All marathon runners know you should make your long run count. We take masochistic pride in them. We know we should run them at a slower pace.  But often that feels pointless and unnecessarily time-consuming. So most of us struggle to resist the temptation to see how far we can run at our planned race pace.

What we fail to appreciate is that actually running your long run too hard each week can make you less fit and less likely to make it to the start line of your marathon.

Since I shifted perspective from athlete to coach, I am a reformed character. Now I better understand the principles of optimal performance and efficiency in training. Since I have applied them to my own marathon training I’m running better and less injured too.

So what are these principles and how do they help to make your long run count?

What is optimal performance?

Optimal performance is the best performance you can achieve in your chosen event. For marathon runners, this tends to be focused on one or two races per year. By definition, optimal performance is not something you can repeat every week – either in competition or training. Most importantly, by implication this means that all your training should be sub-optimal in some way.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t run fast in training. But it does mean you shouldn’t run your long run as hard as you can every week either.

Know your pace. Set your watch to help you stick to it

How does your long run fit into your training?

There are a number of key physiological changes you aim to achieve from long runs.

● To improve your ability to pump oxygen to your muscles by strengthening your heart
• To increase the number of capillaries within your muscles which increases blood volume and oxygen absorption.

● To encourage your body to develop its ability to burn fat which increases your available energy.

● To improve your running form.

Like my former self, runners often don’t appreciate that these adaptations arise mostly from the duration not the pace of the long run. As a result we wrongly believe that running more slowly is less beneficial.

In fact, the opposite is true. Running faster potentially decreases the desired adaptations because you overload the body too much. And all this leads onto the concept of training efficiency.

Understanding efficiency in training

Injury is a common and inherent risk of marathon training, followed closely by illness. Understanding the concept of efficiency in training can minimise these risks and improve your chances of lining up on the big day alongside your fellow runners.

Training efficiency is applying the minimum possible load to achieve the desired adaptations that will then enable you to deliver the performance you want. Translated into practice this means running at a steady, comfortable pace usually below your target marathon pace.

If you overload the body too much or too soon it cannot adapt as well. As a result you either plateau or deteriorate. In practical terms that means you fail to improve or even start running more slowly (supposedly for “no apparent reason”) or worst of all become injured or ill.

Running your long run as hard as you can every week puts significant strain on your body which then has less time to recover before the next run. Not only do you not benefit from your long run but you also lose the potential benefits from the next few runs as well.

Sometimes you still need to be specific

The caveat to this is the importance of specificity in training – the need to replicate the race requirements you’ll face in the marathon. So although you don’t want to run every long run as hard as you can, as your training progresses it is beneficial to include some sections of marathon pace in some of your long runs.

Remember your long run is only one element of your overall training programme. Other sessions such as tempo runs, intervals and steady running also play their own important roles too.

Understanding some basic principles of training help you to think like a coach not just an athlete. Sacrifice your masochistic pride and don’t be afraid to slow down on your next long run to ensure you are training most efficiently.

Make your long run count. But most importantly, make sure you save your optimal performance for the marathon itself.