This often comes up in exchanges with runners. What is often shown in some of the glossy mags (which I believe are shrink wrapped on newsstands so you don’t see how third rate the content is before you pay for them) is that long runs should in the main be around Marathon pace plus one minute per mile, or sometimes described as marathon pace plus about 20%. This seems to be based mainly around what works for elite international runners, particularly males, and simply extrapolated .
So for a guy racing at 5 mins per mile (2.11), 6 mins per mile will often be a solid steady state run, whereas target marathon pace – that is, 5 mins exactly, will in most stages of training be quite a test for more than about 7 or 8 miles.
When you get to a typical 3 hour marathoner – 6 .52 per mile, the numbers don’t work quite so well. If you add 1 minute per mile you get to 7.52. If you add 20% you come to 8.14 per mile, and I don’t know any 3 hour types who would feel that 8.14 was a ‘steady’ long run pace, and indeed many would feel that 7.52 was somewhat relaxed, certainly their perceived effort would be gentler than a 2.11 runner knocking out 6.00. And their 8 miler at 6.52 would also be somewhat more comfortable than our elite chap clocking it in a round 40 minutes.
Move the bar a little lower and the ‘formula’ really goes astray. At 3.45, that is 8.35 per mile, we come out at either 9.35 or, on a 20% basis, about 10 mins 20 sec per mile. I’ve never yet coached a 3.45 type who feels ‘right’ chugging along at 10.20 pace – bear in mind this would be almost 50% slower than such a runner’s typical 10k race pace.
So, what’s going on here? Are the slower runners too inexperienced or headstrong to run at a sensible pace? Mainly I think that’s not the full story. It’s true that your average 3.45 runner will actually run very little of a marathon at their marathon pace AVERAGE. They will typically run about 15 miles notably quicker than this, then as things start to fall apart, about 4 or 5 miles at about the average pace, then spend the last 6 miles with the major payback for the overzealous opening miles. Generally the quicker you run a marathon, the less variation you will have in your mile splits as the race unfolds. But the very large majority of the 3.30 to 4 hour types that I coach spend the second half of the race, and particularly the last 6 miles, passing hundreds of runners whilst barely losing any places to people outpacing them.
But the main principle here is about physiology and a bit of maths. Go back to the 2.11 whippet. At 6.00 per mile, he is running at about a notional 5 or 6 hour race pace. To bear this assumption out (as so few 2.11 guys will put themselves through such ultra runs) look at the very sharp end of the Comrades Marathon over 56 miles and the numbers stack up. So, of course, the more your marathon time drifts away from 2.11, the more your marathon pace starts to approach your notional 5 to 6 hour race pace, so, it follows, the closer the physiological demands of what your ‘steady’ long run should be, and what your marathon race pace should be.
The same principle applies to some of the specific training sessions you do. So for example. those lengthy sessions where for about 70 to 90 mins you switch between about 10k race and slightly slower than marathon pace. The swifter the runner is, the closer to marathon pace the average pace of the session should be even though none of the session is at that pace, it’s all either quicker or slower – that’s the purpose. Makes sense though – in 90 mins of this sort of effort a 2.20 guy is covering over 16 miles, whereas a 3.45 marathoner might cover less than 12 miles, so the link to their likely 26 mile pace is much looser.