The Power of the Medium Long Run in Marathon Training

Most won’t argue that the long run is the glue when it comes to marathon training. Every single week runners improve their endurance by gradually building the mileage of their long run. Skipping them or even cutting them short can easily cause your training to completely fall apart. But long runs aren’t sufficient on their own to getting a runner to reach their potential in the marathon. Today we’re talking about another weekly run that should be on your schedule – the medium long run. And it may be just what your training needs to push your marathon to the next level.

In case you’re not familiar, a medium long run (or MLR) is pretty much what it sounds like. It’s medium long: the second longest run of the week. Here you’ll find out:

  • why including medium long runs into your marathon training is beneficial,
  • how long they should be,
  • what speed you should do them at,
  • and how to fit one into your weekly schedule.
Image by Daniel Reche from Pixabay

Why You Need Medium Long Runs in Your Marathon Training

Not everyone marathon training program you find will include medium long runs. If you are new to marathons, don’t necessarily have a time goal, or are already concerned about how you’ll find the time to fit in your mileage, than those plans can absolutely prepare you to run a marathon.

But if you are ready to take your training to the next level or are trying to find a way to snag a PR, adding medium long runs into your training just may be what you’ve been missing.

They can:

-help build endurance
-add an additional opportunity to increase mileage without adding another run
-build mental toughness

Let’s find out how they can bump up your training!

Gives Another Opportunity for Endurance Training

It’s important to remember that every single mile you run during the week is helping you build your endurance. That’s why safely building your weekly mileage is so important. (Read: “Want to be prepared for your marathon? Run More Miles”

But the best way to build endurance is by running long. Which is why you’ll never see a quality marathon training program without a weekly long run. So what’s the next best endurance builder? The medium long run.

Many runners will run five runs per week all about the same mileage (maybe all between 6-8 miles) and then do their long run. And though this can get you a good amount of mileage, it’s much better to vary the distances between each of your runs. Otherwise you’re really just creating a plateau over the course of the week. As a marathon runner, you need to have more opportunities to feel what it’s like to be on your feet for an extended period of time. It’s far preferable to have 4 short runs, a medium long run, and a long run instead of 5 runs of the same distance and a long run. Need more evidence?

Whereas this works, you’ll see that the long run is a major outlier in terms of mileage:

16 Long7 EasyOFF7 w/Speed6 Easy7 Easy6 Easy

Here’s the same amount of mileage, but BETTER because it gives your body another endurance boost midweek with the addition of a medium long run (plus it gives better recovery the day after the long run):

16 Long5 EasyOFF6 w/Speed6 Easy10 MLR6 Easy

Don’t believe just me? Runner’s World quotes coach Pete Pfitzinger, author of Advanced Marathoning, as saying:

“the muscles must maintain a sustained effort every three or four days, which leads to greater adaptations.”

Increases Your Mileage

When marathon training, time on your feet matters.

Many runners improve their marathon times simply by running higher mileage than they did in their previous training cycle and basically changing nothing else. Though there certainly isn’t a magic number that works for every runner (because with higher mileage also can come greater risk for injury), many aren’t maximizing their potential in this area.

Back when I trained for marathons in my 20s I was certainly doing the minimum and that wasn’t doing me any favors. I finally started seeing gains in my marathon performance after getting to 40-45 mile weeks and qualified for Boston maxing out at 50-55 mile weeks. Most recently training for Boston I’ve been running up to 60 miles per week.

One of the easiest ways to increase mileage is with the medium long run. Obviously you can’t add another day to your week, and I don’t personally recommend running every single day (as I discuss here). The length of your long runs is probably set already, too. Bumping up easy runs by a mile or 2, and then adding a good amount of mileage to another to make a medium long run is the simplest way to get more week-to-week mileage.

As long as you are fitting in your recovery days between hard days (read on), and are building mileage gradually (no more than a 10% increase each week) your body should be able to handle the uptick just fine.

Helps with Mental Preparation

Hey, it’s not easy fitting in a medium long run during the week among everything else you have to accomplish. But I bet you can. It’s often a matter of getting up extra early to make it happen. And that’s all part of building mental toughness. Additionally, knowing there is now another day in your week that’s going to take some extra effort to get it accomplished can be a bit overwhelming.

I understand because I’ve done training programs without medium long runs and it’s easier to skip them. And though I’ve heard some runners say it’s their favorite run of the week, it’s definitely not mine. But marathon training isn’t supposed to be easy. Being able to push through the toughest parts of your training is what’s going to help you be the strongest marathon runner you can be.

(Oh and you know what else helps with that mental prep? Doing a medium long run on the treadmill. Ugh. But if it’s in your schedule and that’s the only way…you gotta do it!)

This is me!

Length of the Medium Long Run

The long run will take up the highest percentage of your weekly mileage, and your medium long run will come second. Long runs often take up too high of a percentage of a runner’s total mileage, however, and it’s better if you can space out the mileage over the course of the week a bit better.

Many say that the long run should be about 25-30% of your weekly mileage, but honestly that’s tough for most runners to get to. But you don’t want really want your long run to be more than 50% of your weekly mileage either.

Adding in a Medium Long Run of about 9 – 12 miles is a great way to help lower that long run percentage while simultaneously helping your body to run long with more efficiency. When you’re building out your week, that’s something you’ll want to consider.

Here’s what a typical schedule might look like for a 50-mile week during the build-up and strength phase for me:

17 long run5 easyOFF7 w/speed5 easy11 MLR5 easy

That gives a great opportunity to build added endurance with the medium long run without giving too much percentage to the long run (this week would put it at 34% which is right where I usually am).

Curious about the different phases of marathon training? Read: “How Many Week to Train for a Marathon – And Great Plans to Use.”

Speed of the Medium Long Run

Most of the miles of your medium long run should easy paced (you’ll always want a warm-up and a cool-down). However, there is always a bit of work involved to “sharpen the knives” so to speak. It’s really the perfect time during the week to work on form or get in some strides to fit in some top speed that you normally wouldn’t.

Here are some typical medium long runs that I’ve done:

  1. MLR with 4-6 straights and curves. Straights and curves are supposed to be done on a track but I rarely run on a track. The way it works is that you run hard on the straight part of the track and then come to a slow job around the curve. Shoot for your 5k-10k pace on the straights – building in speed as you get toward your last ones.
  2. MLR with 6-8 flat strides at the end. So you’d run at your easy pace until the last couple of miles and then start your strides. These are accelerations about 100 meters in length. You start by jogging and then get into almost your top speed and start coming out of it so you’re back ending at a jog as you get to the 100 meter mark. You then walk back to your starting point and do it again. Strides are really important for getting your body into a comfortable rhythm at high speed.
  3. MLR with 6-8 hill strides at the end. Same as above except you’ll do these on a hill – ideally on a 2-4% grade.
  4. MLR with Tempo pace miles. Shoot for 4-5 half marathon paced miles sandwiched between easy warmup and cooldown miles.
  5. MLR with fast close. A “close” is where you end the run at a faster pace (though I always still like to do a mile of cooldown.) There isn’t an exact pace you need to shoot for necessarily – just what feels good on that day. If you can get down to your 5k pace – great – but getting to the at half marathon pace or 10K pace is beneficial, too.

Where in Your Schedule for the Medium Long Run

How you schedule your weeks is really important during marathon training. Way back when I started marathon training I had no idea there was really a rhyme or reason for how runs should be scheduled through the week other than that I ran my long run every single Sunday. Otherwise I just sort of ran when I wanted to and it was always at the same pace. Though you CAN train that way, it’s by no means going to help you perform your best.

After years of self-coaching, researching a lot (and listening to podcasts like Running Rogue), and then working with a coach, I’ve finally learned how to get the most out of my training while staying injury-free. And part of that scheduling includes a medium long run every week.

Photo by Plush Design Studio from Pexels

Here is what you need to consider when scheduling your medium long run:

1.) Every run you do falls into one of two categories – easy/recovery and hard/long.

Easy/recovery runs are done at your easy pace and are your shortest runs of the week.

Hard and/or long runs can vary in pace but require a significant amount more effort from you in either terms of speed, mileage or both. Any quality (speed) work that you do or long runs (including medium long runs) that you do fall into this category. These runs are tougher on your body and require recovery.

2.) You should never have to hard/long runs back-to-back in your schedule.

In fact, they should always be separated by an easy/recovery day as opposed to a day off (if you can help it). This is because your body needs to release the extra tension placed on your muscles and joints through easy movement and getting the blood flowing. We talk about this in depth in our article, “The Importance of Recovery Runs in Marathon Training.”

Here’s a 5-day schedule with an MLR:

Sunday: Long Run
Monday: Recovery Run
Tuesday: OFF
Wednesday: Speed/Quality workout
Thursday: Recovery Run
Friday: Medium Long Run
Saturay: OFF or Cross Train

Now on a 5-day schedule with 3 hard/long days included, it’s not possible to fit in 3 recovery days. What I recommend here is being extra careful to complete your medium long run at an easy pace. If you do end up including a little extra speed for a few miles in your MLR, be sure to at least get in a good walk or other type of light cardio on your off day between that and the long run.

Here’s my go-to 6 day per week schedule with an MLR. For me personally, I perform best on a 6-day schedule and I recommend it if you can swing it:

Sunday: Long Run
Monday: Recovery Run
Tuesday: Speed/Quality workout
Wednesday: Recovery Run
Thursday: Medium Long Run
Friday: Recovery Run
Saturday: OFF

With this schedule, you can (and should) take Saturday off completely. Honestly having that one day to fully rest will help keep you from getting burnt out, injured, or sick.

Ultimately, you want to find a way to get a medium long run in your schedule. It will definitely help you improve in your endurance running game!

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Marathon Running Tips & Tricks

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