How Many Weeks Before Your Marathon Should You Run Your Last Long Run?

Many marathoners run their last long training run two or three weeks before race day.  Doesn’t it make sense to run your last “biggie” reasonably close to your race to derive maximum benefit and bolster your endurance?  After all, you recover during your taper.

Running your last long run this close to race day is a crucial training error.  During a long run, leg muscles sustain considerable damage. Contractile fibres get damaged or destroyed.  Until the muscle tissue has repaired itself, the propulsive force that your leg muscles can exert is decreased, hindering your ability to maintain running at race pace over long distance.

Research shows that even after three weeks, marathoners’ leg muscles are not completely recovered from their last long run.  Four weeks or even longer is required for full recovery.  In a landmark research study, Dutch researchers found that two-thirds of marathoners in their study already had significant amounts of muscular damage in their legs on race morning, even before having run a single step that day!  They were not fully recovered from their previous training, their last long run being a major contributor their “muscular misery”.

Clearly, running a marathon on less than fully recovered muscles stacks the odds against you running a good race.

A far better training practice would be to conduct your last long run four weeks prior to your marathon.  The four week gap would facilitate complete muscular recovery, toeing the starting line in peak condition and running your personal best.

But without a long run during the last four weeks, won’t you lose fitness, compromising your ability to run the marathon at your true potential?

Don’t worry! These four weeks provide the opportunity to continue high quality training.  As you recover from your last long run, incorporate a variety of speed workouts (assuming they were part of your training program) that will result in improving other factors that will affect marathon performance, e.g. running economy, speed and VO2max (maximum capacity of an individual’s body to transport and use oxygen during exercise).

Include a weekly intensity run of 40-60 minutes to improve your lactate threshold, the running speed at which lactate begins to accumulate in your bloodstream, a marker of muscle fatigue (that burning sensation in the legs we all know too well).

The same Dutch study quoted in the earlier article found that runs up to 15 kilometers (about 9.4 miles) produced little or no muscle damage.  Runs exceeding this distance produced the greatest damage to muscle fibres.  Therefore, no run during the last four weeks should exceed this distance.

Three weeks prior to the marathon, conduct a short easy run not exceeding 9.4 miles/15K. Two weeks before the marathon, run 15K (9.4 miles) at race pace.

During the last two weeks leading up to the race, there is very little that you can do to improve your preparedness for the race. However, there is much that runners can do to screw things up.

If you missed workouts during your training, resist the temptation to catch up by inserting extra distance or speed workouts (other than what your program calls for during your taper). This is a mistake that dramatically increases the chance of overtraining, fatigue and (worse) injury.   

Following a training program that employs these strategies will help you arrive at the starting line in peak condition, fully recovered and with an excellent chance of running your personal best marathon.

Marathoners, how much time do you leave between your last long run and race day?

© 2012 Savvy Runner Inc.

We welcome your feedback, suggestions and comments.  Please post them below.

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2 Responses to How Many Weeks Before Your Marathon Should You Run Your Last Long Run?
  1. Laurie
    July 11, 2012 | 2:31 am

    Hi, Great article! Do you know the name of this Dutch study or details where I can read more about it? I have been using a 4-week taper schedule for the last 10 years and recently I moved to Holland and after many conversations with well-trained Dutch athletes, I changed my schedule to 3 weeks. I have always felt great at 4 weeks after taper and my recovery is quick and painless–no wobbly legs or trouble with stairs. I was a bit hesitant to reduce my taper to 3 weeks, but I did it to coordinate my schedule with the other marathon training programs on offer in my city (all have 3 weeks of taper). Perhaps I will send this this article to see what they think. Will keep you posted on my race and recovery this October. Thanks!!

  2. Bennett
    July 18, 2012 | 10:33 pm

    Glad that you found the article informative. Sorry, I don’t recall the name of the Dutch study. Good luck with your training and your October race.

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