After Struggling Through My Long Training Runs for the Chicago Marathon, I Asked 2 Coaches for Help

It can be tough to get through those double-digit runs, especially when they go over 20 miles — but there are tricks to managing the long hours spent on your feet

marathon training
Julie Mazziotta. Photo: Madison Hynes

When I started training for the Chicago Marathon in July, I wasn't too worried about the increasingly long Saturday runs on the schedule. I had trained for a marathon once before (which I never got to run…don't go for a hike two weeks before race day and sprain your ankle), and I had managed to do every single run solo on trails near my childhood home in Maryland — just me, my little 12 oz. handheld water bottle and my iPod Shuffle.

But this time around, seven years later and in the midst of a global pandemic, I found that the long runs weren't as cathartic. Instead, I was miserably plodding through hot, humid miles, trying to use that same little water bottle and finding that it lasted me about 6 miles (or less, in the case of a 12-miler where all the water sloshed out of the poorly-fitting top).

Along the way, I figured it out. Last weekend I did my big 22-miler, my last truly long run before the race that's just 16(!) days away. It was still insanely humid — thank you, late September East Coast weather — but I had a hydration vest with all the water I could want, plenty of gels for fueling and a running buddy, my friend Madison, who played DJ for us when those last few miles got tough.

What I should've done earlier, though, was tap into the wealth of running knowledge offered by Nike during my Chicago training: our two running coaches, Jes Woods and Rebeka Stowe. Both are distance running coaches and know all about getting through long runs, especially Jes, who's done five 100-mile races. Here's what to know about long runs, and how to make it through.

What's the goal of long runs?

JW: You are basically training for one big, long run — the marathon. There's obviously physiological benefits, like increasing endurance and all that good stuff. But if you imagine the marathon as being just another long run, then all of your long runs leading up to it are practice to get to race day. You're practicing the mileage itself, you're practicing time on feet, you're practicing nutrition, you're practicing if you want to listen to the music or not. You're figuring out if these clothes are chafing, or if this shoe is bothering you. They're practices for the big long run.

RS: You're experiencing that physical and mental toll of the time spent on your feet and the constant desire to want to stop, and callousing yourself to the requirements that you have to meet in order to complete a marathon.

On most training plans, the most you run is 20 to 22 miles — why don't you do closer to 26.2?

JW: Any time you go out for an effort-based run — a speed run or a long run — you're breaking down your body. You have inflammation, you have these tiny muscle tears and all of that is normal and part of the process. But you're beating yourself up anytime you go out for these long runs, and you need to be able to repair those tiny muscle tears and build back stronger and adapt to these stresses leading up to race day. So if you were to go out for 26.2 miles or beyond before race day, then it's going to be pretty darn hard to like repair and recover and bounce back and be able to then run the marathon itself.

When the distance seems really daunting, what are some ways to get through it?

JW: I would say the number one way is to run with people. There's something about the power in numbers and the group energy and feeding off of that. And I'm sure there's a laundry list of both mental and probably even physical benefits of running with a group. If you don't have a friend to run with, go to your local running store and ask if they have a marathon training group, or if they know of any local clubs in the area. Or, if you're not able to physically run with people, try the Nike Running app, which has guided runs that can help take your mind off the fact that you're running for hours.

You can also listen to your favorite podcasts, or make a great playlist. And try changing up the scenery — drive to a new trail or do a destination long run where you're running to a reward, like the beach or a doughnut shop or a brewery.

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RS: Have a very extensive toolkit, because what works one day might not work another day. Over a 16-week marathon buildup, it's an opportunity to try out 16 different approaches so on race day you have a variety of tools to pull from. Maybe it's a playlist you really enjoy, or focusing on the experience of the way your arms move and your feet hit the pavement, or breaking it all up mentally into manageable chunks of three to five segments.

And be present in the moment. Because if you get too far ahead of yourself thinking about, oh my goodness, I still have this much distance to cover, or if you're thinking too far in the past, like, oh my gosh, I've already gone 18 miles and I'm so tired, neither one are actually objectively moving you closer to the outcome. It's pulling you away from the present experience.

What pace should you be running?

JW: Most of the time it's going to be an easy run, easy as in conversational pace, something that you feel like you could hold on to for a very long time. I think the number one mistake that a lot of beginners make is running their long runs too fast. You get in your head that, okay, well, I'm supposed to run 26.2 miles at a 9-minute mile pace, so I better do all of my runs at that pace. But then you're putting your body through that tremendous amount of stress. Do your speed and tempo runs hard, your recovery and long runs easy, and save that race pace for race day.

Is it okay to take breaks?

JW: Yes, but keep them short and sweet. Visualize going through one of the aid stations at the marathon — you have the length of the water table to rest, take some water in, open up your gel and then pick up and start running again.

How can we get through hot weather runs?

JW: As much as you don't want to, start early. We're trying to beat the heat. So start early, fuel early. Wear the protective stuff, like a hat, sunglasses. And if you have access to ice, put it under your hat, in your sports bra — anything to keep that core temperature down.

RS: Hydration is big, and it's not just the morning of — it's 48 hours ahead of time making sure you're getting some electrolytes. On the East Coast, it can be super humid, and in the Midwest you have that hot, direct heat. The heat is a challenge. Ideally, find a friend that's down to hop on a bike and go with you and give you water.

What about winter runners gearing up for a spring marathon?

JW: One of the mistakes that we make in the cooler weather training is not fueling and hydrating as much as we should because you just don't have those physical cues to remind yourself to hydrate. You still need to fuel every 45 minutes and drink water early and often.

And then it's the game of layering. You don't want to sweat a lot and then be freezing cold. Dress as if it is 15 degrees warmer outside. If you're going for a run in 40 degrees, you dress as if it's 55 degrees, because yes, you're going to be cold for the first mile, but you're going to warm up once you get moving.

RS: Know where you're going and if there's water fountains, because those can get shut down in the winter. And do a bit of a warmup indoors, just to get your core temperature elevated so you're ready to go and not trying to dually warm up your body and warm up your running legs.

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