If you’ve ever found yourself in the second half of a long run debating whether you should cut it short, you’re not alone. Mounting fatigue has a way of inducing that internal discussion among many runners.
Making the right decision for you can be tricky. On the one hand, you’re already really tired, and you have several miles to go; won’t mindlessly sticking it out put you in a hole and compromise your upcoming training and racing? On the other hand, isn’t one of the main points of long runs to get used to keep on keeping on when the desire to stop strikes?
As with most matters in running, the best answer is “it depends.” Here are five things to consider when a long run isn’t going well.
Are you having a specific bodily pain?
Discomfort—mild muscular fatigue or tightness, stomach distress, hot spots on your feet—is typical when you’re going long. These unpleasant sensations seldom merit changing your plan for the day.
A specific bodily pain is another matter. Sara Hall, the second fastest marathoner in U.S. history, says she cuts long runs short under only one condition—if she’s worried about an acute pain or tight spot that might become an injury if she runs through it.
A good rule of thumb here is to assess whether your troublesome spot is making you alter your running form. If so, being a disciplined runner in this instance means ending the run. Continuing with compromised form can not only lead to injury in the noticeable area, but also cause problems elsewhere from you compensating for the trouble spot.
If you don’t have a potentially injurious pain, why do you want to shorten this run?
Probably the most common reasons for considering cutting a long run short are that the run is a much greater mental struggle than it should be and that you feel much more tired than usual. All runners have days like these, thanks to the fact that we’re humans, not machines that can predictably perform the same at, say, 8 a.m. every Sunday.
“People only have so much willpower,” Mark Coogan, a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic marathon team who now coaches the elite group New Balance Boston, tells Runner’s World. “Life circumstances are part of the training process, so you need to account for them.”
If your family or work life has been particularly stressful lately, a long run can be a good way to reboot mentally. But it can also seem like just another obligation, and slogging away to hit an arbitrary mileage goal for the day can further drain you psychologically. If the run you’re doing isn’t a crucial part of your training plan—more on that below—it’s probably not a good idea to spend lots of precious mental capital on it. Cut the run short, and don’t beat yourself up over doing so.
If you feel okay mentally, but physically worn down almost from the start, you’re probably best off cutting the run short, especially if you have an important race in the next week or two. If you don’t have a race you care about in the next week or two, first try slowing your pace. If doing so doesn’t help, and the run isn’t an especially important one, then it’s okay to go shorter than you planned.
After any of these scenarios, do two things. First, focus on maximizing recoveryin the immediate aftermath of your run—consume carbs and protein within an hour of finishing, stay on top of rehydrating, and do some gentle stretching or walking later in the day. Take at least one more easy day than usual before your next challenging run.
Second, review your recent training. Have you upped your mileage and/or intensity lately? Was the long run too soon after a race hard workout? Are you trying to train like you “should” even though your non-running life is currently extraordinarily stressful? Are you following a cookie-cutter training plan that might not mesh with how you recover after long and hard runs?
“My training plans are always written in pencil,” Sara Slattery, who placed fourth in the 10K at the 2008 Olympic Trials and is now the head men’s and women’s cross-country coach at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, tells Runner’s World. “Each athlete is very different in how they can handle training.”
Elite runners constantly adjust their training, and you’re allowed to as well. You might be someone who does best with three easy days before your toughest sessions, or who thrives on doing long runs on something other than a once-a-week schedule.