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The Benefits of Splitting Up Your Long Run

Can I run my long run in two segments?

Coach Jenny, I’m training for my fourth marathon, a few half marathons this year. I’ve read about breaking up the long run into two segments in one day and wonder if that would work for me. I’m the mother of three, work, and like all parents, I’m challenged with getting all my training in during a very hectic weekend. What are your thoughts? Thank you. ~Kara

There are many ways to train for long-distance running, but the key is to develop a plan that flows with your lifestyle. For you, that means planning around a busy family and work schedule. For others, it may mean planning around travel, school, work and more. The great news is there is plenty of flexibility in marathon training and it can be quite fun to tailor a custom plan to you, yourself and your family. 

The idea of breaking up a longer run into two segments over one or two days isn’t a new one. Ultrarunners (those that run races longer than a marathon), commonly use this strategy with back-to-back long runs to simulate running on tired legs and accumulate long run mileage over a longer period of time to allow for less stress to the body. 

Breaking your long run into two shorter runs done on the same day can be instrumental for you in allowing you to get in your training mileage, but it can also aid in running with better form throughout the distance. We all have a breaking point at which our running form and fitness begins to decline. For instance, if you’re fit to run 6-8 miles right now, and went out to run 16 miles, your form would likely begin to wane due to fatigue around 9-10 miles. 

Our mind likes to push through and make good on the goal to run 16 miles, however, just because we can do something, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to do so. Pushing through while fatigued can create poor running form, which over time, can create aches and pains as secondary muscles take over to compensate and keep us moving.

This is an exaggeration of course, but when we push longer miles we are always at the edge of our fatigue threshold where our form begins to break down. When you break your long run into two segments in a day, you have a recovery period that allows you to start up again with somewhat fresh form to finish the last 30-40% of the long run. Which brings me to my next point in when you break up your run, do so by running 60%(ish) in the morning, and the rest (40%-ish) in the afternoon or evening. 

For the purpose of your marathon training plan, you could go with a few fun options. Fun, because anything that fits you like a glove becomes less resistant and flows easily with life and you end up smiling a lot more and complaining a lot less.  

First things first, your mid-week miles, or anything that isn’t related to your long runs can be optimized to two runs.  Since you are a seasoned marathoner, you can plug in quality runs like intervals, tempo, hills on two days per week and get in the quality rather than focusing on 3-4 runs during a busy week. Make the most of these days by pushing a little harder in intensity. 

If you have more time for workouts during the week add cross-training (cycling, swimming, elliptical, class at gym) and strength training (yoga, pilates, DVD or class, weight, bodywork). If you don’t have time for more workouts, incorporate a short 15-minute strength and flexibility routine after your two core runs during the week.  This will go a long way in keeping you healthy and balanced as you train.

Now, for your long runs, I’d suggest planning a buffet of options within your season as it will optimize your time, your preparation and give you the flexibility you’ll need to coordinate with your calendar.

Think of it as a rotational progression in long run mileage, where you run one longer run all at once, one broken into two segments in one day, and one cutback long run at a varied pace.  Sound fun? I think so too because every week is a new adventure and more importantly, trains the body in a multi-strategic fashion. 

Here is how a typical 20-week Marathon Training Plan could be created for a busy person’ schedule:

[Please note:  this particular mileage progression is geared to a seasoned marathoner who has covered the distance and who is currently running 6-8 miles of their long run. It can also be modified for newbies, less mileage and advanced runners as well.]

Week 1:   9 miles

Week 2:  10 miles (6 miles am – 4 miles pm)

Week 3:   Cutback Race Simulation – 6 miles (3m easy effort, 2m moderate effort, 1m hard)

Week 4:  11 miles

Week 5:  12 miles (7 miles am – 5 miles pm)

Week 6:  Cutback Race Sim. – 7 miles (4m easy effort, 2m moderate effort, 1m hard)

Week 7:  13 miles

Week 8:  14 miles  (8 miles am – 4 miles pm)

Week 9:  Cutback Race Sim. – 7 miles (3m easy effort, 3m moderate effort, 1m hard)

Week 10:  15 miles

Week 11:  16 miles  (10 miles am – 6 miles pm)

Week 12:  Cutback Race Sim. – 8 miles (4m easy effort, 3m moderate effort, 1m hard)

Week 13:  17 miles

Week 14:  18 miles  (11 miles am – 7 miles pm)

Week 15:  Cutback Race Sim. – 8 miles (4m easy effort, 3m moderate effort, 1m hard)

Week 16:  19 miles

Week 17:  20 miles  (12 miles am – 8 miles pm)

Week 18:  10 miles

Week 19:  Cutback Race Sim.- 7 miles (3m easy effort, 3m moderate effort, 1m hard)

Week 20:  Marathon!

I’m currently coaching a busy, married father of two who travels weekly and is training for one of the toughest ultra races in the world – the Comrades Marathon in Africa. I have him on two weekly quality runs (hills, tempo or intervals), strength training and an alternating long run progression that is challenging enough to prepare his body to race the distance competitively, yet flexible enough to fit his life schedule and not miss a beat with his wife and kids.

It works when it fits your life and all it takes is a little creative planning and faith in something a little different than the average training plan. Make it yours and you’ll rock your marathon and amaze your kids! 

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