Tips on Enduring the Pain of Long Runs

The best part about coaching is ushering in new marathoners to the 1%. I try to think about what I would have wanted to know as I trained for my first marathon back in 2014. The pain of long runs and anxiety of training in the final weeks leading to the race are definitely topics that were discussed. Some of the information here overlaps my earlier post on marathon training tips for newbies. I hope that sharing what I’ve learned over the years will be helpful!

This picture was taken early in my running journey during my first Carytown 10k.

Even now, training for what will hopefully be my 8th marathon, I still get a bit worked up over the next jump in mileage on my weekend long runs. All things considered, this training season has been extremely low-key and relaxed, but the anxiety for my 20 miler the other weekend still emerged! It usually takes the form of seemingly unexplained irritability during my day prior, along with a series of very strange dreams the night before. Go figure.

Our brains try to help us forget the pain we endure during a marathon. In that way, it’s kind of like childbirth. That pain is a progression from what we feel on those 16, 18, and 20 milers. There are scientific explanations for the muscle pain, fatigue, and cramping, and a multitude of theories on how to combat the abuse we endure to train for and run 26.2. Basically, the culprit for pain is a combination of different substances produced by your body as a result of prolonged exercise that lowers the pH in your muscles, including lactate. This article does an excellent job explaining the science if you want to geek out on the topic.

So, yeah, we know why. But what can we DO about it?

Some of the work needs to happen before your long run. If you’re in the part of your season where you are in the upper double digit runs, I would recommend switching to maintenance mode for cross training. Don’t lift heavy! Your body needs to use its resources for your runs. Hydrate well in the day or two prior to your long runs. I would suggest taking in both water and electrolyte drinks in the days prior to your long run. In addition, make sure you are fueling well. That means carbs! Also, make sure you are resting well at night.

To reduce stress in the morning of your long run, lay out all of your gear the night before. Nothing sets up for a bad run more than the anxiety of not being able to find your favorite running shorts or visor in the morning, especially if you’re trying to do this in the dark to avoid disturbing your spouse! That, my friends, is energy wasted. It’s also great practice for race day.

Anticipate chafing areas. For men, cover your nipples. My running buddies swear by band-aids. For ladies, your bra line may need some attention with Body Glide. Do your thighs tend to chafe? Try wearing longer shorts. Do your upper arms chafe? Body Glide. For your feet, I use Body Glide lotion, which works well for me. Speaking of feet, make sure your socks are good quality! There are so many options, and I’ve found that I have to change my sock strategy if I change up shoe brands. When choosing leggings or bike shorts, look for flat seams; raised seams will flip and chafe.

Consider your headwear. A visor or a hat can help keep rain or sun out of your eyes, and if it’s really sunny, sunglasses will reduce eye strain and squinting. My head coach loves to tell our team that it’s amazing how much energy we waste by squinting! I’m a big fan of the Goodr brand; they are polarized, comfortable, and not so expensive that my soul will be crushed if I lose a pair.

I’m almost always in a visor and Goodr sunglasses on race day! This was after the One City Half Marathon in March, right before COVID forced races to be canceled.

During your run, make sure you are staying hydrated and fueled properly. Now that the weather is cooling off as we transition into fall, we tend to reduce our fluid intake, as we don’t sweat as much. But the cool temps can be deceiving! I try to alternate between water and electrolyte replacement on my long runs, and I typically carry Nuun Endurance as my electrolyte replacement, as it has more carbs. I still love Nuun Sport for shorter runs and to pre-load electrolytes.

Speaking of carbs, you will burn through them while running, and that glucose needs to be replaced. Choose your endurance supplements wisely! Experiment to see which chews or gels settle on your stomach; the weekend long runs are practice for race day. Another good thing to have handy on long runs is salt tabs or chews for a quick burst of electrolytes. I love the lemon lime salt chews, which are vegan. If your muscles start cramping, take one of these chased with water. It will help, I promise. Last year, during the Richmond marathon, I handed out many of these just before the Lee Bridge at mile 16. But sometimes, your body just needs food. I always crave salt, so carrying a small bag of pretzels or a few potato chips as a backup is always on board for race day, but I’ve also been known to enjoy a fun size bag of Skittles during a race!

An assortment of endurance supplements from REI

Another thing that can help is stretching during your run. Taking a moment, even just a few seconds, to stretch out your calves on the curb, your IT band with a standing stretch, or your shoulders can alleviate your discomfort and fatigue enough to plow through a couple more miles.

Take a walk break. I’m queen of what I’ve dubbed “intuitive intervals.” When my body needs a break, I walk. For the average endurance athlete, it’s almost expected. You can even plan your walk breaks with set intervals, AKA the Galloway method. Breaking up your movement patterns from your running to walking gait can give your muscles an opportunity to move a different way, helping you feel more refreshed to take on further mileage. Forward propulsion in any fashion still gets you to the finish line.

It’s also important to differentiate between your average, overall marathon discomfort from pain in a specific place, which usually indicates an injury. Also take note if you experience dizziness, abnormal breathing patterns, or heart palpitations.  If these happen on race day, it’s a good idea to get checked out in the med tent, even if you make it to the finish. It’s part of what you pay for.

In addition to physical means of adapting to the pain of the long run, there are some mental strategies as well. I try not to use music the entire run, but somewhere in the second half, it’s really helpful, and can be just the mental boost I need. Kind of like a reward. Running with a buddy is also ideal. And on race day, if you have family on the course, anticipating seeing them periodically along the way can help carry you through.

Another strategy is to visualize the finish. During training runs, I often start thinking about my post-run meal. It keeps me motivated to get back to my car as quickly as possible! On race day, I also picture myself crossing the finish line; I think about entering the chute, crossing the timing mat, getting that medal, getting the post-race snacks. And then I still think about my post-run meal…

With my good friend Sarah after our first marathon! We ran every step together, which made crossing the finish line that much sweeter!

During the Richmond marathon, Sports Backers coaches are on the course, and our biggest role is as cheerleaders! One of my friends still talks about my not-so-wonderful-but-uplifting version of RESPECT, singing along with music playing on the course as I checked in with her at about mile 24 last year! It gave her the boost she needed to get to the finish!

Cheerleading on the course of the Richmond Marathon last year! This is on the south side of the Lee Bridge. Photo courtesy of Eric Nachman.

But most of all, run the mile you’re in. Just keep chipping to the finish. And remember why you began this journey in the first place.

The soreness you feel after the race that gets a bit worse the day or two after is the dreaded DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). This article dives deep into the topic; yes, another opportunity to geek out! I usually take a long Epsom salt bath after my run to help speed up the inflammatory process that causes this pain. This actually gets better with movement, so taking short walks, avoiding exclusively parking yourself on the couch, and refueling with healthy food are all great ways to combat this discomfort.

Now, let’s talk briefly about ibuprofen. Some people will take it before the race to prevent pain. I would strongly advise against that. It will wreak havoc on your GI system unless you have an iron stomach. I know this from experience! I didn’t take it to prevent pain, but to drive down a fever prior to running the Shamrock Half Marathon one year (also a stupid idea… but running while sick is a topic for another day!) Let’s just say that the results were startling. First of all, although it did keep my fever down, it did nothing to prevent the pain from running the distance; it also produced GI bleeding. I was also desperate enough to take it during the last few miles of the MCM last year, knowing what may happen, with the same results. Just trust me… don’t do it. And taking it for DOMS after your race provides only marginal relief, at best. This article discusses all the NSAIDs on the market and risks/benefits of each so you can make an educated decision about their use.

Right now, I’m in taper for this year’s Marine Corps Marathon, which I will run “virtually” in Richmond on October 11th with my best friend and a few others from our circle of running buddies. Taper brings its own special set of joys, but since the pressure of running under a strict time frame is off, I’m hoping for an enjoyable taper and marathon run!

My MCM medal from last year!

If you’re in or near Richmond, it’s not too late to sign up for the Richmond Marathon! It will be run on an official, chip timed course along the Virginia Capital Trail, and is a Boston qualifying event.

Are you an endurance runner? What strategies have you used to help you endure the discomfort of the long run? I’d love to hear about it! As always, I hope you all are safe and healthy.

Published by annecreates

I am a physical therapist, wife, mom, runner, artist, and vegan. I'm passionate about helping others find wellness, speaking about the human experience, and in fighting for social justice. Assistant Coach for the Sports Backers Marathon Training Team. Current ambassador for: Boco Gear, SaltStick, SPIbelt, Goodr, Noxgear, and Switch4Good.

7 thoughts on “Tips on Enduring the Pain of Long Runs

  1. So many great tips. I love thinking back to when I trained for my first race properly. I love that you mentioned walking. Seriously, so many people look down on themselves for having to walk during a long run but really, any forward progress is progress! Definitely have to quote my girl Des and say “Keep showing up” because even though not every day will be rainbows and unicorns, you’re doing the damn thing and you are a rare breed of awesome!

    Liked by 1 person

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