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Rethinking the 20 mile marathon training run

Posted Oct 17 2008 9:13pm

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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