How to Add Race Simulation Long Runs to Your Marathon Training

These taxing workouts are best reserved for experienced marathoners looking to improve their finishing times.

Jake asks: I’m training for my first marathon and have heard that adding race simulation long runs to my plan will help. What is the difference between a long, slow run and a race simulation run? Should both be part of my training?

Welcome to the wonderful world of marathoning, Jake. This is a wise question, because these two types of long runs affect your body in very different ways.

The long, slow run is the bread and butter for distance runners. It builds endurance and teaches you how to spend lots of time on your feet comfortably. You know you’re at the optimal long, slow run pace if you can talk in full sentences. When you can chat about life on the run, you’re training in the aerobic zone and utilising fat as a primary fuel source.

Race simulation long runs vary greatly based on the coach, and include mileage at both your long, slow pace as well as your marathon pace. For example, instead of running 16 kilometres at a long, slow effort, you might run the last half at close to your planned marathon effort or pace. The idea is to practise running longer distances at target marathon effort to learn how to pace at race effort and develop the fitness to do so.

Running both longer and harder in one workout can be effective for training, but it also has consequences: you will need more time to recover, which can affect your workout performance for a few days afterward. Race simulation long runs also require a solid foundation of running endurance, which you’re establishing this season. Running too many of these can lead to injury, burnout and disappointing race performances.

First-time marathoners like yourself are best to focus on long, slow runs and develop the endurance to run longer distances safely. Every long run is a personal record and a challenge all on its own. When you add more stress via race simulation runs, it can greatly increase your risk for injury. Save the harder-effort running for your mid-week sessions this season.

For healthy runners who are aiming to improve their marathon finish times, it’s effective to weave in race simulation workouts on your cutback long runs and a few additional times later in the season. For my advanced runners, I alternate a long, slow run with a cutback long run to allow their bodies time to adapt and recover and weave in occasional 13 to 19km race simulation runs as well.

I have them simulate race effort rather than pace (per my colour-coded zones of intensity system) throughout the simulation run. I start them with just 13 to 16 kilometres earlier in the season with a higher percentage of kilometres in the easy zone and progress them to running longer (16 to 19km) with a higher percentage in the moderate zone (race effort).

Here are two samples of early and late season race simulation runs.

13km Early Season Race Simulation Run

6km in the easy, yellow zone
5km in the moderate, orange zone
2 km in the hard, red zone

19km Late Season Race Simulation Run

6km in the easy, yellow zone
11km in the moderate, orange zone
2km in the hard, red zone

The secret to successful marathoning is to evolve like a fine wine, in time and with gradual progression.


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