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Rethinking the 20 mile marathon training run

20_mile_mark At the heart of marathon training for the past several decades has been the 20-mile run. Regarded as the must-run distance before showing up on marathon day, completing the 20 miler has become the cardinal rule to “get in.”

I’ve experimented with lots of 20-mile combos in preparing for different marathons.   I’ve “got in” 1 x, and 2 x, and 3 x 20 miles under different training schedules.  For several years I dinked around obsessively with the 20-miler, believing it held the secret formula of marathon training.  I believed magically that if I uncovered the mysterious combination of 20 mile runs, at the right pace and spaced perfectly apart, then I’d have discovered gold.

I believed that “mastering” 20 miles, especially multiple times in training, was my Get-Out-Of-Hitting-The-Wall Card.   On one occasion, I was maniacal about “getting in” a 20 miler when it wasn’t going to be possible on a weekend.  Well, let’s just say I woke up early enough to run 20 miles, stretch, shower, dress, eat, and be in my downtown office by 8:00 a.m.  That’s a long run obsession I’m not proud of.

20_mile_4 Marathon training schedules published by Jack Daniel’s, known as “The World’s Greatest Running Coach,” call for a maximum long run of 2:45 minutes of running, regardless of whether you’re running to “complete” or “compete.”

Keith and Kevin Hanson, gurus of the Hanson-Brooks Distance Project, passionately rail against the 20 miler, calling it idol worship to a sacred cow for way too long with no relevant reason.  As coaches of elites—including ’08 Marathon Olympian Brian Sell—and ordinary runners, the longest run they allow is 16 miles.  It’s all explained in Marathoning the Hansons’ Way: Smashing the Myth of the Twenty Miler.

Why 20 miles?  An abundance of reasons.  Hal Higdon’s training programs, which successfully guide thousands of marathoners to the finish line, always include one or more 20 mile runs.  It’s a round number.  It’s not Mt. Everest, but it’s an impressive figure to casually throw around that you ran 20 miles on a morning before most folks have their Starbucks.  Also, running the 20 miler feels like it might be a predictor of success on race day, since after all, only 6.2 miles remain untested.

Three years ago I stopped drinking from the 20-mile Kool Aid.  In looking back at my best finish times as well as how I felt during the later miles, they all came with long runs of 17–18 milers.  Many years ago, I ran my marathon PR on a steady diet of medium-long runs ranging from 10–14 miles and only one 18-mile long run just to feel what it was like. 

A 20 mile run is an accomplishment, and I’m not knocking it for others. I don't shrink from running a 20 miler because it's longer or harder,  I'd walk across hot coals to shave a few minutes off my finish time.  But I’ve marathoned best when I back down from 20 miles for my long runs, avoid the body breakdown it delivers, and instead focus on tempo, pace, and recovery runs. 

Rethinking the 20 miler works for me.

"Marathon Mania" is the topic for tomorrow's Take It And Run Thursday.  Even if you're not a marathoner, you can contribute.  Ask your questions, share some second-hand advice.  For marathoners, we all need every shred of help we can find, so trot out your best marathon stuff.

20 Mile Mark on Flickr by jrdv0404

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Comments

Amy

Dang you Tom! Just when I thought maybe I talked myself out of doing a marathon you throw this out there and make it seem possible again.

jessica

Could you perhaps post a sample training schedule for a NON-20 miler training routine? I'm curious as to the pattern of long / short runs and when you ramp up to your highest run.

One of the things that held me back from signing up for the marathon this year was not wanting to do a full training program, but also not feeling like I"m in good enough shape to skimp. I'm curious about these theories.

Joe Thorn

Tom, this is a very helpful post. I'm glad I'm reading on this end of of a marathon (having not run one, and don't plan on training for one until 09).

Viv

I think it would take me all day to run 20 miles. Seriously!

I forsee another marathon in Amy's future :-)

Rob

Tom, thanks for this post. I am training for my first marathon right now. I have found that when I got over 18 miles I was nagged by little injuries for the next week. If I decide to do a marathon again after the one on the 18th, I will try it with your advice in mind. Thanks for this pearl.

Jason

I love the 20 mile runs.

In my training, it allows me to run from one city to another in my community. It's sooooooo cool when people ask where I am running to tell them that I ran from Fairmont, WV to Morgantown, WV. Their eyes pop :)

Kent A

The Hanson method as I understand has you running (beating up) multiple digits consistently throughout the week. 3 runs of over ten miles in a week may equal the potential of a single 20 mile run to damage or overtrain the body. Not claiming to be a marathon expert by any regards, I personally have ran my worst times the further I have been away from the final distance in my training runs. Given my work week busy-ness, I don't believe that adding another 2-3 hours training midweek to avoid 1 hour training on the weekend would be advisable. I can see where it might make you a better runner, but I don't necessarily think it makes it any easier or less injury prone.

Topher

How funny you'd post about this. I was just talking (emailing back and forth) to Amy yesterday about long runs in marathon training. Interesting take on the 20 mile thing. I'm looking forward to learning much more tomorrow from everyone.

Blaine Moore

The long run is only one component of your training schedule, and you can certainly have a successful marathon without running over say 16 miles, especially if you have a good mix of tempo, pace and recovery runs.

However, for beginners especially, I recommend working up to 19 to 21 miles 3 or 4 weeks before the marathon through a steady progression. Being 3 or 4 weeks out, you have time to recover. Running at an "easy" pace will give you the time on your feet that your marathon is going to take, which will help you physiologically adapt to that level of stress and will psychologically prepare you for that kind of distance. I also don't think that a inexperienced marathoner (who may or may not be a "beginning" runner) will necessarily benefit from a highly structured schedule that includes tempo or pace work or intervals, especially if they don't yet know how to properly pace themselves. It can be really easy to injure yourself with speed work, and it's safer to experiment with that sort of thing for shorter races.

Plus, long runs let you practice for your marathon and try different fueling strategies, clothing, etc and to get meaningful experience for your body.

Personally, I like my long runs and think that it is probably the most important workout of the week (and the most enjoyable most weeks.) So even though I am experienced and keep a high level of fitness, I still try to work at least 1 or 2 runs of 20 to 22 miles in before my marathons.

The two marathons where I only worked up to 13-14 miles for my long run both hurt. I like to finish my marathon and feel like I could have kept going, and not have trouble walking around in the days following the marathon (DOMS: delayed onset muscle soreness.) That means preparing my body for long periods of time on my feet.

CoffeeBetsy

Getting up to 20 made me a lot more confident that I'd finish my first marathon. Still, interesting food for thought, Tom.

Tom

I really appreciate the different perspectives on this topic. Blaine makes an excellent point about enjoying the long runs, because they are a important, great time alone, and a major building block in marathon training, and as he says, LRs are a great dress rehearsal for marathon day.

Betsy, your insight might be the most profound, as the LR really boosts our confidence, whether less or greater than 20 miles.

Thanks.

Nat

I didn't find the 20 that bad but I needed to take it SLOW. ANd really nothing prepares you for the last 10K...

I like this post. So when do you run the 18? And do you taper?

merrymishaps

My first (and only) marathon was a year ago. I trained using the Galloway metnod with a bunch of friends, all first-timers. We were a bit paranoid about the distance, and actually trained to 24 miles.

A bit much, probably. But we were not worried at all about finishing!

If I decide to run another, maybe I'll try your strategy instead. Much less time consuming!

Viper

Thanks for opening my eyes to a different philosophy. I'm in the middle of planning my training for my second marathon in September.

I've been a fan of FIRST's principle of three days a week. Can these two philosophies co-exist?

Me thinks it may be worth some investigation.

Database Diva

The most important thing to remember is that there isn't one single strategy that will be ideal for all of us. Some will definitely benefit from the 20 mile run, while others may do better without it. The trick is finding out what works for you. Chances are you are going to train for a few marathons before you figure it out. I have friends who trained up to the marathon, and now they run one every weekend, or every other weekend, or in some cases two in a weekend. I personally got a lot of confidence out of my first 18 mile run. From the 20 mile run I got a groin pull. Other 20 mile runs have resulted in other injuries. The Non-Runners Marathon Trainer also recommends 18 miles as the maximum distance for first timers.

Beth Kennedy

Tom,
Thank you so much for your post. I'm training for my first marathon and haven't been able to get in a 20 miler yet, I was wondering if I had to throw in the towel or keep striving for the 20 miler as the marathon is 3 weeks away now. I have been able to get in two 18 milers. You have given me hope that I can still make it.

vinnie

I just finished a 20 miler this morning, my third for this marathon, the event is 3 weeks away......my last 2 marathons the longest run i did was 18 but this year i am trying to qualify for boston so we will see how it goes

Mike

I wish I had read this months ago. In preparing for my first marathon, I ran 22 a month ago and 20 a few weeks ago. Both times I ended up feeling lethargic for over a week, and in the second run I injured my Achilles. I could have gone another six miles in that run, but now with the injury I might not make the race in a week and a half. Next time? I'll do it differently.

Dan

I enjoyed this post, mainly because I believe we should always question assumptions and try other ways of doing things, and the "20 miler" has always had a misleading ring (contrast it to a "19 miler," which has none of its cache, though there's only a minor difference between them.)

THAT SAID THOUGH, it's quite possible that all the 20 milers and marathons you ran before taught your body and mind distance so that you can now get by with shorter runs during your marathon trainings.

Training advice is relative to each runner doing the training--there is no absolute rule.

I actually think anyone training for a FIRST marathon should ideally work up to MORE than a 20 run. For me, it took away so much anxiety to run a mock marathon 6 weeks before the real one, as well as letting me know what I would be in for in the real race.

I think the OVER-20 mystique is also a myth we need to question. I mean, if we don't destroy ourselves and take serious risk of injury running 26.2 as fast as we can, why should it hurt us to run the same in a training, with plenty of time to recover before the race? The fear of over-20 in training for people willing to run 26.2 in a race is also irrational.

Nike Free Running

Such a good writing, or by I saw for the first time. I'm quite happy, you are a good writer

la rattaty

fhank you! i was only able to run 18 miles and doubting my first marathon in 2 weeks however after reading your post and comments i now have the confidence i can finish my first marathon thanks!!!

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