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Is Overdistance Training Beneficial For Runners?

Learn more about the benefits of exceeding your target race distance in training.

Is it wise to push yourself further in training than you need to go on race day? In other words, is there any benefit to overdistance training, or exceeding the distance of the event you’re training for in your long runs?

The short answer is yes—but there is one major exception, says Jeff Gaudette, head coach of Runners Connect and a two-time All-American at Brown University.

“The marathon is the only distance I believe you should not run the distance before the race as the costs [as in an increased chance of injury] do not outweigh the benefits,” he contends.

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When undertaking over distance runs for the first time, Gaudette advises runners to start slow and gradually increase the length of their long runs in the base-training phase of their program. “For runners from the 5K to the half-marathon, building up to a 15-mile run will allow the runner to develop their aerobic base,” he explains. “This will not only help them feel better about the race, going into it with confidence knowing that they have already completed the distance and then some, but it is a great way of seeing progress as those long runs become easier, especially as the pace becomes faster when the runner’s fitness improves.”

Aside from building confidence, overdistance runs also train your body to run more efficiently when tired. Gaudette points out that as you get further into a long run, the slow-twitch fibers you’ve been using start to fatigue and they no longer fire as efficiently. “As a consequence, you start to recruit some intermediate fibers to help maintain pace,” he says. “Of course, these intermediate fibers require more glycogen and are not as fatigue-resistant as slow-twitch, so it won’t be long before you find yourself slowing dramatically as your muscles start to fail. The more you can simulate this in training, the more prepared your body will be during the race.”

Overdistance runs are also a great way to build your aerobic system, which is the primary and most important energy system used in distance events. Gaudette says that for the 5K, the aerobic system is responsible for about 88 percent of the energy used to run the race. For a half marathon, he says it’s 98 percent. Longer runs help build the aerobic system better than any other type of training.

As a rule of thumb for how long your overdistance runs should be in relation to the distance of your goal race, Tina Muir, a coach and 2:41 marathoner, suggests half marathoners aim for 16-mile long runs, 10K runners up to 14 miles and 5K runners up to 12 miles. She says to keep your experience level, injury history and past training history in mind when experimenting with upping the distance of your longest runs.

It’s important to keep in mind that overdistance runs should not dominate your training routine or serve as a substitute for other types of challenging workouts such as interval workouts or tempo runs. Muir says that runs exceeding 90 minutes in duration should be done at a moderate pace, since it’s a big ask of the body.

Examples of Overdistance Runs:

1. Surging Long Runs

Gaudette likes assigning the following workout 5-6 weeks out from a goal half marathon:

— Map out a 16-mile long run.

— Run the first 10 miles at an easy pace. Beginning at mile 10, run seven, 90-second surges at your 5K race pace with about 5 minutes of slower running for recovery between each surge.

“These surge long runs teach you to run fast while fatigued, which develops race-specific strength and skills,” Gaudette contends. “They also help increase the overall quality and pace of your long run, thus enabling you to finish faster.”

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2. Progressive Long Runs

— Throughout the course of your long run, gradually pick up the pace from a slow jog at the beginning to the point where for the last 2-5 miles of the run, you’re running at your goal half-marathon or marathon race pace.

“A few times during the training cycle, runners can have overdistance runs where they run progressively,” says Muir. “This means they start out at regular, recovery run pace, and slowly begin to run faster each mile—not forcing the pace, but allowing their body to get into a rhythm and progress. The runner should be as tired after these runs as they are after a hard workout, but in a slightly different way, more because of the time on their feet combined with a faster pace, rather than an all-out exhaustion.”

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