The “long run” is a key constituent of almost every training plan for the runner who is looking to get quicker, or cover longer distances. It can be the run you most look forward to or most fear (or both!). Despite its significance, it can raise a lot of questions.
What is the long run?
“Long runs” are the longest runs you will do in a week (or whatever period of time works best for you).
How long is long?
Some runners find themselves wondering “how long does a run have to be before its considered a long run?” Instead, the question should be “what is the purpose of the long run?”
The purpose is usually to either: a) Extend your endurance; or b) Maintain your endurance. The specific distance will therefore vary according to how far you need to go to achieve this purpose.
Consider these examples:
Andrea – first marathon
Andrea has run half marathons, but wants to run a marathon. Her longest ever run when training for half marathons was 15 miles, but she has recently been running a maximum of 10 miles. With 16 weeks until the marathon she needs to improve her endurance to prepare for running 11 miles further than she has ever run.
Therefore, for Andrea, 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 can achieve this.
Baz – Couch to 5K
Baz is a complete beginner. He’s doing a version of Couch to 5K, building up to running for 30 minutes non-stop. Currently he can only run for 5 minutes, so like Andrea he needs to improve his endurance.
He can do this by adding a few extra minutes to his weekend run 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 both runners: Extending their endurance.
Claudia – racing a mile
Claudia has different goals. Normally she enjoys very long races, but she has been challenged by a friend to enter a mile long race in her local park. She’ll follow 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 still wants to maintain that endurance with her long runs.
She decides that 10 miles, once a week, is enough to maintain her endurance. Previously, Claudia might have thought 10 miles was the minimum that counted as a long run. Now, with a different goal in mind, it’s the maximum, as any more might leave her too tired to do her speed sessions properly.
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 runs of the week they can be a main focus. This can, in some instances, lead to runners focusing on the long run to the detriment of the other parts of their programme. For example:
- Andrea might try and build her mileage too quickly, overtrain, and be too fatigued to run her marathon well;
- Baz might focus on hitting his distance targets and run through a niggle that becomes an injury;
- Claudia might push too hard on her weekend long runs and neglect her midweek speed sessions.
Integrating long runs into your training plan
The above negative scenarios can be avoided by focusing 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 is appropriate.
For example, there is a big difference between:
- Running 10 miles at the start of a big block of training – vs – running 10 miles at the end of a big block of training;
- Running 10 miles the day after a hard race – vs – running it after a few days of rest;
- Running 10 miles over hills on a hot day – vs – running 10 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
It’s not always as simple as just getting out of your door and running. There are questions to be answered, including when should I run, and what should I eat?
The easiest way of creating a long run route is to run half the planned distance in one direction, then turning around to 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 instead.
You could also use an online route planner, such as those on Strava, Komoot, or any of the other similar options.
Eating and drinking
Running uses energy that we get from the food we eat. We also sweat which means we lose water, sodium and other things 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 as necessary. Carrying this can be tricky, so experiment with bottles, hydration packs, planning routes past shops, or stashing your stuff en route.
How often should I do long runs?
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.
You can use a different timetable if that works for you. For example, if you work 4 days on, 4 days off, then having a long run every 8 days could be ideal. You can even change the frequency depending on shift patterns.
That’s fine – there’s no reason why a long run has to be every 7 days.
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.
Long run alternatives
Lastly, what can you do if you can’t do a long run due to time, injury, or some other circumstance?
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 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. For example:
- Replace your long run with a long bike ride;
- Combine a run and a cycle;
- Split the distance between the morning and evening;
- Do two slightly shorter long runs on subsequent days.
The result will not be quite the same as a standard long run, but it might not be far off.
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. Don’t be afraid of slowing your runs down while you get used to the increased distance. It is better to do ‘just enough’ than ‘too much’.
Get this right, and you should see your running improve.