Over the past 10 years of working with a wide range of athletes, one of the key observations I’ve made in evaluating training programs is there comes a point of diminishing returns regarding the long run, meaning that once a runner reaches a certain amount of time on their feet in a single training run, the risks of going longer outweigh the rewards.
Where that point falls depends on the athlete, their experience level, injury history and competitive goals. For some newer runners, that point might be 90 minutes, for others it’s 2 hours and for those who have years of big mileage and many long races under their belts, it can extend into the 2:30 to 3-hour range or even beyond. Part of the fun of coaching is trying to solve this piece of the training puzzle.
So the question is: When training for longer races, how can we get the most out of our long runs and push back that point of diminishing returns without forcing a massive long run week after week?
One of the most effective solutions I’ve used to prepare athletes for longer races is the split long run. I first learned of this idea from Patrick Wheeler, a professional triathlete and coach with QT2 Systems. The coaches of QT2 use the split long run, which involves two medium-length long runs in the same day, with their half-Ironman and Ironman triathletes, but it can work for half marathoners, marathoners and ultrarunners too.
Wheeler says that by splitting the long run into shorter segments with a few hours of recovery in between, athletes are better able to practice running with good form, as well as prime their bodies for the physical and nutritional demands of a long event.
“It’s to hit that second run already beat up and to force yourself physically and mentally to focus and run with good form,” Wheeler explained to me in an article for Triathlete.com. “You’re not going to feel as bad as the last 10K in the Ironman, but it’s pretty close. It’s also to help force your stomach to get used taking in food, digesting food and working out basically all day long.”
The split long run isn’t a full-on replacement for all of your long runs—it’s an effective alternative to doing one huge long run of 2-plus hours every week, where injury risk increases as form breaks down and fueling tends to suffer. QT2 athletes, for example, rarely run longer than 2 1/2 hours in a single session, but might total three hours of running in a single day using the split long run.
“Most athletes we coach are between 2:10 and 2:15; some are only around two hours,” Wheeler explains. “Obviously, the more durable a person is and the longer they’ve been doing it, the closer to the higher end of that range they’ll be, but the main goal is to get someone to a point where we feel they’re durable enough to finish the whole thing.”
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So how can you make the split long run work for you?
For the half marathoners, marathoners and ultrarunners I coach, I’ll assign traditional long runs in the range of 2-3 hours (I rarely go longer than 3 hours in a single run except for experienced ultramarathoners), which may take the form of time on feet at an easy to moderate pace, a progression run down to marathon or half-marathon race pace, or include intervals of varying speeds. Every 3-4 weeks, however, I like to assign a split long run as a way to break things up, get more time on feet than we otherwise could in a single session, and to practice running race pace on tired (but fresher) legs while working on dialing in our fueling strategy. Depending on the athlete, what they’re training for and where they are in their training cycle, here are a few examples of what a split long run could look like:
Split Long Run 1: Beginner Half-Marathoner
AM: 60 minutes at easy to moderate training pace
PM: 60 minutes with 10 x 1:00 @ 10K pace/1:00 easy mid-run
Split Long Run 2: Experienced Half Marathoner or Beginner Marathoner
AM: 75 minutes at easy training pace
PM: 75 minutes with last 40-60 minutes at goal marathon pace
Split Long Run 3: Experienced Marathoner
AM: 90 minutes with last 20 minutes at goal half marathon pace
PM: 90 minutes with last 30-40 minutes at goal marathon pace
Split Long Run 4: Experienced Marathoner or Ultramarathoner
AM: 2 hours with middle 60 minutes at goal marathon pace or 2 hours easy
PM: 90 minutes to 2 hours with 5 x 5:00 @ half marathon pace/5:00 easy mid-run