The long run: Slow and steady?

After our seven mile run on a recent Saturday a buddy and I got into a discussion about pacing for long training runs.

The coaches for our marathon training group recommend going about a steady 30 seconds slower than goal pace on those runs.

My buddy questioned why we do it. Wouldn’t it make more sense to try to keep up race pace during long runs?

The standard reasoning in group and online is this: The long run’s purpose is to condition muscles, lungs, and heart while the slower pace decreases the likelihood of injury while doing it.

My friend still doesn’t buy it. He likes to start slow on a long run, then pick it up, and gas it at the end. A quick search on the subject reveals he is not alone.

English: Khalid Khannouchi in 2007 New York Ci...

English: Khalid Khannouchi in 2007 New York City Marathon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

World class runners like Khalid Khannouchi, who ran Chicago in two hours and six seconds,  reportedly starts a few miles slow in practice, but runs a bulk of his long runs at about goal pace, and guns it at the end, according at Amby Burfoot of Runner’s World.

Another proponent of the push yourself in long runs approach is Greg McMillan.

McMillan is a long time coach whose name comes up in most Internet searches about long distance running. He advocates starting out slow and building up to a marathon pace for the last hour of a 20-plus miles long run. He does build in alternating weekends of slow long runs, but McMillan’s main philosophy reflects the idea of, why would you not practice running marathon pace in practice?

And in between the easy paced run and the marathon-paced practice approach there is a variety of other suggestions, such as modulating speeds within a distance run to push the lactic threshold by fast short distances, near race-pace distances and then slow recovery jogs all within the same workout (that level where muscle fatigue causes a runner to stop).

Much like any other debate there really doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut approach to the long practice run. The only true gauge seems to be personal taste and results.

After my first marathon, where I went all out during the end of each run, ending up with two stress fractures in each tibia, I took the coaches advice and stuck with the below marathon pace approach to the long run in my second and third training schedules. The result has been no serious injury, but even with two broken legs I still had my best run during that first marathon.

My friend on the other hand, with a much stronger fitness base I might add, increased his time by a fairly decent amount between his first and second marathons, and to this day runs faster than me on long runs.

So, what does this all mean? Well, I don’t think it means two lay persons and a survey of opinions online will answer anything. Sometimes the only satisfying answers are found through risk and experimentation.

We’ll see what my long runs look like come April.

In the meantime, what is your approach to the long run – slow and steady, or let’s go?


3 thoughts on “The long run: Slow and steady?

    • It seems like a smart approach, especially if you have the base for it. I figure if I am going for a PR this spring, I might be throwing the 30 second slower long run out the window. How many marathons have you participated in?

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