No Shortcuts: The Importance of the Long Run

The long run sets us apart. It’s the hallmark of distance runners as no other sport incorporates a workout consisting of so many hours of ground pounding, leg beating, and heart-and-lung-busting practice. Increasing the duration of one or two weekly runs will improve your performance. Several beneficial physiological adaptations occur by running farther:

  • The body becomes proficient at burning fat, its optimal fuel source.
  • Muscle and liver glycogen, the major forms of stored carbohydrates in the body, are more effectively amassed and utilized.
  • The size and number of muscle capillaries and mitochondria, the blood vessels and cellular factories that facilitate aerobic energy, increase.
  • VO2 max, the maximum amount of oxygen an individual can use during intense exercise, increases. The more oxygen we can utilize during hard sessions, the higher our VO2 max, and the more power we’ll produce during a workout.

We tangibly experience these fitness gains in several ways:

  • What once were ‘long’ runs feel shorter.
  • Faster recovery after running up steep hills or after brief bursts of speed.
  • A desire to do longer events.
  • Personal records are often earned in longer distance races by those new to the volume increase.
  • Confidence grows because we learn to work through fatigue and handle discomfort.

A long run’s duration should correspond with the athlete’s current ability level. A new-to-running participant or those returning from a lengthy recovery period will run shorter distances than an experienced runner well into their training cycle. Depending on the athlete’s background and goals, it may take months or years of adaptation to prepare the body for the rigors of a high-mileage event. Manage the length and execution of your long run by following these guidelines:

  • Eliminate the variables. Run by time, not mileage. Weather, terrain, altitude, surface, and your mental and physical condition are never the same from one day to the next. Instead of ‘racing’ to get in that last mile, settle into whatever pace the day brings and maintain it until the allotted time is up.
  • Don’t overreach. When beginning a new training cycle (either as a newbie or returning from a break), keep long runs realistic and sustainable. For the first four to eight weeks, maintain a long-run length that’s between roughly 20 to 30% of your total weekly running time. For example, if you run a total of four hours a week, your long run should fall between 50 and 75 minutes. However, depending on your event and goals—especially ultrarunners—once your routine and base fitness are established, long-run length may grow exponentially compared to the rest of your weekly running volume.
  • Eat and drink properly. Hydrate according to the conditions. The amount you consume will depend on your sweat rate, fitness level, and temperature. For runs over 90 minutes, consider carbohydrate supplementation. Aim for 100 to 300 calories an hour. For runs over 2.5 hours, it’s a must. Prevent the ‘bonk‘ by providing your brain and muscle tissue glucose, an easily absorbed source of quick energy that keeps our body running efficiently.
  • Start fresh. Stack the odds in your favor. Starting a long run overly fatigued or mentally burned out is a sure way to a miserable day. Schedule an easy day or two before a long run.
  • Recover properly. Our work isn’t done after the run is finished. Our body grows strongest and adapts best when it’s allowed to mend. Keep post-long run exertions, at least for a day or two, recovery-oriented.
  • Get specific. In order to prepare for the particular challenges of your event, the bulk of your long runs should occur on the same terrain as the goal race. However, don’t let terrain specificity rule your long-run location choices. Occasional variation allows for both mental and physical reprieve.
  • Monitor your effort. The objective of the long run is simply to spend a lot of time on your feet, not to see how fast you can do it. (There’s a time and place for that, but it’s a different workout.) The pace should be easy, but the effort consistent. Depending on the route and your ability level, walk breaks may be necessary. If you use a heart-rate monitor, keep your pulse below 70 to 80% of maximum.

If long races and non-competitive adventure runs are on your calendar, you can’t avoid long training runs. They are the most effective way to harden your mind and body to what awaits you on race day.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you have any tips or tricks which help you successfully through your own long runs?
  • What are the hardest parts of the long run for you? And what elements of a long run come easy?