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The Marathon Long Run: Should You Go More Than 20 Miles?

Are You Doing The Best Long Run Training For Your Marathon? ~

By: Denise Sauriol

I’ve coached a lot of first timers in getting their first marathon successes. Most people are a little nervous or excited as they approach their first really long runs of 16+ miles and want to know more about how to approach them and what to expect.

What To Expect For Your First 20-Mile Run

The infamous 20 miler is a key milestone on our road to 26.2.

Think of the 20 miler as the take home exam we always wanted in school, a problem we could figure out while the pressure is off.

The only catch is that it’s a take home exam where we aren’t privy to one last essay question. That essay question is the final 6.1 miles/10K of our marathon that determines if we pass or fail the exam.

The teacher and fate are going to keep that under wraps until Marathon day!

If you run more than one 20 mile run, your last 20 miler is normally run 3 weeks prior to your marathon. After that, it’s Taper Time! Time to finally give your legs a break and your social life a revisit.

How Many Miles Does A Long Run Need To Be To Get Through A Marathon?

There are a few schools of training that profess you should only run 20 miles or 3 hours, whichever occurs first. In all of my years of marathoning and coaching, I’ve found there is no set recipe for everyone.

In working with my first time marathoners, whether in person or virtual coaching, I usually try to get them to run 22 miles instead of just 20. But only if they have been consistent with their training. If they missed a lot of long runs and/or had an injury, I just have them do a 20 miler.

Finishing the 20 mile run (or longer) is a huge feather in your cap come race day. I find that completing a 20 miler provides a more crucial advantage for training and confidence for a first timer, allowing you to more easily complete your first marathon.

This is especially the case for a first timer if life or an injury got in the way of their long runs.

For someone who has already completed a marathon, that previous marathon finish line is the advantage or feather in their cap, so to speak.

Why Should Anyone Run More Than 20 Miles In Training?

I want them to go 22 miles so they have a thicker, stronger feather of confidence and ability in their training cap for marathon morning.

When I run with my coaching clients, I try to sneak in the 2 extra miles (getting them to run 22 miles instead of 20) by keeping them distracted with talking and asking questions so that they won’t look at their watch. Essentially their mind is outside of what they are doing and their feet subsequently follow.

For some of my veteran runners, I even have them run 2-3 22 mile long runs. Some training plans cap out at a 16 mile long run, which I think is generally not enough for the average runner to have a confident, comfortable finish.

What Else Should I Be Doing For My 20 Mile Run?


Practice is also needed for your pacing during the race. For most first timers, the goal is to finish, so you’ll just want to keep up your long distance pacing.

But if you really have a goal time, it’s ideal to run even splits (the first half of the race the same pace as the second half of the race) or if you can manage it, negative splits (running faster miles in the second half of the race compared to the first half).

If you are running an organized 20 miler and they have pace groups, now is the time to test drive a pace group if you haven’t run with one before.

The thing to remember about pacing, though, is that for first timers, any finish is a huge success.

Pre-Race Meals

With your 20 miler, just like in your long runs, you want to practice the meals that you will have on the night before the race and the morning of the race, as well as practicing the nutrition and timing of nutrition during the marathon.

Sleeping-Get this trick!

Here’s a tip many experienced marathoners aren’t aware of: On Marathon eve and your 20 miler eve, you want to sleep in that morning before your run (24 hours before your runs) because you usually don’t get quality sleep the night before a race for various reasons.

Final Thoughts

One key difference between the 20+ miler and the marathon is that on race morning you won’t be running on tired legs because you will have tapered!

Oh yeah, and there will be less pomp and circumstance at your 20 miler. Not many spectators will be out on the course supporting your take home final. You also won’t get a medal after your 20 mile run, but you will have the great sense of accomplishment.

Here’s hoping you ace both your pre-race test and your final!

Running Coach Denise Sauriol coaches runners of all levels, both in person and virtually. She has raced everything from a 5K to an Ironman. The running bug caught Denise in 4th grade and the coaching bug caught her in 2007. She can be reached at  Follow her and her clients on facebook at at

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