An Argument for Not Running Less in Marathon Training

An Argument for Not Running Less inI keep seeing articles about training for a marathon with a lower volume of running. I even bought a book about it myself, Runners’ World Run Less Run Faster.

Probably the most famous example of a reduced mileage training plan is the Hanson method, which does make conceptual sense to me. The idea is that you run almost every day, without as many of the traditional rest days, to get used to the experience of running on tired legs. No run is over 16 miles in duration, unlike typical plans that include at least one and sometimes more 20 mile runs. You will have fresh legs the day of the marathon, but when fatigue eventually kicks in, you will know how to deal with it and keep moving.

This sounds really appealing, and I don’t doubt it works for a lot of people, but I am really glad I included a 20+ mile run in my marathon training for one reason: My brain needed it.

Having never run that sort of distance before, I was not mentally prepared for what it was like. I couldn’t tell you exactly how many hours or miles in it is, but there is a point at which your long run for a marathon becomes qualitatively different from a long run for a half. Add on top of that the fact that I’m not exactly leading the pack, and I’m looking at running for a solid half workday if I do a marathon.

My long training runs were the first time I ever truly wondered if my body would be able to handle what I was asking of it. Even when I was very first running and it was incredibly hard, I always had a mental sense that I would somehow make it home in one piece. With my 18-, 19-, and 20-milers, my thoughts about survival were much less in jest (it didn’t help that I trained through a brutal winter). Every time I stepped back through the doorway of my home after a long run was a victory.

More importantly, each of those long runs taught me that I could in fact make it across the marathon finish line. My 18-mile run found me headed home after mile 12 to peel off my soaked, frozen clothing and shoes and completely re-outfit before finishing the last 6. I knew that no matter what the actual race threw at me, it couldn’t be nearly so uncomfortable. When I was climbing a huge ice mound a snow plow left across the running path during my 20-mile run, I remember actually thinking “There won’t be any ice piles to climb during the race!” And in fact, during the marathon when things got tough, I would explicitly think about those rough training moments and how honestly, being tired and sore is not so bad when your feet are dry and your hands aren’t numb from cold.

This is a terrible photo of me, but it captures the relief of finishing a long race. And this was only a half marathon!
This is a terrible photo of me, but it captures the relief of finishing a long race. And this was only a half marathon!

There’s also the solitude of the long run, which I think for me kicked in around the 16 or 17 mile part of training. A two hour long run is refreshing self-reflection time, in my opinion; once you start pushing 3 or 4 hours, there’s a little bit of a survivalist feeling to the whole thing. I liked the solitude of it, I really did, but I am glad I had experienced it a couple times before race day. It was eerie being surrounded by so many people yet being entirely in my own world, but the feeling was at least familiar from training.

Now that I’m  running another marathon, I might consider one of the run less plans just because of the time savings, but I think I’d feel worried about my preparedness going into race day. I think I’ll probably reach for a plan from my buddy Hal Higdon again instead (or look for a third option).

If you’ve run a marathon before, what do you think of the run less methods? Have you found them to be effective? What’s your top training distance?