’s nothing like race day pukes! 

Every race comes with physical surprises. Blisters, chafing, bodily functions, may all surprise you in a way you aren’t expecting. Oh, the joy! You might as well prepare for what you can prior to race day so that the unexpected surprises don’t knock you out of the race. Doing a long run or two will help you get familiar with what you should physically expect from the second half of the race.

MENTALLY

Mentally, there’s something special about running a marathon. Some call it insanity. Some call it euphoria. Some would say those are the same thing. No matter what you call it, it’s a state of mind that we want to prepare for. 

Believe me, you don’t want your first mental exploration into long distance running to be the day of the race. You would be setting yourself up for a special kind of hell. Even though running 20+ miles doesn’t seem like the most preferred activity for a Saturday, one of the few days you are supposed to relax and get away from awful things like work, you’ll be grateful to have this grueling experience under your belt. 

It was during my long runs that I learned how to pace myself; when I needed to switch from podcasts to music in order to boost my motivation; how often I needed to fuel to keep my grumpy legs going; the best ways to maintain my resilience and just keep freakin’ going. These aren’t things you can just imagine and hope turn out for the best on race day. You’ll be very sorry.

For me, the mental training that comes with long runs is super important. Without my long runs, I would dissolve into a puddle of tears during every race around mile 15.

Why Are Long Runs a Max of 22 Miles, Not 26.2?

Believe it or not, there’s some kind of magical adrenaline force that takes over at the end of a race, even when you feel like you’re about to die. This same magical power does not show up during boring long runs when you’re out on the street by yourself just waiting to get home to a plate of waffles. Mentally, that doesn’t cut it. 

Generally belief is that 22 miles is enough to prepare you to run 26.2. On race day, adrenaline, excitement, and insanity will push you through that final 4.2 miles. Even if you feel up for it, it’s not suggested that you complete a full 26.2 mile marathon during your training runs. There’s little benefit to it and being on your feet for that long should be reserved for race day. Think about the recovery that you need after a marathon. You don’t have time for that amount of recovery during a training plan. Best to save that 26.2 for the big day. 

When Can I Ditch the Long Run?

As you can tell, I’m not a fan of ditching the long run. I might as well have a loyalty card on the long run train. That said, you might be riding a different train. “Get me the heck out of this long run and to the starting line of this marathon as quickly as possible, please!” Alright alright, let’s talk about some ways that you can ditch the long run and still finish your marathon on race day.

1) You’re an Experienced Runner

If you’re a beginner and/or have never run a marathon before, you should NOT skip the long run. For all of the physical and mental reasons we talked about before, a long run is going to be critical for your success on race day.

Once you’ve been running for a while and have a few marathons under your belt, you’ll start to understand what your body needs from a training standpoint. You’ll start to have an intuitive sense of how to prepare for a race and can adapt your training plans to match.

When I first started training for marathons, I clung on to my training plan as though it were the steering wheel to a car that was about to fall apart at any moment. In my head, that training plan was the only thing keeping everything together. After a few races, I started to trust my body and my instincts. I was able to be flexible with my training plan and complete the runs I knew I needed to complete, no matter what the piece of paper taped to my wall said.

If you’re an experienced runner, you can toy with the idea of what your long run should be. I’m not necessarily saying that you should get rid of it, but you can have more flexibility to decide what you need and when you need it from a training standpoint. 

Just Because You’re Physically Fit Doesn’t Mean You Can Run a Marathon

There’s an important clarification here. If you’re thinking of modifying a long run, you should be an experienced runner, not just physically fit. There’s a misconception that general fitness is related to running ability. Sure, running is a bit easier when you’re fit, but running is a unique beast that can only be conquered with specific running training. I’ve heard stories of people thinking they could tackle a running race without proper training because they are regular Crossfit or HIIT warriors, only to find themselves pooping out well before the finish line.

As I learned the hard way during my first Spartan race (that I didn’t properly train for), you need to train for the sport you’re hoping to do. If you want to compete in a weight lifting competition, you should weight train; if you want to compete in a bike race; you should ride a bike a few times; if you want to compete in a running race; you should run. General fitness is, well, general. In order to be successful in any given sport, you need to train for it in a specialized way. Basically, get out and run!

2) You Aren’t Going for a PR

Ok, this one should really be bundled with the one above it. Even if you’re a beginning runner who isn’t looking for a personal record, you should probably still do a long run. That physical and mental prep is still too important. 

But, let’s say that you’re a regular runner and you’re on a vacation somewhere and find out that there’s a fun marathon happening in a few days. Heck, why pass that up?! I’m a big believer in staying well-trained. Sure, runners need off seasons to properly rest and recover, but it can be fun to have a solid base of training underneath you so that you can jump into races when they pop up. 

I’ve had a great time at races that I haven’t officially trained for. It’s awesome to be able to jump into a race and know that your training will hold you up. That said, I was never looking to get a PR at those races. Achieving a PR requires some really specific training and tapering. You need to complete your runs at very specific paces so that your body is ready to run at your desired speed on race day. This is hard to accidentally get right. So, if you find yourself wanting to do a race unexpectedly, don’t worry about running the fastest race you can; just have fun!

On the other hand, let’s say you’re planning ahead for a race, but you don’t want to stress out about training. It’s not like the race came as a surprise and you don’t have time to train, it’s just that you would rather not devote the next few months to training. You want to casually train and be able to enjoy the race at a leisurely and fun pace on race day. In that case, you may have some flexibility with your long run.

This is the approach I took when I ran the Boston marathon. I wanted to train enough to complete the race without feeling miserable, but I also wanted to do the Boston marathon for fun. It was a once in a lifetime experience that I didn’t want to turn into a stressful experience. While I did do a few long runs in my training, I didn’t freak out about them. I ran at a comfortable pace and simply made sure that I was able to happily cross the finish line. 

3) You’ve Been Instructed to Train Differently

Every runner is different. Even though science is science, biology is biology, and we know how the human body works, there are times when it’s beneficial to switch things up. Marathon training philosophy says that the long run is a crucial component of any plan.

Experience has taught us though that painting human needs and experiences with the same broad brush just doesn’t cut it. Do we need to replay that great classic, “Free to Be You and Me”?

If you’re working with a qualified trainer that doesn’t emphasize the long run, go with it. No matter the standard procedures or typical ways of going about things, you need to do what’s right for your own body and circumstances. Let’s be clear though that you should be working with a highly qualified trainer or coach when doing so. You won’t be happy to ditch your long run only to find out that you aren’t prepared. It also isn’t safe or healthy.

Make sure you have the proper guidance before undertaking any marathon training plan, whether it includes a long run or not. Here are some of my favorite marathon training books to prepare you for your next race. They DO include long runs, but they can be adapted for your needs. Run Less, Run Faster is the one I have used the most. It’s an advanced program though and designed to get you faster in a shorter amount of time. I love productivity and efficiency, so it’s right up my alley, but it might not be for everyone. The other books on this list are a bit more standard.

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