How Will I Make It Through A Marathon If I Only Run 20 Miles In Training?

Q: I’m training for my first marathon and struggling mentally and physically to get through the long runs. My main concern is that I’m only running 20 miles. How will I make it through 26.2 miles if I only train up to 20 miles in training?

A: Although there are mental benefits to tackling the marathon distance during training, the risks definitely outweigh the benefits. The longer you run beyond 20 miles, the higher the risk for developing injuries, burning out and peaking too soon. Plus, running up to the 20-mile distance is enough to build the endurance to get through the marathon, but not too much to risk fatigue, exhaustion and inadequate recovery. A balanced marathon training program approach avoids putting all your eggs into one basket, allowing you to recover enough to run other key marathon training workouts like speed, hills and fartleks.

If you are struggling to get through your long runs you may be training at too fast of a pace. This is a very common mistake among newbie marathoners. It can cause mental fog during the later stages of your endurance training runs. The key is to slow your effort to a pace where you can talk and hold a conversation. This will allow your body to build fat-burning enzymes, add time on your feet and promote efficient recovery. This is especially important for first-time marathoners who are learning to run longer distances. Every long run is a personal-distance record and one that places stress on the body. The faster you train during your long runs, the longer it can take to recover. In essence, if you are running fast during these runs, you are racing every week, which can decrease your performance over time. Aim to finish every long run feeling as if you could run a little farther.

Mentally speaking, it can be daunting to run 20-plus miles and the marathon distance. The secret is to break the distance into smaller, more digestible pieces. You can do this with time, distance or landmarks on the path. Once you do, your mind only has to think about the next mini-goal. It is an effective way to ease your mind and develop a solid mental strategy for race day.

Also, it is helpful to include a few negative-split runs (one per week) during the final six weeks of training. That is, cut the the distance or time of the run in half and run the first half slightly slower (10-15 seconds per mile) than the second half. A negative-split pacing strategy will decrease the risk of going out too fast. It will also ensure a good-looking finish line photo!

You’ll be amazed at how much better you feel before, during and after your long runs once you’re at the right pace. The body and mind adapt wonderfully to the demands of endurance running if you are following a balanced marathon training program and using all your gears (effort levels). Come marathon day, you’ll have a solid base of endurance under your belt and a sound mental strategy to go the distance. Good luck!