Training: Long runs

A key constituent of almost every training plan for the runner who is looking to improve (which for the purposes of these articles is taken to mean getting quicker or able to cover longer distances) is the long run. It can be the run you most look forward to, most fear, or often both at once. Despite its significance, it can raise a lot of questions, that we will aim to answer here, in the second of our series of training articles.

What is the long run?

It might be easier to think in terms of purpose rather than distance. Long runs are the longest runs you will do in a training micro-cycle (the smallest period of time in which we organise our runs – usually a week). The majority of runners, working a conventional Monday to Friday working week, will organise their training to follow the rhythm of a 7 day week. At the weekend, when they have the time to do it, they’ll go for a run that is longer than their typical week-day runs.

Don’t get too hung up on this, though. Lots of Lonely Goat Running Club members are part of the club because they work shifts or have varying work patterns which make committing to a conventional club’s timetable tricky. For example, someone who works 6 days on, 3 days off, would have their ‘weekend’ start every 9 days and could plan their running around a 9 day microcycle. That’s fine – there’s no reason why a long run can’t fall every 9 days, rather than 7, or change frequency depending on shift patterns. What is important is that you do them often enough to get the benefit, but space them out enough to be able to recover adequately between them.

How long is long?

Some runners will find themselves wondering ‘how long does a run have to be before its considered a long run?’ They might consult the internet and may find themselves bewildered and confused by the range of answers. They may also find themselves upset by the tone of some of the answers saying things like “any run shorter than 10/15/20 miles, or 90/120/150 minutes is not a long run.” Such answers are nonsense, unhelpful and ill-considered, and often the result of macho posturing. Instead, the question should be “what is the purpose of the long run?”  Then, the answer will depend on the runner’s goals, and that will help define the distance required based on current fitness levels or other factors.

Consider these examples

Andrea has run half marathons, but wants to run a marathon. Her longest run when training for half marathons is 15 miles, but she has a current maximum of 10 miles as she’s eased back a little since her last event. With 16 weeks until the marathon she needs to improve her endurance to prepare for running 11 miles further than she has ever run.

The long run exists to improve her endurance and prepare her physically and mentally for the challenge ahead. A longest run of 20 miles, 3 weeks out, would be a reasonable target. By adding a mile to her Sunday run every week or so she’ll be able to achieve this.

Balthazar is a complete beginner. He’s doing a version of Couch to 5K, building up to the point where he’ll be able to run for 30 minutes non-stop. Currently he can only run for 5 minutes. Like Andrea he needs to improve his endurance. He can do this by adding a few extra minutes to his weekend run (the longest run he does each week) until he hits 30 minutes. He might only be aiming to do 3 miles, rather than Andrea’s 20, but the weekend long runs are serving the same purpose for each runner, relative to their ability.

Claudia has different goals. She is an experienced ultramarathoner who has signed up to a mile long race in her local park. She’s been challenged by a friend and wants to win, so she’s following a mile-race specific training plan with lots of runs that are shorter and faster than she is used to. Claudia’s endurance ability is beyond doubt, but she wants to maintain that endurance with her long runs.

She decides that 10 miles once a week is enough to maintain her endurance, without tiring her legs out so much that she can’t do her speed sessions properly. Previously, Claudia might have thought 20, or even 30 miles was the minimum that counted as a long run. That might have been true when training for ultramarathons, but now her goals have changed, so has her understanding of what a long run is.

Based on the above examples, we can see that the long run’s purpose is usually to either a) extend our endurance, or b) maintain it. The specific distance will therefore vary according to how far we need to go to achieve this purpose. Examples of appropriate long run distances for different events will feature in the event specific training articles later in this series.

Pros and cons

The positives from doing long runs well are not just an improved physiological capacity for endurance, and increased resistance to the damage caused by running, but a psychological preparation for covering the distance required in an event. Given the above, long runs are an important part of any training plan.

Perhaps due to the fact they are the longest – and often hardest – runs of the week they can be a main focus. This can, in some instances, lead to one of the problems with long runs: that runners focus on the long run to the detriment of the other parts of their programme.

Consider Andrea from the examples above. She is so concerned about making the jump from half marathons to marathons that she decides she needs to get up to 20+ mile long runs as quickly as possible and doubles her long run distance from 10 to 20 miles in only 4 weeks. She luckily manages to do so without getting injured, but is so tired she ends up missing some of her mid-week runs, faster runs, or gym sessions. The result is that her overall mileage actually decreases and she ends up losing fitness and injury resilience even though her long run distance has increased. This will make it very hard for her to keep going in the latter stages of her marathon.

Similarly, Balthazar is so focused on hitting his long run targets on his app’s training plan that he fails to listen to his body and ends up getting injured. The result is he has to take some time off running and it takes him 6 weeks longer than planned to reach 5K. If he had worried less about hitting his long run target and dropped back or repeated a couple of weeks, building up more slowly, he might not have gotten injured and lost less time.

Finally, Claudia loves doing long runs so much that she falls back into her 20 mile long run habit, which leaves her too tired to do her speed sessions, with dull legs lacking the bounciness to run quickly, and she ends up losing her race against her friend.

Integrating long runs into your training

These scenarios could have been avoided if the runners had focused less on the long runs as a stand alone event, but as one ingredient within a larger plan. By looking at the context in which a long run occurs we can make better decisions as to what length is appropriate.

For example, there is a big difference between:

  • Running 15 miles the day after a 10K race, and running it after a couple of rest days;
  • Running your long run at the end of a month-long block of higher-than-normal overall mileage, or at the start of that block;
  • Running 15 miles over hills on a hot day, or 15 miles on the flat with a cool breeze behind you.

This is why it is important to consider your long run in the context of the other runs in your plan, plus your training history. Unfortunately there’s no easy formula to work this out, but with experience you can develop a feel for what is right for you.

How to do your long runs

The simple answer is, get out your door and run. However, it’s not always that simple. There are questions to be answered, including:

  • Where to run?
  • What should i eat beforehand?
  • Do I need to take food or drink out with me?

Routes

The easiest way of working out a long run route is to run half your planned distance in one direction, then turn around and run home. This overcomes the problems of trying to work out a circular loop and minimises the risk of getting lost. Some people find out-and-back runs boring, so try extending one of your favourite runs with an extra leg or loop.

Eating and drinking (or fuelling and hydrating in ‘runner-speak’)

Nutrition is a big subject and we will look at it in depth in a later article where we’ll explore the different approaches. What’s worth remembering is that running uses energy and we get that energy from the food we eat. We also sweat which means we lose water, sodium and other things that our bodies need. Therefore it is important that runners eat well and drink plenty.

It is beneficial to eat something before you run, as a long run will use up a lot of energy. With experience, you’ll work out what is best for you, but as a rule of thumb, try and eat something easily digestible a couple of hours before you head out. Then, make sure you eat something afterwards to aid your recovery. Also make sure you drink plenty of water throughout the day, keeping your wee clear or a pale straw colour.

Then, once you’re out on your run, you can top up your energy and stay hydrated with an energy drink or water and some kind of food.  Carrying this can be tricky, so experiment with bottles, hydration packs, planning routes past shops, or stashing your stuff en route.

Advice from the Herd

The Lonely Goat Facebook Chat Group is a great source of information, and we found these tips from members of the Herd.

Lyndon Finch: “Everyone’s different but adding 10% mileage to each run is a general rule. Fuelling is very bespoke. I personally like jelly babies, and water, but gels and energy bars may suit you.”

Ken Chilcott: “I like to run to times rather than distance. I find it far easier to motivate myself as I know when it will finish.”

Kevin Eddy: “I go out the night before and place water and fuel in waterproof bags and hide in hedges I usually chose gates and easy to identify markers at 6 mile intervals along my chosen route. First time upping my distance I will slow my pace down and build confidence then let the speed follow when the time feels right.”

Katie Grant: “If you need to do long runs in London, set the alarm for 5am and get out the door by 6. Long runs are VERY stressful if you come across tourists, pedestrians, cars, traffic lights etc.”

Louise O’Donnell: “I use my heart rate and my sense of perceived effort to keep me at the right pace. Some long runs on my plans are at easy, conversational effort, some are at steady effort, which is still aerobic and not quite a tempo run but a little faster. I like doing my long runs somewhere pretty, they are great for exploring. I carry some water, a few gelatin free gummy bears, my phone and watch, my parkrun id (for medical reasons) and a coin purse.”

Jonathan Bean: “I have a big dinner the evening before a long run. I don’t tend to eat much on the morning of the run or during it, but prefer fresh dates rather than energy gels if I do. I drink a lot of water throughout the day, so I don’t tend to need a lot to drink when running – especially as I mostly run in the early morning before it gets too warm. I’m a fan of out-and-back routes for their convenience.”

For more tips from the Herd, dive into our Facebook Chat Group or Strava Group and ask the community for their advice.

Long run alternatives

Lastly, what can you do if for whatever reason long runs don’t work for you? For most people, the best way to develop their endurance is always going to involve running a long way (sorry, there’s no short cuts or quick hacks in running – it’s all about consistency and good old-fashioned hard work), but for those people for whom a conventional long run would be detrimental or not possible, there are alternatives.

Consider what it is you’re trying to achieve and what else you can do to get that training effect. Perhaps your injury history makes you wary of exceeding a certain distance? In this case, consider doing something different, such as:

  • Replacing your long run with a long bike ride;
  • Combining a run and a cycle;
  • Splitting the distance between the morning and evening;
  • Doing two slightly shorter long runs on subsequent days.

The result might not be quite the same as a standard long run, but it might not be far off.

Go long

Long runs are an important part of most runner’s training programmes and rightly so as the performance benefits can be significant. However, rather than just try to run as far as you can for the sake of it, consider what it is you are trying to achieve and what sort of long run will help you to do so. When building up your distance, the challenge is to balance pushing yourself so you improve, with holding back enough that you don’t injure yourself. It is better to do ‘just enough’ than ‘too much’.

Get this right, and you should see your running improve.

The photo at the top of the page is of the 2019 Salisbury 54321 ultramarathon (a very long run!), taken by Ian Shearer

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