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How fast should you run a long run?

We had a nice crowd on the aqueduct for our morning run: Neil, Karl, Christian (Neil’s friend), Jeff, Dave, Lauren, Clay and I

We all got ready and headed west for a long run of 10 miles. Almost immediately I dropped back a little and Clay joined me. I was feeling okay but I did not want to push the pace on the way out. As the splits from my garmin came in I found that the pace was just right – 8:22, 8:30, 8:29, 8:25, 8:26, 8:20, 8:33, 8:31, 8:32, 8:35, 8:30. Still, as Dave and Lauren and the others pulled away I really had to fight the urge to chase. Clay made me hold back even a little more on the way back.

I have been noticing that many runners are not running their long runs at the correct pace. The general rule of thumb is that long runs should be run 30s to 90s slower than your marathon pace. In my case, my best marathon was 3:19:30 which works out to 7:37 per mile. So, I should run my long runs between 8:07 and 9:07 per mile. Actually, since I am in a rebuild phase and I am not in the running shape I was when I ran Boston, I could / should go even slower.

So how would you know how fast to run if you had not had a successful marathon recently? One great way is to use any recent race time with Greg McMillan’s calculator – click here.  Let’s look at an example: Neil Small recently ran the Santa Clarita Half Marathon in 1:15:49. Plugging this time into the calculator shows an equivelent marathon time of 2:39:54 or 6:07 per mile. The calculator says that Neil should run long runs at 6:37 to 7:07 per mile (notice that at this speedy pace the window is only 30s wide).

I am not sure what his pace was today. By the time we were done we had split into four groups: Neil and Christian were the fastest, then Karl and Jeff. David and Lauren ran faster than Clay and I, but they turned around at 4.5 miles. David went out and ran 1 more at the end to make it ten.

After seeing how the group split up today and thinking about everyone’s racing ability I got curious. For each of us who ran today (sans Christian) plus Jen (who will join me tomorrow) I plugged a recent best race time into mcmillan’s calculator. Here is what I came up with:

Race Time Long Run Pace
Dale Boston Marathon 2010 3:19:30 8:07 – 9:07
Dale Mardi Gras 5K 2011 19:52 7:54 – 8:54
Clay Mardi Gras 5K 2011 19:50 7:53 – 8:53
Dave CIM 2011 3:28:07 8:27 – 9:27
Lauren Long Beach Half 2011 1:39:56 8:33 – 9:33
Neil Santa Clarita Half 2011 1:15:49 6:37 – 7:07
Karl CIM 2009 2:57:30 7:17 – 8:17
Jeff Bakersfield Half 2011 1:32:37 7:58 – 8:58
Jen Toys 4 Tots 5K 20:53 8:17 – 9:17

There are some interesting things here. I tried to choose the most recent half or full marathon results as these would be the best predictors of a marathon pace and running long runs is training most specific for half and full marathons. Clay and Karl did not have a 2010 or 2011 result I could think of so I used Karl’s CIM from 2009. I used Clay’s 5k where he paced me to my PR back in March. Of course his 5K (and mine) call for much faster marathon paces and long run paces than we are currently ready for. Jeff’s half marathon time is almost a year old and I think he is faster now.

Looking at the table, today’s run made sense for 6 of us. Neil and Christian were fastest – then Karl and Jeff. Clay and I were right on pace. Lauren and Dave’s prescribed pace at the faster end is right about what Clay and I ran today – 8:27. So, they ran faster than they needed to. Now, it is okay to run a little faster IF you are really in shape to do so or if your long run has another purpose. As I train for marathons, I like to mix in some fast finish long runs. I got these from McMillan as well – here is the article.  On these runs I start at typical long run pace and then speed up to actual marathon goal pace.

So, you might be wondering, how does a long run that is 1 minute per mile slower than marathon pace and maxes out 6 miles shorter than a marathon prepare you to run a marathon?  Or, even if you do the fast finish runs just mentioned, you still end up slower and shorter than a marathon. How do these runs prepare you?  The answer is that these long runs are done at the end of a full week of training with lots of other runs. The week has included speed work and some work at marathon pace or maybe a tempo run. Perhaps the week included some work on hills. The week also hopefully included a couple of workouts designed for core strength. When training for a marathon I like to make sure that my weekend has back to back runs that total more than 26, perhaps totaling 30 miles in two daya. So, when you begin the long run, your body is already stressed from all these other runs and workouts. In an article about the Hansen’s training for the marathon, they described the weekly long run like it was the last miles of a marathon – not the first.

In contrast, when you actually race the marathon, you are tapered, you are recovered, you have had an easy week leading up to the race. You stand at the starting line refreshed, strong and ready to go. It is a wonderful thing when this all actually works. At Surf City 2009, CIM 2009 and Boston 2010 I ran my fastest miles after mile 20. I had great fun passing the other people whose speed had left them. There is nothing quite like running those last miles fast. There is nothing quite like the feeling of finishing a marathon spent, but strong!

3 replies »

  1. Very well researched and written. Running long with others of different abilities and condition can be difficult. If you did not have Clay to run with, would you have held back and ran alone?

    PS…..I was one of those runners that you had great fun passing at CIM.

  2. Dale
    Thanks for the post here. A few comments: I think the term “long run” is sometimes hard to define. Does it just mean your longest run of the week? Does it mean any run over an hour or an hour and a half? It is different for everyone and different depending on your current training stage. For me this weekend 10 miles was my longest run of the week but it was also my only run for the week so I pushed the pace coming back a little bit knowing that I would take it easy the next day. My current “easy long run” pace is not the same as it was before CIM 2009 as you and I were both in great shape. Just because it is a “long run” doesn’t mean that you can’t have faster portions during the run. As long as you are moving it means you are getting the aerobic benefit. McMillan’s paces suggest an optimal pace range for aerobic benefit with little to no stress to the aerobic threshold or lactate systems. This is were the goal of the workout becomes very important. If the goal is just to go a little farther than you have recently then these paces hold true. Could you have gone faster this weekend? Probably, but it is never a good idea to add distance and speed in the same workout when you are not used to either. There is a limit to how fast you can run a long run before it becomes a tempo run but for a lot of people their long run pace is also their marathon pace and they are just trying to complete the distance. You certainly couldn’t run half marathon pace for a 16 mile long run as you would be setting half PRs enroute, but you could run the second half of a 16 mile run at half marathon pace and that would be a really tough workout. Would it still be a “long run?” 16 miles is still a long way. The coolest thing about your chart is that almost all of us over lap with our optimal long run paces and can find a common pace around 8:00 to 8:15 where we can get a good workout and enjoy each others company. I think the most important thing about an optimal “long run” pace is that it is conversational. You should be able to recite each line of the Pledge of Allegiance inbetween each breathe while running. It was a great day to run on Sat. I’m looking forward to our next group run.

    PS That was a disorganized jumble of thoughts here, sorry.

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December 2011


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