Whether you’re training for a marathon or just looking to improve your fitness, regular runs that boost your endurance should be a cornerstone of your schedule. And the best workouts for that are long runs. ‘The long run is what puts the tiger in the cat,’ says Bill Squires, who was coach to marathon greats such as Alberto Salazar. For decades, serious and recreational runners have agreed, with weekend runs lasting for hours – whether solo or in groups – becoming a tradition.
The primary benefits of the long run are better stamina, stronger muscles and connective tissue, and improved running economy and fat-burning efficiency. The long run is valuable whether you’re targeting 5K or a marathon – both are primarily aerobic challenges. While the steady-state long run (number one in the list) is one of the simplest and most effective endurance workouts there is, there are also a number of variations to it, some specific to marathoners, but others offering a proven way to build general running fitness. Drop one of the following into your routine to build firm endurance foundations.
Why do it: To build stamina, muscle and connective tissue, improve running economy and fat-burning efficiency.
How to do it: Long runs vary widely according to goal race (they are key in marathon training), but in general terms, a weekly long run done at a conversational pace (you should be able to talk in sentences) and lasting for at least an hour is a good starting point (beginners should build up to this point).
Why do it: Popularised by coach Pete Pfitzinger, these are run midweek. This means, he says, ‘the muscles must maintain a sustained effort every three or four days, which leads to greater adaptations’.
How to do it: Medium-long runs are 75-85 per cent as long as your regular long run and done at a conversational or, if you want to push it, steady pace. They might be run the day after a more intense run so they also boost your powers of recovery.
3/ Double day
Why do it: You get an aerobic-training stimulus twice a day; running pre-fatigued during the second run accesses different muscle fibres, but it doesn’t beat your body up as much as a longer single run.
How to do it: A double day works well as a substitute for the medium long run (above) the day after a quality workout. So if you do intervals on Tuesday, instead of an eight-miler on Wednesday, do two runs of four miles each – one in the morning and one late in the afternoon.
4/ Long fartlek
Why do it: Breaks up the monotony of long runs.
How to do it: Run for 20 minutes at a very conservative pace, then start to gradually speed up to about one minute slower than your marathon goal pace. After the 60-minute mark, do the first 20-60 secs of each remaining mile at a faster clip – up to a minute per mile faster than marathon pace. ‘These bursts force you to push it when you’re tired,’ says Josh Cox, the US record holder in the 50K.
Why do it: Teaches the body to hold form when tired.
How to do it: Marathon trainees should do this instead of a 20-mile long run a week or two before tapering. Run the first five miles at two minutes per mile slower than marathon goal pace. Gradually increase the pace to one minute per mile slower than marathon pace by 10 miles, then 30 secs per mile slower than marathon pace by 15 miles. Run the last three miles at, or close to, marathon goal pace.
6/ Surge long run
Why do it: Intervals of faster running in the last few miles of a long run recruit fast-twitch muscle fibres and teach them to kick in even at slower paces. Breaking out of a settled pace when tired also requires focus.
How to do it: Insert five 30-sec surges (or ‘strides’ – smooth increases in pace), with two minutes of easy running between them, for the last few miles of a long run. Keep the surges comfortable – around tempo pace (it should be comfortably hard, but not flat out).
7/ Tempo long
Why do it: Running a good marathon is about running a solid 10K after hours on your feet, meaning increased effort late in the race. This hard tempo workout helps prepare you. Insert it once or twice in place of a long run.
How to do it: Warm up for three miles, run three to four miles at tempo (comfortably hard) pace, then slow down to easy (conversational) pace for the next hour. Then, once again, run three to four miles at tempo pace, before cooling down.
8/ Marathon pace
Why do it: Helps you practise running marathon pace when tired.
How to do it: Pfitzinger advises one or two long runs where you run 12-15 miles at goal marathon pace (e.g. do 20 miles with 12 miles in the middle at goal pace). This type of long run is great for faster marathoners who run their long runs slower than their marathon pace. For slower runners who are already running at marathon race pace in their long runs, he suggests running the faster segment at a steady pace.
9/ Hilly long run
Why do it: Builds leg and mental strength, and cardiovascular endurance.
How to do it: Legendary New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard had his runners do a hilly 22-mile route in base training. To emulate it, find a 15-20-mile looped route with a flat start for at least a few miles and then a climb when you’re into your rhythm, followed by an undulating profile and then a gradual descent to a flattish finish. Feeling more daring? Try adding another climb just before the end.
10/ Depletion long
Why do it: Going long in a carb-depleted state improves your body’s ability to metabolise fat as an energy source.
How to do it: Not one for new runners; others can try it once or twice in base training. Set out in the morning – having not had breakfast – and run for at least 90 mins without taking on carbs (water and/or electrolyte drinks are fine). Keep the pace conversational to maximise fat-fuelling and reduce the risk of crashing and burning. Carry some energy gels – just in case.