The long slow run… or is it?

I am not sure when I first heard about the long slow run (though I suspect it was from my best friend who gave up the party lifestyle that we both were involved in and started running about a year before I followed suit), but as I was always clear that my focus was going to be on longer distances – I was nearly 30 by the time I started running, so sprinting was never likely to be on the cards! – the long slow run entered my vocabulary very early on. Indeed it seems as though there isn’t an endurance runner in the world who hasn’t heard of, and more importantly completed, many long slow runs in their build-up to their races.

However since I started my coach, Nick Anderson from RunningWithUs, has introduced me to the structured long run. What do I mean by that? Well it is like my friend Dan, a former contestant on Master Chef once said; you can serve a cheese plate with some bits of cheese on it, or you can create an event at the end of the meal with individual cheese dishes created by the chef. The long run can be simply time on the feet, run at an even pace, or it can be the pinnacle of your training, simulating racing effort and training the body for the rigours of racing, rather than teaching the body to plod along for hours on end.

I read a good discussion on this subject by the coaching legend Greg McMillan in Running Times (you can read the article here) and was reminded of it by talking to some friends at RunDemCrew who are training for the 2011 Chicago marathon. These runners have been given training plans and in some cases there are questions about the sessions they are doing and why they are in their training programme. Questions that I have attempted to answer. And one of the most common questions is around the long run and how it should be approached.

When I first started out on my running journey, I viewed the long run as simply a way to ensure that I would get round the race, whatever the distance happened to be. I believed that in training it was important to ‘do the distance’ so for my first few half marathons I ran at least 11 miles a few times in training (in fact for my second half marathon I remember running the full 13.1 miles in training to ensure I was ready!), for marathons I made sure I had run at least 22 miles more than twice and for my 50 mile ultras, I ran far enough in training that I knew that the last ‘bit’ would be manageable.

However as I have read and learned more about training and had more input from Nick, I have come to recognise that there should be more to the long run than simply bashing out miles and miles and miles. There are two main aspects to this, in my opinion, which are as follows;

1) the long run is one of the best opportunities we have to analyse how our training is going, second only to tune-up races. However that analysis is only really valuable if the run has some relevance to what we are going on to do. As serious runners, we are looking to run at the limit of our ability and exploit enhanced fitness to achieve better times. This suggests to me that a very long, very slow run is not going to provide much useful feedback. However, I would also suggest that it is not really sensible to undertake extended runs at race pace because…

2) … recovery is crucial. I run 9 times per week. There is no point me going out for a 20 mile run at race pace on a Sunday and then thinking that I will be running on Monday, doing a double day with a track session on Tuesday and a hill session on Thursday and so on. The long race pace run will take too much out of me.

So I now advocate the structured long run. A favourite of mine that Nick sets me is 50/50/50 which is 50 minutes easy, 50 minutes steady and 50 minutes at race pace (the structure here is key, so 30/30/30 is equally relevant if you are not used to such a strenuous session or you are training for a half marathon for example). Another is a progressive run, where the pace starts off gently and increases throughout the run up to race pace for the final few miles. Or another version I like is a run where the middle section is at race pace – say 120 minutes with the middle 60 at race pace.

Sessions like this are tough, but they also offer a chance to check progress without the brutality of an extended period at race pace. They also remind the body of what will be required ‘on the day’ and have the effect of getting different energy systems working. So I commend them to you – the long run might seem like the staple of the marathon runner’s training diet, but it need not be a boring cheese plate… you could really make it the crowning glory of your training week.


  1. Interesting article, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m currently training for a marathon (my second) and have recently been thinking about the way I run, which I now is in no way optimal. This could be a really helpful way for me to think about those lovely Sunday runs.

    As it’s primarily the pace I’m struggling with, what does it mean when you say easy or steady pace? Is easy, say 20% slower than race-pace?

    1. First of all thanks for commenting and well done on entering your second marathon – which one are you doing? I have to say that for my first few marathons (in fact probably the first ten that I ran) I didn’t think about the long run other than in terms of spending time on the feet. I still think that in a pure base-building phase that is still valid. It is only more recently as I have tried to up my game that I have introduced structured long runs. But I would advise anyone training for a marathon to do that sooner rather than later and reap more rewards as a result.
      As for pacing, I take a slightly un-scientific approach to the zones. I define easy as ‘fully conversational’ which means I can chat the whole way (when I run on my own I have been known to recite poetry or song lyrics out loud to check that I am in that zone!) and that probably equates to 25% slower than race pace (i.e. 7.5 min/mile vs 6 min/mile race pace). I then define steady as quicker than that; so around 16-17% slower than race pace (i.e. 7 min/mile vs a 6 min/mile race pace). And race pace is race pace.
      However bear in mind that all of this is can be slightly skewed by what one uses as race pace (that is the starting point for the calculations) – is that current PB pace or the target finishing time pace? For me now I am aiming for quite small gains so the difference in pace between my PB pace and the pace I am aiming to run at is not great, but if you are looking to lop off 20 or 30 minutes in your second race, it might be worth thinking about the ‘race pace’ you are going to use.
      Good luck with the training and please keep in touch and let me know how you get on.

  2. Same struggle for me re:pace, so I like to use a pace calculator based on my current or predicted finishing time. The McMillan one is great because it gives me an indicative pace / pace bracket for speed work, steady or long runs, and I found it made me run in a more structured way and go for more meaningful sessions.

  3. Hi again. I’m running Berlin, 25 Sept. I have been doing exactly that – thinking about how far I run, rather than the quality of my runs, but I can feel that I’m reaching a point where my interest in improving (and a continuous series of questions from running friends) is leading me to think more closely about the type of runs I do. I have a hunch that I could improve quite a lot if I actually invested a little more thought in my running, and I guess in some senses I feel that I’m not helping myself to be the best I can be.

    I ran (juuust!) sub-4h last time (March 2010) and am aiming for a fairly modest improvement of 10-15 minutes. Basically, I do most of my running at around the same pace – 4.30-5.30min/km, and most of the time just under 5min/km. In order to finish in 3h45-50 I have to average somewhere between 5:20-27min/km. I have been wondering if I’m being a bit modest about how much I want to improve my time, but then again I don’t want to jinx it 🙂 I seriously struggle to slow down a lot, even on my relatively long runs. I’ve always run fast, although seriously shorter distances when playing basketball, so the transition is difficult even though I’ve been running for a few years now!

    1. RunUrb, it sounds to me as though you have most of the ingredients for success in the marathon. I totally recognise what you say about finding it difficult to slow down. The only thing I would say is that I have had to learn to go slow when it is called for. There are two reasons for this;
      1) a slow run will not add significantly to the pressure your body is already under from training and indeed slow (recovery) runs will aid recovery if they are done at the right speed and;
      2) it is important to create a wide differential between slow runs and fast or speed work. It is easy to slip into running slow runs at 7’30min/mile.
      I now run my slow runs really slowly and my fast runs as fast as possible, which seems to be reaping rewards.
      Keep up the good training and please let me know how you get on.

      1. Since everyone keeps telling me the same thing, I’m going to see if I… can… slow… down… and perhaps speed up a bit when doing the shorter runs.

        I’d be interested to know what the physiological reasons are for saying “it is important to create a wide differential between slow runs and fast”?

  4. An interesting article Simon, thanks.

    I ran my first marathon earlier his year, and used the long runs “just to get the miles” in to my legs because that what’s everyone told me to do.

    I have a couple of autumn half marathons coming up, and don’t want to simply run a slow, long run each week to get the miles in. What I actually want to do this autumn is aim for pb’s. With that in mind I’ll definitely give the 30/30/30, and the other runs you mention, a go.

    I’ll let you know how I get on.

    1. Martin,
      You have reached the same point in your training as me then – I know that I can ‘cover the distance’ whatever that is, so now I need to make sure that the long run has the maximum positive effect which the ‘engineered’ long runs will do. I wish you all the best for the training. Which races are you doing by the way? I’m racing Bristol half and Amsterdam half all being well.

      1. My two autumn half marathons are the Great North Run, and Worksop. I’m hoping to go close to 1.35 in one or both.

        My times for the GNR are 2.07 in 2009, then 1.54 last year. Earlier this year I had a 1.36HM split during a 20 mile race, so I know I can go close.

        We’ll see – at the end of the day I do it for fun. Ok, and to improve my times!

        God luck in Bristol and Amsterdam.

        1. Martin, just a quick note to say that I hope training has gone well for the GNR. Please come back to me and let me know how you get on. I ran the GNR as my first ever proper race and I loved it. I hope I’ll get to go back soon. Anyway, best of luck.


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