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A Super Scientific Look at the Difficulty of Long Runs

Yes, I know. That title is amazing. I am currently for hire as a “blog title writer.” Gotta make extra money for that wedding, you know.

Fact #1: Long runs are tough.

Fact #2: The difficulty of long runs does not increase at the same rate as their length. With each mile that you add, the difficulty of that run increases exponentially.

Fact #3: This is why, even after 6 complete cycles of marathon training, runs over 16 miles still freak me out. No matter how many times I tell myself, “No big deal. You’ve done this before,” those runs are just plain tough. And they take a certain amount of psyching myself up to get through.

In order to illustrate the above phenomena, I have created the following scientifically accurate and completely to scale graph. Based on my extensive marathon experience and research, of course.

Level of difficulty of long runs by long run distance on a scale between Sleeping and Death.

Long Run Difficulty Graph.png

No, I haven’t actually come close to dying on a long run. But since those distances make me feel like death, it seemed to be an appropriate scale.

Let’s talk about the long run for a little bit. That critical part of marathon training that can make us feel so amazing (“I can’t believe I ran so far!!”) and so awful at the same time.

I am not the type of runner who can just go out and run for several hours like it’s nothing. But at this point in my running life, I have a decent enough base that runs of an hour or so don’t even make me blink. An hour and half makes me think a little harder about my nutrition and how rested I feel going in. Two hours of running can be tough, but still enjoyable. But longer than that? I start to panic just a little bit.

There’s just something about knowing that I will be out there running for over two hours that makes my heart start racing. Two hours is a really long time. And three? Why do people even do such a crazy thing?!

I’m not sure why I experience these anxiety attacks before my long runs. Even though I’ve done it all before, any run that is longer than 15 miles makes me feel as though I’m about to take on something big. A little bit of nervous energy can be a good thing. That extra adrenaline can help carry you through for a little while. But sometimes, the amount of anxiety I feel before a really long run can be almost crippling.

This past week, I was scheduled to run 18 miles. A distance that I’ve successfully completed many times…and that is still 8.2 miles shorter than an actual marathon. Despite all this, I couldn’t escape the thought that 18 miles was a really long way – especially compared to the 15 I had run a couple of weeks ago (increasing from 10 to 13 miles – not so bad. Increasing from 15 to 18 miles, on the other hand, feels huge). For whatever reason, I couldn’t seem to wrap my head around the distance.

So in situations like these, I do the simplest thing possible to take myself down from “Don’t Die! Don’t Die! Don’t Die!” to a much more manageable, “I Love Running” or “Hurts so Good” level. I split the run up

Sometimes the split is purely mental. I divide the run into loops, and concentrate on the mileage of one loop at a time. Because a loop of 10 miles and one of 8, or three loops of 6 miles sounds way better than one long run of 18.

Sometimes the split is physical. Whether you incorporate a race into your long run, or do some inside and some on the treadmill, sometimes looking at your long run as a set of distinct shorter runs strung together can make it seem a lot less intimidating.

On my 18-miler, I needed to give myself an actual physical split. I ran 8 miles outside to the gym, hopped on the treadmill for 5 miles, and then ran 5 miles back home. This not only helped me focus on one chunk at a time, but it also made the run feel shorter. I kept telling myself that the mindless 5 miles I would run on the treadmill were easy and would be over in no time at all. So all I needed to focus on was running to the gym and then running a short 5 miles back home. As you probably could’ve guessed, in reality those 5 miles on the treadmill didn’t exactly feel like nothing. They weren’t awful, but they also didn’t go by as quickly as the 8 miles before them. And by 4 miles in, I was dying to get off that thing. By mile 5, I was glad that I had limited the treadmill section of my run to just 40 minutes.

After that, my only focus was on running home. I stopped thinking about the miles I had already done and those I had yet to cover, and just thought about my end goal. The last few miles were tough, as I had expected they would be, but I made it. And more importantly – I cleared a huge mental hurdle by reminding myself that I can run 18 miles. And no, I won’t die in the process of trying.

As a side note, I feel like I need to mention that, obviously, splitting up your run into actual separate pieces does mean that you stop several times during your run. And if you’re planning on racing a marathon for a specific time goal, this is probably not something you should do every training run. But we’ll talk more about that later. Because sometimes, especially if it’s early on in your marathon training, just getting those miles in is enough.

Anyway, I suppose this post has no real point – well, besides sharing my super scientific graph that I am in the process of submitting to several reputable journals (I’ll let you know how that goes).

I know that this is not some groundbreaking strategy for surviving long runs. Anyone who has trained for a marathon knows that you often need to play mental games with yourself in order to take on a really long run. Whether that be focusing on how you will feel after it’s finished, running some (or all) of the miles with a friend, or splitting the run up into smaller pieces, we all have our strategies that help get us through.

JoeK10KDoing a long run in bright colors while wearing a veil would probably help too.

But beyond all that, I guess my main point is that if long runs freak you out, don’t feel bad. I know sometimes it can be easy to think that other runners take to long runs like breathing. With multiple tweets and posts going up on the weekend about how someone “just ran 20 miles before 9 am!!” it can sometimes seem like these runs feel effortless for everyone else besides you.

But don’t worry. Even experienced marathoners get nervous before long runs. Or at least I do.

Maybe someday, if/when I run an Ultra Marathon things will change. But until then, I stand by the above graph.

43 Responses to A Super Scientific Look at the Difficulty of Long Runs

  1. I LOVE that graph!

    We ran 20 miles on Saturday with our Team but had to break it in 2 since some are running a marathon a month after us so they had 15 instead. I think as long as you’re not taking a nap or eating a sandwich or anything between the breaks it’s still good…we refueled with GU and gatorade and were on our way in a few minutes.
    Krissy @ Shiawase Life´s last post ..11 days…

  2. that graph is great…and accurate! i was thinking the same thing this past weekend, heading into 20-miler #2. i’ve probably done 30+ runs of 20 miles or more (including my marathons), so why am i STILL nervous? doesn’t practice make perfect? shouldn’t i feel more like “a walk in the park” on your graph? nope, not at all. i think it has to do with the fact that now i run my LRs faster since i’m always trying to improve my time. in the past i just always, always ran long, slow distance. running close to MP is hard for that long!!!
    Kristy@RunTheLongRoad´s last post ..Weekend Recap: Celebration

  3. I just announced yesterday that I’m going to run my first marathon this fall. And I have positively scared the crap out of myself. It’s kind of reassuring to know that even these awesome run-bloggers that I admire so much still get a bit nervous about super long runs! :) Thanks!!
    Jen´s last post ..The Big Announcement(s)

    • Congratulations! That’s so exciting!! And I hope I don’t scare you away from training. The long runs can be anxiety-provoking, but they are definitely doable!

  4. Love the graph! Splitting up a long run physically is a must-do sometimes, even if you just take bathroom and stretching breaks.

    I need to ask though, how do you dress for a outside + inside long run in winter? I’ve done it in the summer, but I run in as few clothes as possible indoors and I couldn’t deal with putting my wet long layers back on. Maybe I’m just weird! Or are you still running in shorts? 😉

    • So…that definitely depends on the weather. I’ve done a run in full on tights on the treadmill before and that was awful. Even though I was able to roll them up a little bit, it was just hot and uncomfortable. Usually I try to wear capris or shorts if I can get away with it. I wore shorts the other day on my 18 mile run – I’m in them every chance I get, Jen! 😉

      The worst part is definitely running home in the cold with the wet clothes. Or, more specifically, I should say wet sports bra! Nothing is more uncomfortable than that.

  5. thank you. thank you for your honesty! I just signed up for my first marathon last night, and while I can run 14 miles on most saturdays the thought of jumping to 16 and then 18 and so on FREAKS ME OUT! Glad to see someone as experienced as you has worries too :)

    • Congrats and good luck with the training! Like I mentioned above in response to another comment – the long runs make me nervous but they ARE doable. Just focus on building up a little at a time. If you’re at 14 miles already, you’re going to be fine! :)

  6. This post and your super-awesome graph were perfect!!! I went on an 8 mile run today as I start to increase mileage to work towards my third half. I have run well over 8 on a regular basis before and it shouldn’t be a big deal, but mentally, it was a HUGE deal. For some reason it took a ton of convincing to get over that mental hurdle, but breaking it up into small chunks got me past that tough spot. Well, happy valentines day!! Enjoy your runs!

  7. For me, the last 1-2 miles are miserable. If I do a 16 mile run, mile 14 feels just fine, but if I do a 14 mile run I’m pretty sure that I will die.
    Laura´s last post ..One Way to Spend Valentine’s Day

    • haha yes!! The same thing happens to me, no matter how far my long run is. It’s sort of crazy how my mind plays games like that.

  8. That graph is great! Long runs used to freak me out. Last marathon training cycle I did 4 20s and they started to not seem like that big of a deal and surprisingly that feeling has carried over. However, I like them because I view them as low pressure situations where I don’t care too much about pace, etc. Racing marathons I get totally nervous and freak out!! DETRIMENTAL.

    RE: splitting up runs. I do a lot of my long runs in Central Park and I definitely split up distances by loops of the park. A 20 miler is “just” a run to the park, 3 loops and a run home. Now that doesn’t sound as bad does it? :)
    Celia´s last post ..dehydration on the run

  9. It’s good to know that despite your multiple marathons, you still feel trepidation at super long runs. I’m glad I’m not the only one!
    Rena @ milehogger.blogspot.com´s last post ..Slushy Fun

  10. That is the best graph ever made. Seriously! I want to use a pointer to highlight points on it during a presentation to big wigs about something important! Long runs FREAK ME OUT!! So I’m glad I’m not alone!

  11. This is a really good tip! I will try it out next time, because I freak out about runs that are much shorter than yours. Its good to hear others feel the same.
    Nina´s last post ..Halfmarathon Training Week 5

  12. Thanks for this post: I get long run anxiety for anything around 18 miles and it is disheartening to see chirpy updates about doing an ‘easy’ 20 at a 7:20 pace or whatever. Your humility is refreshing, particularly for someone with such a great PR. It’s good for amateurs like me to know that even the speedy runners get the jitters occasionally.

    ~Jessica~´s last post ..Rose, Christian Bale and I All Hate Daily Mile

    • Thanks for your comment Jessica. I definitely get the jitters a lot – for long runs, speed workout, races…basically any time I know the run is going to be hard. ha

      Although some of my anxiety around races/long runs has gone down with time, it never has gone away. I try to tell myself it’s just a normal part of being a runner. Being nervous about how something is going to go just means that we care, right? :)

  13. When running my first ultra the hardest part was the mental factor. 34 miles and 8 hours later (it was in the mountains, some REALLY tough terrain), I felt like a super star as I crossed the finish line. When I ran my second ultra (31 miles and 5 hours, 45 minutes) it was much less a mental game but miles 20-26 were the hardest. The last 5 were a breeze. =)

    • Yes. The mental aspect of running is the hardest part, no matter how far you’re going. Regardless, I hope to get to the point someday where running 31 miles isn’t a huge mental battle…and I can breeze through the last 5 :)

    Ali´s last post ..Things I Love

  15. I LOVE your graph. It’s comforting to know that others feel the exact same way as me once the numbers “16, 18, and 20” come up. I have 20 this weekend and I’m already antsy for it. The way I approach long runs is thinking that it’s going to be as bad or as good as how I mentally approach it. I think once the miles add up that much, it’s really just a test of your psychological will power. And the amount of bread baskets you ate the night before. Another good thing about long runs, of course.

    • haha yes! A good mental attitude and multiple bread baskets are the keys to successful long runs.

      Good luck with your 20 this weekend!

  16. Love the graph! I do things similar when running is scary….I split the run up, get half way and say to myself now just run home because you can’t live on the street. Ha ha glad I’m not alone!

  17. Long runs are totally mental for me too. I always have to break them up into loops and keep track of the miles that way, rather than the total amount. I also have to have my Garmin count DOWN the miles rather than up. For some reason, “you have 19 miles left to go” sounds sooo much better to me than “you’ve only run one mile. I don’t know why!
    Kara´s last post ..Can You Replace Running?

  18. Hopefully I”ll be at the point one day where a long run is more than 5 miles!

    I saw this, this past weekend and thought about all you marathon runners out there. :)

    • What I meant to add to the post (and forgot) was that I think the same principle applies no matter how far you’re going. Everyone’s definition of a long run is a little different – but there are still times when the increase in mileage can be a bit scary.

      Thanks for sharing the video! Very funny!

  19. Long runs are so intimidating! I’ve only ran one marathon but I know for the rest of my running career anything over 13.1 is going to be intimidating.
    Sarah´s last post ..Monday Morning Muffins

  20. gaaahh I know what you mean! When I think of my long runs in terms of miles – 18, 20, 22 – it freaks me the eff out. But when I think of them in terms of the route I’m taking – loop of central park, over to riverside, maybe to the brooklyn bridge, then it doesn’t seem nearly as bad! I guess that’s kind of like breaking them up. I still have a hard time believing I can run 26.2 miles though, that seems so far when you think about it! ha.
    Kelly´s last post ..Chobani Greek Yogurt Giveaway

  21. i love this post. i’m on my first marathon training cycle, and seeing 16 or 18 or 20 miles on the schedule is pretty intimidating. to deal, i run out and backs– so i calm myself down with, “you’re only running 8 miles, and then you’re just running back.” thankfully it’s always worked!

  22. I LOVE when LB is feisty! Come to DC and do all of your long runs with me. I’ll make them way less terrifying.
    emily´s last post ..Sweaty Dates and Relay Plans

    • Me? Feisty?? Never…

      I would love to come to DC and do my long runs with you. We would run fast (obvi) and refuel with multiple bagels. It would be heavenly.

  23. Your graph is awesome. This is exactly how I feel about the long runs. 15, it’s got nothing on me, 17 gasp… what am I doing, 20? seriously? 20 miles, this is stupid. And I plan on doing a 24 later in my training. Though nothing freaks me out as badly as fast tempo runs, it takes every bit of motivation to get out there.

  24. Good to know that even after running in the 3:18’s you are still “normal!” :-) You know what I mean. Yes, long runs can be tough!! Especially when done solo. A good music playlist is a must for me! If it wasn’t for my ipod shuffle I don’t know how I would survive long runs by myself!
    Tia´s last post ..My Perfect Valentine’s Day Includes…

  25. Oh my god. We’re twins.

    Hahaha, I wrote the bulk of my post yesterday and we must have been blogging away about our long run anxiety at about the same time. Weird, weird, weird!

    Basically, this just means we’re destined to be running buddies :)
    Megan (The Runner’s Kitchen)´s last post ..Long run anxiety

    • I know!! Too funny! If only I had known…we could have commiserated together (and maybe you could’ve motivated me to actually suck it up and get out there).

      Just another reason for me to move to NYC…!

  26. Love love love the graph (says the engineer). I agree with you. Runs over 15 miles started getting into the funny zone where the body starts reacting differently.
    One thing I dread more than long runs – mile repeats intervals!

  27. The graph is awesome.

    I feel the same way. Anything over 12 for me is like “oh, dear” and anything over 15 brings on “I should probably bring money with my just in case something happens to me.”

    Love breaking it up into pieces. Now, if I can just figure out how to do that for a marathon so I don’t have a breakdown like I usually do.
    Meggie´s last post ..You Know What’s Up?

  28. I LOVE your graph. The scary thing is how you go from sleeping to 15 miles right away :) That must mean you are a marathoner! I am a half marathoner, so my graph would be cut in half in the mileage!
    Jen @ The Well Wire´s last post ..Get Active and Live A More Enthused, Excited Life

  29. Love this post–so true! I am doing my long run this afternoon after work (my first ever 18 miler) and am almost about to pee my pants I am so nervous! But I definitely plan to break it up into at least loops of smaller distances. Yikes, nerves like crazy!
    Lizzie @TheWeekdayVegan´s last post ..R.I.T.

  30. For whatever reason, long runs don’t bother me too much, although I have the same anxiety over any sort of speed work. I do get a little more nervous when runs are over 14 miles (and therefore into the 2+ hour range), but overall I rarely get worked up around long runs. That being said, I always stand in the marathon corrals thinking, “How am I supposed to run a MARATHON today??” but I think that’s more pace related than distance related.

  31. […] I took the advice Lauren gave on her blog the other day. She wrote about how runs over 16 miles freak her out and how she […]

  32. […] A Super Scientific Look at the Difficulty of Long Runs […]

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