Essential guide to long runs

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Since the 1960s, long runs have been a weekly staple in most runners’ training plans. This holds as true for those doing 5Ks as it does for marathoners. But instead of sending runners out to simply ‘put miles in the bank’, many coaches are now advocating higher intensity workouts that challenge the body in more complex and race-specific ways. Running longer or faster than before opens up the possibility of making big breakthroughs in your training, provided you tailor those challenging runs to your current fitness. We explore just how much can you gain by experimenting with your long run.

HOW LONG IS LONG?

As the name implies, a long run is an extended effort designed to increase your endurance. These runs produce more mitochondria and capillaries in your muscle cells, increase your aerobic capacity, improve your cardiovascular system’s efficiency, increase your muscles’ and liver’s ability to store glycogen, strengthen your musculoskeletal system, give you a greater ability to work through muscular fatigue and increase your body’s ability to use fat as fuel.

‘The combined physiological benefits of long runs improve your ability to maintain a pace for longer,’ says Pete Pfitzinger, a two-time Olympic marathoner and co-author of Advanced Marathoning (Human Kinetics). ‘Psychologically, they give you the confidence that you can handle the race distance, especially in the marathon.’

Your training history and target race distance help determine how far you need to go. Esteemed coach Jack Daniels believes long runs should comprise 20-25 per cent of your total weekly volume. In his formula, a runner putting in 40-mile weeks would do a long run of eight to 10 miles; a runner averaging 80 miles per week would go 16-20 miles. These guidelines scale the run to your current ability level and training load.

As with all rules, there are exceptions. Usually this means going longer than recommended, to increase the training stimulus. According to coach Danny Mackey, experienced runners competing in events longer than a mile need to run for at least 90 minutes to recruit fast-twitch muscle fibres and metabolically prepare the body to race long distances. Mike Smith, the women’s cross-country coach at Georgetown University in the US, will go beyond that; he isn’t afraid to send his 5K and 10K runners out for 16 miles. ‘If we’re seeking to stress the aerobic system and an athlete is no longer receiving a stimulus at 90 minutes, we have to run farther than that,’ he says. And marathoners routinely put in 18-20-mile long runs, even if their weekly mileage tops out at 40 or 50.

CHANGING PACE

As important as the distance, the pace at which you do your long runs influences how much training stress you incur. Traditional LSD (long, slow distance) runs lay a solid aerobic foundation for all runners, but they’re inherently limiting. By mixing paces and intensities over a long run, you stimulate different energy systems, thereby creating a more potent training effect. Long runs can be broken into three distinct categories.

Conversational and progression long runs

The most fundamental of the three approaches, conversational long runs serve a number of important purposes in a training programme. For runners new to the sport, they develop basic endurance and musculoskeletal strength. For marathoners, they help teach the body to better use fat as fuel. And for experienced runners, a conversational long run builds volume without interfering with other training elements.

Pfitzinger suggests that runners do conversational long runs at paces that are 20-33 per cent slower than current 10K race pace or 10-20 per cent slower than marathon pace. (For example, if you run 7:00 per mile for 10K and/or 8:00 per mile for the marathon, your long run pace should be roughly between 8:20 and 9:30 minutes per mile.) This intensity should be comfortable enough for you to talk with a training partner in full sentences, but still quick enough to keep a normal stride pattern. It’s important that your pace does not become a recovery jog, as this will mitigate some of the workout’s physiological benefits and alter your gait.

A more challenging version of the standard conversational long run is the progression long run. These runs begin at conversational paces but gradually speed up over the second half. Pfitzinger believes progression long runs that finish near marathon pace (for marathoners) or lactate threshold pace (for shorter distance runners) offer the opportunity to prepare for the challenges encountered in a race, without too much added stress.

Workout long runs

More demanding than conversational or progressive runs, workout long runs fold faster segments into the mix. These segments increase the overall stress of the long run and allow you to work on your speed as well as your endurance in practise running fast on fatigued legs, a critical factor in racing success.

You can embed almost any type of workout into a long run: fartleks, marathon-pace segments, tempo runs, even mile repeats. The workout segments you put into a long run and where they’re placed is relative to what you hope to accomplish. A lower-mileage marathoner might do a hard fartlek workout at the beginning of a long run, to pre-fatigue their muscles, and then hold a steady pace over the second half. A 5K runner could include a three-mile tempo run at the end of a long run, to practise running fast on tired legs. More than anything else, stressing the body in this new way can lead to improvement.

However, not all long runs should be workout long runs. Coaches recommend alternating one or two workout long runs with one at conversational pace. Faster and longer long runs also require more recovery time. To help compensate, many coaches now build training plans on eight-, nine-, or 10-day cycles instead of the traditional seven.

Most runners default to a seven-day schedule for practical reasons. In those cases, it’s vital that you allot the proper amount of rest after a long run and to consider occasionally excluding a long run from the calendar. While you might be able to run a conversational long run on Sunday morning and hit the track on Tuesday night for a group interval session, a workout such as a 22-miler with race-pace intervals requires an additional day or two to recover fully.

Back-to-back long runs and medium-long runs

In recent years, coaches such as Renato Canova, who has coached Kenyan elites like Florence Kiplagat, and Scott Simmons, of the American Distance Project, have popularised the idea of intense long runs and performing ‘special blocks’ consisting of two long workouts in one day. These coaches work with highly conditioned, world-class athletes; mere mortals could risk ending up injured or overtrained. For us, Smith suggests back-to-back long runs on consecutive days.

In Smith’s system, the first day is generally longer than the second, though both are significant. These runs tax the body’s glycogen stores and help you better use fat. The challenge can be increased by adding a workout to one of the runs. Which day depends on your goal: if the quality and pace of the workout are important, put the workout in the first day’s run. If you’re seeking to put in quality work in a fatigued state, such as running marathon pace on tired legs, add the workout to the second day’s run. So a marathoner might run 20 miles on Saturday and 10 miles on Sunday. To practise running goal pace on weary legs, Smith says to run the last three to five miles of Sunday’s run at marathon pace.

Back-to-back long runs are challenging, and you shouldn’t do them more than two or three times in a training cycle. A scaled-back version is the medium-long run. Popularised by Pfitzinger a decade ago, medium-long runs are 75-85 per cent as long as regular long runs and done at a conversational or slightly progressive pace. The catch is they’re run midweek, often the day after a tempo run or speedwork session. ‘The muscles are being asked to maintain a sustained effort every three or four days, and the repeated demands lead to greater adaptations by the muscles,’ says Pfitzinger.

PERIODISATION, FREQUENCY AND PHILOSOPHY

Getting the most out of your long runs requires more than just going long and hard every weekend. That can be a recipe for disaster, as overtraining carries bigger risks than undertraining. It pays to take the time to plot out your long runs over the course of an entire season, much the same way you would with intervals, speedwork and weekly mileage.

Event-specific demands shape your long-run trajectory. Marathoners will want to increase both the length and intensity of their long runs as race day approaches (because these are highly event-specific), whereas 5K runners should gradually scale back their long runs to devote more energy to shorter repeats to build race speed.

Long runs also have to fit the overall philosophy of a training programme. Thousands of marathoners thrive in plans like those from coaches Keith and Kevin Hanson, that top out the long run at 16 miles. In contrast, Arthur Lydiard led a squad of New Zealand middle-distance runners to Olympic glory on a steady diet of 22-milers back in the 1960s. But ultimately, long runs are so flexible that you can tune them to the particular demands of your racing goal.

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