The long, hard run: a double-edged sword

November 4, 2007

The essence of the training principle of specificity is that one’s training should simulate one’s target races. When I’m preparing for an ultramarathon, long runs at race pace are my top priority, since they are reasonable approximations of the race itself; tempo runs of 4 to 6 miles are a secondary priority, since they’re much shorter and faster than the race; and interval workouts are a relatively low priority, since those involve running even shorter distances at even faster paces.

I think this general approach makes a lot of sense, but there’s a catch: the way I rank these workouts in terms of their presumed importance is also the way I rank them in terms of the amount of damage they do to my body and the length of time needed to recover from them. After a long and fast run, it might be a full week before I feel normal again.

Thus, as a race approaches, I invariably find myself choosing between (A) squeezing in one final long/hard effort and (B) skipping the long one in order to start the race with fresh legs.

Up to now I’ve tended to favor the former strategy, but it doesn’t seem to be working for me. In two of my last four ultras — the Miwok 100K and the World Cup 100K — I’ve sensed a bit of muscle fatigue as early as 8-9 miles into the race and had to slow down to keep further fatigue at bay. In the other two — Mad City and Western States — my quads simply shut down long before the finish line.

Time to try something new? I think so. In my final 4-5 weeks before the JFK 50-miler (on November 17th), I’m not doing any runs longer than 21 miles. My training is on a three-day cycle: a speed workout or short tempo run followed by two easy days.

It’s the kind of nonspecific regimen that my brain disapproves of, but maybe my legs will like it.


  1. I've seen comments on the ultra list recommending that somewhere around your 21 miles is the threshold of causing muscle damage – or something like that. I recall talking to Karl Meltzer about James Bonnett-Castillo when the latter was 14 or 15 years old. James told me that a long run for him was 3 hours. Karl said that was true for him too. Let us know how the 3 day cycle works out at JFK.

  2. Greg,How does this violate the principle of specificity? You will still simulate your race in training, but now you'll incorporate a longer taper period. Just because you're not doing a hard race-like effort within the last 4-5 weeks before the race doesn't imply that you are violating any principles, assuming you are doing some of those training runs more than 4-5 weeks out. I presume you wouldn't typically run a hard race 4-5 weeks before a major goal effort, so why would you run a race-like training effort that close?FWIW, I think you can still do some long runs in those last 4-5 weeks without serious muscle damage, just probably not at race pace.-Jasper

  3. Jasper:You make some good points. I guess I'm just feeling underprepared because, with ten weeks between my last race and this one, I only logged a couple of long and hard efforts, one of which went very badly. Perhaps I should be doing more "semi-specific" training, such as slower-paced long runs (as you suggested) or longer, slower tempo runs.

  4. I agree! I too have found the 3 day cycle great now that I don't recover as well as I used too. The two easy days works well. I also agree that you probably have come in to races with lingering quad muscle cell damage from the hard efforts you have done. I think the long runs are important for one main purpose….getting your bodies ability to mobilize and process fat for fuel up to optimum levels (hormone sensitive lipo-lipase-c??) So race pace is not necessary…. just being out and moving for 3-6 hours in a relm beyond glycogen depletion.Doing race pace work although extremely important, I think would best be done at a distance of 15-25 miles. especially when you are talking 50k-100k race pace. 100 mile race pace is vastly different.Some guys like Jim Garcia and Dave Dunham seemed to run high mileage with no long runs over 20-26. But, they raced short 5k-10mile races often and kept their great leg speed. Having the speed is the key to success IMHO.I wish you luck at JFK and in 2008 when I bet you really figure this all out.

  5. Greg – I agree with Jasper also and think you are probably better prepared than you think, just based on the number of hard efforts (many of them races) you've done this past year.For me, I think a long run that is also hard just isn't worth the extra risk of injury/fatigue. I think you get most of the benefits of the long run simply by being out there for x amount of time, and prefer to save the harder efforts for the actual hard days (flat tempo run/hill tempo run in my case).My situation is further complicated by altitude; it is almost impossible to do a long run at anything resembling quality pace up here so it is an easy decision to save those efforts for the shorter days.Finally, there is the mental aspect; running long and hard is just tough and I like to save those concentrated efforts for races.Good luck at JFK! The start is crazy; you are in a big auditorium with the RD giving the pre race talk and people asking questions, then suddenly they say it is 5 minutes till the start, which turns out to be about a 6 minute jog away from the auditorium! I was stripping off clothes as I ran to the starting line and only made it part way through the crowded field before the gun went off.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: