Marathon Training: Do I Need a Long Distance Day Each Week?

Walking Path Through Park
Long Training Walk on Park Path. svetikd/E+/Getty Images

Question: Marathon Training: Do I Need a Long Distance Day Each Week?

Dixie writes, "I know the recommendation for marathon training is walking one long day per week. I believe that is to accumulate a particular total per week, which I would be meeting through the 3-4 times per week 8 mile walks. Do you think this will be adequate toward the goal of walking the marathon?"

Answer: Why You Need Long Slow Distance (LSD)

No, you can't train for a marathon by doing only 8-mile walks.

You really, really, really need to get in one long walk per walk, increasing the mileage by 2 miles every-other week. There is no substitute to doing longer mileage on 1 day of the week. You can simply add in a few extra miles to one of your training days once a week.

What is Long Slow Distance Training?

A long slow distance walk is a 90 minute - 5 hour walk done at 70-75% of your maximum heart rate (at age 45, that would be 120-130 bpm). That is a pace where you can carry on a full conversation. Doing them faster has no training benefit. You build up your distance at 1 mile per week or 2 miles every-other week.

Training Your Muscles at Long Slow Distance

As you challenge yourself with longer distance, your muscles, ligaments and tendons are taken past their normal exercise duration, and forced to build and strengthen.

You actually add new muscle fibers and mitochondria - the energy powerhouses of the muscles.

Toughening Your Feet

My feet almost never blister at 10 miles, but often blister at more than 12. I didn't know this when I was just doing 6.2 mile (10K) walks. Longer walks both toughen the skin of the foot and give you the chance to find out what blister prevention techniques work best for you.

For me, the answer is petroleum jelly and CoolMax socks.

Testing Your Gear and Shoes

Your usual walking shoes might be great at 10K, but you may realize at 20K that they don't have enough cushioning, or are too heavy, or don't correct for overpronation, and your legs feel beat up from 4 hours of pavement pounding. You will realize you need to carry a few more essentials on longer walks and will have to find just the right pack. You will need to find the right combination of shirt, sports bra, undies, shorts, tights, socks for longer distance. Your long slow distance training days are when you do that.

Testing Your Snacks and Drinks

Drinking enough, and getting used to the sports drink used by your chosen marathon, is crucial. Both dehydration and hyponatremia are real dangers for marathon walkers, as well as "bonking" from just plain running out of fuel. You will need to replace both water and body salt at long distance, and you need to get used to it on your long training days. You also need to try the energy snacks you will be using at the marathon, be they energy gels or bars or trail mix. You may experience stomach and gut problems due to the stress of long distance on the body that you won't at shorter distances.

Use your long training walks to find the right combination.

Burn Fat with Long Slow Distance

With longer walks, you are burning more stored fat, which is good for the body (if you have extra like many of us), so you have more muscle and less dead weight come marathon day.

Mental Endurance with Long Slow Distance

If you aren't doing long days before the marathon, you don't have a chance to build the mental endurance to keep going when your body says STOP. Just knowing that you did 18 or 20 mile days a few weeks before is enormous support when you begin to tire at mile 16 on the marathon. The last 6 miles of the marathon are tough for everybody mentally.

You are battling fatigue and despair. It is good that you did the same thing at 18 and 20 miles a few weeks before, to know that you can make it, that you aren't going to die, that you will recover. Also, you need to test your entertainment systems on long walks. That can be conversations with walking companions, music or audiobooks on an MP3 player, CD or cassette player. What is going to keep you going through 5-8 hours of walking?

Don't Wait to do Your Long Slow Distance

If you wait till the month before the marathon to start doing the long walks, that is too late to truly build up your mileage appropriately without taking too big of leaps. Instead, in the month before the marathon you should be doing 18-21 mile long days, every other week, with a 14-16 mile day on the "off" week.