The coming weekends are looming large as critical days for the thousands of runners set to tackle a spring marathon. For those entered in London marathon, Brighton marathon or any other 26.2mile event in April it marks the optimum period to put in the longest run ahead of their main event next month.
Most will be preparing for distances from 16 miles up towards 22 miles to ready themselves for the marathon. Most people will have already banked a few long-runs over 10 miles and many will - and should still - clock up some double figure mileage in training sessions in the lead in to race day. But now is the time for the biggest of all the long runs. This will allow the body sufficient time to recover and repair and to also feel the benefits of this challenging session in 4-6 weeks' time.
There are multiple reasons for the long run to prepare for the marathon. There are physiological and psychological benefits. It is also a great dress rehearsal to iron out any creases in the race day strategy.
Firstly, let's look at it physiologically. The long run will improve the muscles' ability to use oxygen efficiently. It recruits lesser used muscle fibres for sustained exercise, giving the body better conditioned muscles for an event as testing as the marathon. It helps the body be better prepared for the onset of fatigue, which is inevitable with an estimated 5,000 steps taken during a marathon.
Secondly, psychologically. For first-timers the marathon is a very daunting experience and can be pretty overwhelming for anyone who has never gone beyond 10k or less before. Particular for first-timers, it is good to go beyond 20 miles in at least one long run just to break the mental barrier of 20-something miles. If a runner proves to themselves they can run 20 miles in the weeks leading up to the race, they can feel much more confident that with the added shot of adrenalin they should be able to complete the full distance on race day.
Even experienced marathon runners need to feel that they are ready psychologically for the marathon by banking some good long runs. The distance is one that is respected by all runners, and elite athletes need to feel the pre-race pep that they can complete the distance as they would like too.
Finally, the long run is the absolute best opportunity to test out the race plan. Is your hydration sufficient? Did I take on the right nutrition? Is my race kit comfortable enough? Am I best prepared to avoid blisters or chaffing? Is my pacing right? The long run is a big day for marathon runners trying to get their race plan honed. Actually finding out some things that aren't working out well, such as the energy gel that didn't sit very well in your stomach is no bad thing. Better now that on race day itself.
Thousands will descend on the roads, trails and pathways in the next couple of weeks searching for improved fitness and psychological boost and a tight race plan. Let's hope they find them.