Long May You Run

Compared with other training sessions, the long run is fairly simple: put one foot in front of the other and stop when you’ve done 20 miles.

But its simplicity is deceptive. Like an onion, the long run has many layers; and, like an onion, a long run can make you cry. “The long run is the single most important work-out you can do,” says Jeff Galloway, who ran the 10,000m for the USA in the 1972 Olympics and is now a long-run guru. “But it’s more complex than you would think, and most runners still don’t do it right.”

There are many questions about the long run, including the big four: Why? How? How fast? And how often? We’ll answer those, and take a look at related issues such as eating and drinking, rest and recovery and fat-burning. So grab your favourite sports drink, put your feet up and read on at a comfortable pace.

Why?

Long runs give you endurance – the ability to run further. Yet they can help 10K runners as well as marathoners. Long runs do several things. They:
  • Strengthen the heart.
  • Open capillaries, speeding energy to working muscles and flushing away waste products from tired ones. “Long runs build a better plumbing system,” says Galloway.
  • Strengthen leg muscles and ligaments.
  • Recruit fast-twitch muscle fibres to help with slow-twitch tasks – such as running a marathon.
  • Help to burn fat as fuel.
  • Boost confidence. “If you know you can go that far in training, it gives you the confidence that with the adrenaline of the race, you can get round that too,” says Danielle Sanderson, who ran for Great Britain in the World Championships marathon in Athens.
  • Make you faster. “Increase your long run from six miles to 12 – change nothing else – and you will improve your 10K time,” says Galloway.

How long?

“When I started running in 1989, I gradually built up to 12 miles for my first half-marathon,” says Sanderson. “Now, if I’m training for a marathon, I do 24 miles at least eight times in the 14-week build-up. If I’m not training for anything, I do 12-14 miles every Sunday.”

How long should a long run be? Fortunately, there are some general rules:

Time is a better gauge than distance
“The duration of the long run will vary depending on the athlete’s age, level of fitness, and the competitive distance they’re training for,” explains Norman Brook, Britain’s recently-appointed National Endurance Coach. “The run should usually be at least 45 minutes in duration and can extend up to two hours for elite athletes and those preparing for the marathon or ultradistance events.”

“You can use a heart rate monitor to gauge your effort, or go out in the car and measure your course,” adds Sanderson, “but it’s more about running for a length of time than anything else.” That’s not to say that you can’t measure your long runs, but for the most part, the goal of a long run is not covering a certain distance, but time spent on your feet.

Run for one and a half to two hours
That’s the minimum long run – roughly 10-16 miles – needed to maintain a high endurance level.

Increase your long runs by no more than 15 minutes at a time
“Build up to the long run gradually,” Brook advises. “If the longest you’re running for in training is 30 minutes, gradually build up to an hour by adding five minutes to your run each week.” Just minutes of extra running make a difference – but do too much and you’re setting yourself up for injury or illness.

For marathoners, 26 may be worth it
“Milers run miles in practice, 10K runners run 10Ks, so why shouldn’t marathoners cover their distance in practice, too?” asks exercise physiologist David Martin. RW Coaching Editor Bruce Tulloh believes that it may be worth doing the extra few miles if you’re short on confidence, but that there’s no fundamental need for it. Either way, you should build up to your longest run gradually over a period of months.

How fast?

You want to run a marathon in 3:30, which is eight minute/mile pace, so you do your long runs at that pace. Sounds like a good strategy, right?

Wrong. “It’s a logical argument that you should do your long runs at marathon pace,” says Benji Durden, a 2:09 marathoner who now coaches both elite and recreational runners. “But unfortunately, running isn’t always logical.” What he’s referring to is the fat-burning issue: that you should run long and slow to teach your body to burn fat, so that you’ll be able to run long and fast in the marathon (see ‘The Burning Question’). But there are other reasons for easing back on the throttle during your 20-milers, and they agree with common sense:

Long runs at race pace may be training sessions in your mind, but they’re races to your body
That’s a lethal mix that can easily lead to overtraining, injury or illness. “Running long runs fast causes more problems than any other training mistake,” says Galloway. Marian Sutton, winner of the Chicago Marathon for the past two years, agrees: “There’s no point in pushing too hard. Run at a pace that feels comfortable to you.”

Fast, long runs miss the point
“Long runs are for endurance,” says Sanderson. “It’s amazing how quickly they reduce your resting heart rate, making your heart more efficient.” Galloway adds: “Training is like putting together a top-of-the-line stereo system. Long runs are the endurance component. Speed is a separate component entirely.”

The ideal pace for long runs is at least one minute per mile slower than your marathon pace
“The long run is often referred to as a ‘long, slow run’,” says Brook. “The intensity of effort is low, and you should ensure that a steady state is maintained. If you’re able to conduct a conversation during the run without discomfort, you aren’t running too fast.”
You might even walk at points during longer runs – it works for Sanderson. “It’s good to just plod round, walk a bit if you need to, or even stop for a break,” she says. Remember, the goal of the long run is time spent on your feet.

How often?

You shouldn’t do a long run more than once a week. It is, after all, a hard session, requiring rest or easy days before and after.

The other end of the scale is debatable. Some runners have no problem going two or three weeks between long runs. Others, such as Sanderson, will come back with a midweek long run if a shorter race precludes the weekend session.

Galloway recommends a simple formula: roughly one day’s gap per mile of your long run. For example, if your long run is 12-17 miles, you can go two weeks between long runs without losing endurance; if it’s 18-23 miles, three weeks. “That is, if you’re running at least 30 minutes every other day in between,” he adds. This rule can also be used to taper before a marathon. For instance, if your last long run is 22 miles, you’d run it three weeks before race day. If it’s 16 miles, you get a two-week rest before the race.

Which day is best for the long run? Sunday is the traditional choice, because that’s when most people have the most free time. In addition, most marathons take place at weekends, so why not set your body clock in advance?

But there’s no need to stick to a set day. “I’m not rigid about the day I do my long run,” says two-time World Half-Marathon champion Paula Radcliffe, “because I never know when I’ll be racing.” Sanderson also plans her schedule around events. “I do my long run on a Sunday, unless I’m racing.” she says.

Fuel For The Run

Early-morning long runs make it hard to squeeze in breakfast beforehand. It’s not that you really need that bowl of muesli and round of toast (most of us have enough stored energy to complete a long run in the morning), but blood sugar levels are generally lower first thing, because you haven’t eaten for 12 hours. This can cause lightheadedness, and that’s what you want to avoid, so:

Eat light Half a bagel, a banana, an energy bar or a carbohydrate drink an hour or so before your run will raise blood sugar levels and not upset your stomach. Or…

Have a midnight feast Well, a snack, anyway. Eat some toast, cereal or dried fruit before going to bed. “Anything that’s high in carbohydrates,” advises RW Nutrition Editor Peta Bee. “That snack will carry over to the morning.”

And during the run:

Make sure there’s fluid everywhere Carry supplies in a bumbag or a Camelbak, stash water bottles or sports drinks out on the course at three-mile intervals, plan runs that pass by water fountains, or double back to bottles at your house or car.

Obey your thirst “Water is the best choice on a long run, because it’s less likely to cause stomach problems,” says Galloway. But if you need a little extra energy, try a sports drink. And if you’re training for a marathon, practise drinking what you’ll be offered on the course. (Contact the race organisers to find out, if you’re not sure.)

A handy tip: mix the sports drink with plenty of water, especially early on in your long runs. Save the undiluted stuff for late fluid stops when you need it most.

Drink up If you’re only drinking once every three miles, aim to down 225ml at a time. And yes, you can slow down, walk or even stop. The important thing is getting that fluid down.

Have fun with friends Contrary to popular opinion, long runs aren’t boring. You just have to know how to run them – that is, with friends. Find a Saturday or Sunday morning group, or arrange to meet a training partner regularly. “I do some of my runs with friends,” says Sanderson, “and the time always goes so much faster.”

Recovery routine

After your long run, remember this maxim: scoff, quaff and cool off.

Scoff We’re not talking about a hearty Sunday roast once you’ve showered and changed. “It’s important to eat as soon as you get back,” says Sanderson. Whole foods are sometimes rough on a stomach tender from 20 miles of running, so think liquid – fruit juices and carbohydrate drinks – when it comes to fuel. Those with cast-iron stomachs, however, can go for bagels (Sanderson’s choice), bananas, cold pasta or anything high in carbohydrate.

Quaff No matter how slowly you go or how much you drink, your body will be dehydrated after a long run. So drink copiously, and far beyond your thirst. A good rule is to drink two pints of fluid for every half-hour you’ve run.

Cool off Try a cold shower directed at the legs, or an ice massage with an ice pack. Resist the temptation to jump into a hot bath or hot shower right away – it may feel good, but you’re actually inhibiting recovery. Sanderson also recommends light stretching and keeping on the move. “If I stop for too long, I soon seize up,” she says.

Going Longer

If you’re training to run a marathon, whether it’s your first or your 101st, your aim is to be fit enough to complete 26 miles and 385yds on a particular date. But that doesn’t mean that everyone has to run the same distances in training. Here are a few guidelines for runners training for a spring marathon, divided into the categories we’ll be using in our marathon schedules over the next few issues.

If you’re just hoping to get round, then you should start off in December with a long ‘run’ of about an hour – mostly walking if you’re a complete beginner, with a little jogging mixed in. Build this up to 90 minutes of walking and jogging in January (gradually increasing the proportion of running), two hours in February and two and a half in March, with a single 18-mile effort at the end of March or the start of April.

Faster and more experienced runners, spending about the same time on their long runs, will of course cover a greater distance. A 90-minute run is 11 miles at 3:30 marathon pace, 13 miles at three-hour pace and 14 miles at 2:48 pace – though you shouldn’t be doing your long, slow runs at race pace.

If you’re hoping to run a sub-four-hour marathon, you should be doing weekly long runs of 10 miles in January, 12-13 in February and 15 in March, while the sub-3:30 crowd should be doing regular runs of 15 miles in February and aiming to run 18-20 in their longest runs in March. As for the sub-three brigade, if you can make your five longest runs add up to 90-100 miles, you’ve done enough endurance training.

One last tip: the easiest way to run, say, 16 miles on a Sunday is often to enter a half-marathon, do 10-15 minutes of warming up beforehand and 10 minutes of very slow jogging afterwards. I once ran seven miles before a half-marathon to make sure I did 20 altogether. In this case, you mustn’t take the race too seriously – treat it as a training run with lots of company.—Bruce Tulloh

The Burning Question

Do long, slow runs really help the body to burn fat, enabling you to run through the wall? There are two theories – but first, a quick physiology lesson. The body burns both fat and glycogen at all times for energy; fat stores are abundant; glycogen stores aren’t, but they are the body’s preferred fuel. Now here are the schools of thought:

Theory one

When you run slower than your aerobic threshold (roughly the pace at which you can carry on a conversation), you burn a higher percentage of fat, thus sparing glycogen. “The more often you do that, the more often you will burn more fat on a regular basis and at a progressively faster pace,” says Benji Durden. In other words, long, slow running teaches the body to burn more fat.

The wall – that feeling of lightheadedness and fatigue that hits around the 20-mile mark – is the body’s reaction to dwindling glycogen. But a body that has learned to burn fat ‘saves’ glycogen, leaving more for those crucial miles from 20-26.

Theory two

The body doesn’t learn anything. “The body doesn’t get a degree in fat-burning,” says physiologist David Martin. “Glycogen is always burned more readily than fat.”

What happens during long runs is that the body runs low on glycogen. Afterwards, it stores an additional amount of glycogen to replenish what it has lost. “If you do this often enough, and rest before your big race, there’s much more stored glycogen than before,” says Martin. “Come race day, you can run through the wall.”—Dave Kuehls

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