The key component of a marathon training schedule is the weekly long run. As far as I am concerned I can move other sessions around or even skip certain runs but the 18+ miler at the weekend is non-negotiable.
Heathens that we are, most runners choose to do theirs on a Sunday morning. This isn’t a deliberate affront to religious traditions, or isn’t intended to be at least – though the similiarities between running and religion are interesting. A post for another time perhaps. Personally, it is the most convenient day and doesn’t clash with work. I would find it very difficult to run for two and half hours having spent the day at work, or at least would struggle to put in a quality run. Sunday morning runs allow you to spend the rest of the day taking it easy, perhaps following the run with a gentle stroll in the afternoon, something I find helps my recovery.
Since joining my athletics club, I usually do the long run with a group of other runners, with all of us adjusting for the varying degrees of ability or fatigue by running off and coming back to the group or letting the others do the same to us. However, I am starting to question the merits of this approach. As I see it the long run serves two key purposes: to build and allow you to maintain a good level of endurance, and to train your mind to cope with the challenge of running a long distance. Unquestionably, the group long run serves the first of these purposes but what about the second? Are you training the mind enough in a group situation or should you be trying to develop the kind of toughness it takes to run 22 miles completely on your own on a dark January morning? Does an assisted effort prepare you sufficiently for when you get dropped at 19 miles and your calf muscles start knotting like a climber’s rope? At risk of sounding like Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, what is better in the long run?
As a conversation starter this morning I asked one of my training partners whether we should try running separately as a means of toughening up. He told me that as long as you’re pacing yourself right, you’ll end up in a group anyway – provided you’re in a large enough field, so you will be able to share the work. His point is a good one. Surely the idea should be to get your pacing strategy sorted rather than worry about how well prepared you are for running solo. On top of this you are still running those miles, be it on your own or not, and being in a group can undoubtedly help you maintain a good pace and level of intensity. Often when I run on my own I take my eye off the ball and lose focus. Maybe this is a fault that is unique to me or maybe it is an inherent human trait but whatever the cause, a mile run in 6 minutes is better than a mile run in 9.
I can see the merits in both. I like the idea of training the mind to cope with the rigours of a marathon race, and am equally convinced by the notion that you simply train better in a group. Whichever is right I can’t see myself changing my training too much. A good run with my mates is more enjoyable, which is really the point to all this running anyway.