If you’re chasing a goal of a new personal best at a marathon and half-marathon, long runs are the quintessential workout in your training plan. But if you’re ready to push yourself to the next level, simply running long, slow distances week after week may not be the best option. To perform your best on race day, it’s essential to shake things up during your long runs and include some variety and race-specific workouts.
When you first dive into the world of endurance running, simply completing the mileage week after week can be difficult. Long runs often pose a daunting challenge to an inexperienced runner. But as you continue to run regularly and gain fitness, your body adapts to the demands you place on it. Weekly long runs eventually start to get a little easier.
Many first-time marathon and half-marathon runners have the goal of completing the race distance. But if the racing bug bites you after that first race, you may find yourself eager to improve your time.
New runners are not the only ones who can improve when they switch up their long-run routines. Seasoned racers will also benefit. Even if you’ve logged thousands of miles and completed several marathons, changing your approach to long runs may give you the boost needed to finally earn that personal record.
Stagnant race times are often a result of following the same routine, season after season and year after year. Whether you’re a new runner or veteran, these long-run workouts can add variety as you plan your season and prepare for another PR.
What Are the Benefits of Varied Long Runs?
Why vary your long runs? The short answer is that this increases your body’s ability to adapt to new stimuli. Adaptation is the key to improvement. If you ask your body to do the same long run week after week, you will become efficient at running long, slow distances.
But if you ask your body to do something new on race day — running faster, longer and with a great deal of leg fatigue late in the race — you may not be up to the challenge. The key is to practice these scenarios during your long runs so that your legs know exactly how to respond when you start to dig deep at mile 20 of your marathon.
Adding a variety of workouts within your long runs will help you feel less stale, improve your endurance, increase your efficiency and help you become a stronger runner when you’re already fatigued.
Long-run workouts can be broadly categorized in two ways: variations that work on general speed and endurance, and race-specific training. Both types of workouts can be used throughout your training plan, but it’s best to use the race-specific workouts closer to race day, after you have built your general fitness.
If you’re using a 16-week plan, for example, you could start incorporating race-specific long runs after the eighth week. If you’re following a 20-week program, you may start running more race-specific long runs after week 10 or 12.
Long Runs That Increase Speed and Endurance
Adding variety to your long runs does not mean suffering through workouts that are tedious and complex. Variations that will help improve your overall speed and endurance can be as simple as adding some faster-paced fartlek intervals during the run or finishing with a simple progression from your easy pace to your marathon goal pace.
Fartlek or “surge” workouts in particular shouldn’t be overly taxing. They add some changes in pace to your long run that will help improve turnover and efficiency, and they can add some “pop” to your legs. Because they are typically performed in the later miles of your long run, they can also prepare you to surge later in a race when you’re fatigued.
As with any new workout, start easy, and don’t overdo it the first time out. It’s much better to err on the side of caution, prioritize injury prevention and live to run another day.
If your long runs have always been at an easy pace, start with the simplest workouts. If it feels too easy, you can always add more repetitions as you progress through these variations.
- Beginner: Run the first two-thirds of your long run at an easy, conversational pace. Then add 5 repetitions of 30 seconds of faster running (around 10K pace) with 2 minutes of easy running in between. Finish up with a couple more easy miles.
- Intermediate: Follow the same plan as above, but work up to 8–10 reps of 45–60 seconds at 10K pace with 2 minutes of easy running in between. You can also use longer reps of 2–3 minutes.
- Advanced: Use the intermediate workout described above, but run your “easy” minutes at marathon pace instead.
In addition to the “surge” workouts described above, progression runs are another simple way to add variety to your long run and teach yourself to run faster when you’re already fatigued. Progression runs are simple in theory — you gradually increase your pace over the last several miles of your long run — but they can be deceptively difficult. As always, start easy and don’t try too much, too soon.
- Beginner: Run the first three-quarters of your long run at an easy, conversational pace, then finish with a progression to just below marathon goal pace.
- Intermediate: Begin your long run with easy miles as described above, but start your progression at goal marathon pace and work your way down to 10K pace for the final mile.
- Advanced: While you don’t need to run any faster than 10K pace at the end of your progression, you can make the intermediate workout more difficult by running the progression over a greater number of miles. Run easy for the first half to two-thirds of your long run, and make the final miles a progression to 10K pace.
Race-Specific Long Runs
While the workouts described above are a great way to improve your fitness, other long-run variations are intended to be more race-specific. While they are typically oriented toward marathon runners, these workouts can just as easily be applied if you’re racing a half-marathon.
Race-specific workouts are intended to introduce your body to running an increasing volume of mileage at your goal marathon (or half-marathon) pace. This is beneficial both physically and psychologically. Running portions of your long runs at marathon goal pace allows you to become more comfortable and efficient at that speed, and it also gives you a confidence boost heading into the race.
- Beginner: Add 2–4 miles at goal marathon pace during the final third of your long run.
- Intermediate: Continue to increase the number of miles you run at goal marathon pace during the long run. Always start with several easy-paced miles before progressing to marathon pace. Intermediate runners can run the final 4–6 miles at goal pace.
- Advanced: For a marathon pace progression, run the following workout after 3 miles at your easy pace:
- 4 miles at marathon pace plus 15–20 seconds
- 4 miles at marathon goal pace
- 4 miles at marathon goal pace minus 15–20 seconds
- Finish with 3–5 easy miles
This is challenging! Workouts that require as much effort as this one should only be performed near the peak of your training, prior to your prerace taper.
Whether you have an important race on your schedule or you’re running to maintain fitness, adding some variety to your long runs will undoubtedly be beneficial. But remember not to push yourself too hard, too fast. If you already have two faster workouts on your schedule (a tempo run or track session, for example), this should replace one of them. Save the hardest sessions for when you’re at your peak fitness, about a month out from your goal race.
Most importantly, have fun playing with some of the options described here. These workouts can make your long runs feel like less of a slow slog. The speed and strength you gain may mean a shiny new PR is right around the corner.