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The anatomy of a Long Run

So I was thinking on my last long run before the LA Marathon this past weekend, how do I break down these training runs? I thought it might be interesting to some (maybe none?) to let you inside how I get through the long run and what I’m thinking about during the miles. I think that it’s simply imperative for me to break up the run into smaller increments and get through each part of the run like that, and not focus on the run as a whole. When I start out I think about the first three miles and how I run that all the time. It’s a 5k. Once you get those down, I subtract 3 from 20 and then think about the number 17 instead of 20. I think it’s much less daunting and much more manageable.

Then from 4-10, I think of that as a 10k. It’s six miles, and you can break that down to be two sets of 3 miles, or just 6 miles. I try my hardest to tell myself to relax and to let my arms drop every now and then or else my back will get too tight by the end of my run. I focus on breathing and just relaxing. I tell myself a lot to just let it go and keep moving forward. This is the hardest part of the run for me because most of my long runs are out and backs and this is the part where you just keep running further and further out. Once I hit 5-8, I am usually in the zone and moving right along without much thought. I make sure to release my shoulders every now and then and also focus on relaxing. If I don’t relax, things get ugly.

Then I hit mile 10. This is where things usually start to look up a little bit because I’m finally turning around and can re-trace my steps back home. Once I know I’ve made it “out” and I just have to make it back, things become a little bit easier. It’s almost a game to see the same things I saw on the way out. I think a lot about the fact that I’ve already made it ten miles and I just have to make it back home and then I’m done. Usually around miles 12-14 my feet start to hurt a little bit since I’ve been on my feet for around two hours at this point. I keep breaking it down and keep moving forward. Once mile 15 comes around I know I have 5 left and that is a relief, because I KNOW I can run that far and I also am getting closer and closer to my house.

Mile 16-18 are usually where I start getting a little tired and weird. My mind starts to wander to weird things, for example what I’m going to eat later, if I’ll take a nap and how I’ll feel the next day. I start to switch up my running form just a little bit at this point to keep my feet a little fresher and try to make me feel better. This is where I struggle, because once I hit about 18.5 or 19, I know I’m basically done. I have one mile to go and then I’m home. I know how far a lot of different landmarks are from my house and when I hit those it’s like I have new energy, in a weird, hobbly, awkward energy kind of way.

During a long run I really focus on breaking it down and running it for myself not for time. If I stop to walk at all, I will make sure I only walk for a minute and then run again. I do have a lot of stop lights that I run through so that sometimes gives me a little unexpected break too. I know that breaking down the long run makes it much more attainable for me and I really am glad I found a way that works for me.

Breaking down a marathon for me goes like this. Get to the 3 mile mark, you have 10 miles to go before the half marathon point. 6 miles is going to get you to the 10k mark, which means you are almost half way to the half marathon mark. 10 miles means you have a 5k to the half marathon mark. Half Marathon mark, you only have to run what you’ve just run to complete the race. 3 more miles after the half marathon mark and you’ve only got 10 miles left in the race. 4 miles and your at the 20 mile marker. 20 mile marker, you have 6.2 miles to go, which is a 10k or 2 5ks. Get three miles done and you have 3 more to go till the end. Then it’s just counting down those miles to the finish. I just think each step is a step closer to the finish, the faster I go the faster it’s over with at that point.

Does that even make sense?


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  • Reply Brie (The Fit Bride)

    I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who does weird breakdowns like that!

    I’m doing my longest run ever–9 miles–today and it helps me to break things into Gu stops. Like, I run 4.5 miles, and the goal is Gu. Then I run another 4.5 and I’m done. I also get really excited about being 1/3 done and 2/3 done…it’s more exciting for me to be 2/3 done than 1/2 for some reason.

    It can be a real mindfuck near the end when I can’t do math very well anymore, though.

    March 10, 2010 at 9:06 am
  • Reply Spamboy

    I break down my long runs, not by mileage but by landmarks — it takes the stress off of counting down double-digit miles, especially on days when I’m not “feeling it”. Since we do ours around a lake, it’s easy to pick up landmarks and just go from there.

    During the actual race, the only breakdowns are do are the last 6.2 of a full or 3.1 of a half — I run the 20/10 up to that point with the goal of setting myself up for the remainer, which is a simple 5K/10K. It makes it much easier to aim for picking up the pace at that point.

    March 10, 2010 at 9:21 am
  • Reply Gina

    The first few miles are always the hardest for me. That’s when I doubt myself and my body the most. For some reason until I get to mile 3 or 4 I feel uncoordinated. Like my legs and arms don’t remember what to do. Then, after half way I always break down the miles and say “only 8? that’s nothing!”

    March 10, 2010 at 9:26 am
  • Reply Ashley M. [at] (never home)maker

    That makes total sense to me. When I go out on my 20-milers, I do something similar. But I found an even better technique that works for me is to think of my runs in time versus distance. 20 miles takes me about 3 hours. So, I break it into 30 minute chunks. I dunno. It just helps me tune out. Great post!

    March 10, 2010 at 9:38 am
  • Reply Elizabeth

    I totally do this. My long runs are usually a series of shorter runs strung together, so I think of the long run in phases. For example, a 20-mile run usually consists of mileage increments of 3-3-5-5-4. In other words, once my first 3-mile increment is done, that’s phase 1, next 3-mile increment is phase 2 and so on. So by the time I hit that last 4 miles, I don’t think “Oh man i still have 4 miles.” I think “Yay, I’m on the last phase!” No matter how you break it up though, it definitely helps to think of it in smaller chunks.

    March 10, 2010 at 9:57 am
  • Reply Marathon Maritza


    Just kidding! I totally do that too. Any little game to get my mind off the fact that I’m running for 3 hours. What’s funny though is during actual marathons, I don’t really have to think until about mile 15 – and then it’s just a fight to the death!

    Nice post! You are gonna do awesome at LAM!

    March 10, 2010 at 10:10 am
  • Reply Marlene

    Yep, makes perfect sense! I do the same thing on both long runs and long races.

    March 10, 2010 at 10:16 am
  • Reply Robyn

    I actually never thought about it like that, although the longest I’ve done is 8. Once I got past 6 which I knew I could do I just kept thinking, OK it’s 20 minutes of my life I can handle that.

    March 10, 2010 at 10:49 am
  • Reply Kristen

    I love that I am not the only person who talks my way through my runs! I also use landmarks like spamboy. Whatever gets you through the run and gets it done.

    March 10, 2010 at 11:09 am
  • Reply Heather

    I totally agree about breaking down a run. If I look at a half marathon as 13.1 miles I freak out!

    March 10, 2010 at 11:55 am
  • Reply Katie @ Two Lives, One Lifestyle

    I love out and back long runs because no matter how long the run might be, hitting that halfway point feels like a relief. Mind games/breaking down runs/etc I think are necessary to running long distance! There is no way my mind will be blank for hours.

    March 10, 2010 at 12:20 pm
  • Reply Julie @ Wearing Mascara

    As awkward as this post was to write, I’m sure, I want to say THANK YOU. Long runs are so daunting no matter what shape you are in! Even 5-6 miles is daunting to me still. This was so great to read and very interesting. Well, I’m off for 4-miles! It’s a beautiful day here in Pittsburgh… FINALLY :-) xo

    March 10, 2010 at 1:26 pm
  • Reply Kelly

    I have no clue what you just said.

    I kid. I definitely have to breakdown the long runs!

    March 10, 2010 at 1:31 pm
  • Reply aron

    haha its so funny the things that go through our heads on long runs… and the crazy math/numbers games! i do those too and half the time they make no sense when you arent in the moment :)

    March 10, 2010 at 2:16 pm
  • Reply Jess

    I think about my runs the same way. The more I can break them down the easier it is for me mentally to run the distance.

    March 10, 2010 at 2:30 pm
  • Reply Betsy

    Totally makes sense to me. Sometimes instead of doing an out and back, I’ll just do several loops. So instead of running 10 out and back, I’d run 4 five mile runs. Because five miles is no big deal, I can kind of trick myself.

    March 10, 2010 at 3:57 pm
  • Reply David Yingling

    Definitely makes sense and is funny because I do something very similar. The first 10 miles or so don’t bother me but then after that I start breaking it down.

    March 10, 2010 at 4:01 pm
  • Reply Zoë

    The last paragraph confused me a little, but it totally makes sense. Do you think of this every time you’re running? Man, sometimes my brain shuts off and I can’t complete a simple math problem…

    March 10, 2010 at 5:22 pm
  • Reply Rachel

    Running is ALL a mind game and I sometimes break up my runs like that, too. I’ve found most of the time though, lately, I just completely separate my mind from body. I don’t really think about running at all. I just let my body roll along while I go back over my day or make long drawn out plans about random things. It’s actually a little scary how little I think about the running!

    March 10, 2010 at 5:32 pm
  • Reply bethany

    Thanks for writing this post! I’m training for my first mini marathon in early April, and your blog has been a huge inspiration.
    Sometimes when I have a 7 or 8 mile run, I think, “Well, Danica’s doing 20 today!” and it motivates me. The longer my runs become, the more I realize how mental this whole running thing is. Also, how crazy I am for loving it!

    March 10, 2010 at 6:49 pm
  • Reply Caitlin

    Thanks for this post! I am training for my first marathon (I’ve only ever run a half) and I’m quickly realizing how fast that long run mileage builds up! I have 9 miles this weekend and I’ve been kind of nervous about it because I haven’t done 9 since November. This definitely makes me feel better about it!

    March 10, 2010 at 6:49 pm
  • Reply The Laminator

    If it makes sense to you, it makes sense to me. ’cause after all, you’re running LAM! Go LAM! (Sorry, I have to remind you of that…heehee)

    Great way of splitting it up! You’re such a veteran at this. Super!

    March 10, 2010 at 9:26 pm
  • Reply Nicole

    I agree 100%! Couldnt have said it better myself!

    March 10, 2010 at 9:48 pm
  • Reply Glenn Jones

    That’s a lot of thinking! My thought process is a little easier. I fuel every 3 miles, so I’m just looking for those miles divisible by three.

    Otherwise, the only other thoughts I have is past mile 16 when I start thinking “F Me!”

    March 10, 2010 at 9:49 pm
  • Reply kristen

    That totally makes sense. The hardest part of a marahton for me is mile 17. So close, yet so far :)

    I play the same types of mind games during a long run. Excpet for your ‘weird thoughts’ those aren’t weird for me I think of those things by the end of mile one:)

    March 11, 2010 at 8:17 am
  • Reply kristen

    ps. I got the oh yeah bars. Havn’t tried them yet but I got the big chocolate caramel one and the chocholate wafer one….

    March 11, 2010 at 8:18 am
  • Reply Ally

    Yes, those last three miles, it’s all about speeding up and getting done faster!

    March 11, 2010 at 12:08 pm
  • Reply liane

    I always struggle for the first 20 minutes of a run. ALWAYS.
    I’m glad I’m not the only one who breaks up their run into segments, when I was training for the half marathon, I had little milestones along each run/distance :)

    March 11, 2010 at 12:22 pm
  • Reply Stuart

    I totally get that last paragraph!

    And it seems I am not the only one!


    March 11, 2010 at 1:46 pm
  • Reply Alisa

    Yes, makes perfect sense.

    If it’s a short run of 5 or less I think of it in terms of 2 mile chunks. 12 mile runs are my fave b/c it’s just 3 runs of 4 miles back-to-back =).

    March 11, 2010 at 2:37 pm
  • Reply Corina

    Thanks for the great advice, Ill be training for my first 26.2 in Nov and Im super nervous…eek!

    March 11, 2010 at 6:48 pm
  • Reply Stacey

    Makes perfect sense! And so glad you took the time to break it down for us. I can’t even imagine running a marathon right now :)

    March 11, 2010 at 7:07 pm
  • Reply Carla

    My group runs are always out and back runs, and I get through them by not thinking of the “back” part. Usually if I’m already tired at first I tell myself “only another half hour to go, I can run for another half hour” (even if it’s actually half hour to the turn around point). But breaking it like that, tricks my mind a bit…

    March 12, 2010 at 7:39 am
  • Reply Patty

    It makes perfect sense, that’s exactly how I think when I do marathons.

    March 12, 2010 at 1:17 pm
  • Reply Danica

    I tend to play the same mind games when I run too even though I am usually running with someone for my long run :D. I LOVED reading your break down and the fact that you focus on doing your long run for you not for time.

    March 12, 2010 at 2:04 pm
  • Reply Colds, Cupcakes and Corner Men | The Tao of Me

    […] THE most inspiring song of the day. I also thought of recent blog posts I read from Gym Notes and Chic Runner that helped me push through. And I thought of all the posts by my Daily Mile friends and used it as […]

    March 14, 2010 at 8:33 am
  • Reply Running on Faith

    Darn! Wish I read this before heading out for my run today. As I get back into higher mileage, it is always good to break them apart to help you mentally. And totally agree with the out and backs – those last 2 or so miles on the “out” are always a mental killer, along with the mid “back”. P.S. just found your blog via Aron’s!

    March 14, 2010 at 6:23 pm
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