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Training for A Long Distance Run: How Long Is Too Long?

endurance long distance physical therapy running training May 23, 2023

If you are a new runner or a runner training for a new distance, you may ask yourself (and other runners): How long should my long run be? 


Let’s first talk about the purpose of long runs during a training cycle. Long runs are supposed to be at an easy pace (low to moderate in intensity.) It is important that these be done at an easy pace (which will be dependent on the runners’ ability level) to avoid over training and possible injury. A couple of good ways to judge if your pace is appropriate is to use a heart rate monitor for feedback, you should fall somewhere in the range of 50-70% of your max heart rate (estimated max HR is 220-age), the other way to is to make sure you are at a conversational pace, this means that you could carry on a conversation without feeling out of breath.  


The science behind long slow distance running is that it improves the following: 

  1. Cardiovascular function 
  2. Oxidative capacity of skeletal muscle
  3. Utilization of fat stores as energy
  4. Creates new capillaries to improve blood flow to muscles 


All of these things mentioned above will improve your muscle’s ability to work for longer period of time, but it will also improve your efficiency and ability to push your pace during speed work and tempo sessions. Long runs are extremely important, so it is important to know how long they should be. 

To answer the question, “How long does my long run need to be?” it is important to know what the athlete is training for. Let’s look at the following distances:

1. Half Marathon (13.1miles): For the half marathon distance your longest run should be anywhere for 10-12 miles. (It can be longer if you are a more advanced athlete) 

2. Marathon (26.2 miles): For a marathon distance a runner should be able to complete 18-20 miles. (We will talk more about runners who may take longer than 2.5 hours to complete this long run) 

3. Ultramarathon (more than 26.2 miles): In general, ultramarathon runners will run over 20 miles. However, it is important to note that one of the training strategies for an ultra-runner is to complete two long runs on consecutive days to get their body to acclimate to the extended time on feet required to run 30+ miles on race day. 


There is an exception to the guidelines above. There is such a thing as too long of a run and that is when the total time of the run will exceed two and a half hours. While it may seem like the longer the better, there is a point where the benefits do not outweigh the risk. As you increase your run to over two and a half hours, there is very little impact on your overall cardiovascular fitness and performance. The risk with running longer than two and a half hours is that even if it is at an easy pace, the amount of time you spend on your feet will cause an increased risk of injury and soft tissue breakdown.


Another problem with doing these excessively long runs is that the recovery time will be too long for you to have another quality session. The way to get around this issue is to do two “long runs” on back-to-back days. That might look like running for two hours on a Saturday and then a one and a half hour run on Sunday.  

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