Rather than the usual Long Run questions of why, how far, and how fast, let us focus on making the most of your long run distance. I’ve linked below my other long run posts for those answers.
The primary purpose of your long run is to train the muscle fibers (and the energy system feeding them) to become fatigue resistant and gradually raise the level of tension your muscles can withstand for 13.1 or 26.2 miles (or more!). With that in mind one of the first things that you can do to gain more benefit from the same long run distance is to reduce, if not eliminate, stoppage time during your long run. This is something that without technology is hard to measure. But to the chagrin of some of my runners it is easy to identify when I look at their watch download. I look at the differential between moving time and total time and can see how long they were stopped during their long run. I like to look at this from a standpoint of how much time per mile they were stopped. While we expect some stoppage due to aid stations, bathroom breaks and traffic, those things can add up if you’re not keeping an eye on them. It is not uncommon before I point this out to somebody to see that they stop 20 to 30 minutes over a 20 mile run. Because our sport does not have time outs this can be a problem. Every time you stop and let the muscular tension and aerobic pressure drop, recovery begins. The issue is that now you have to run even faster or longer to get the same training effect that simply continuing would have earned. So keep moving and keep any necessary stops as brief as possible. The most common problem with this is that with a group it takes awhile for everyone to get a drink while the clock keeps running. In those situations do a little out and back so you can keep moving but also regroup when everyone is ready to go again. I know that with 20 or 30 minutes to go in your long run you will be very happy to be done. Reducing or eliminating stoppage time is the best way I know to make that happen.
The next way to increase your long run benefit is to run on hills. It will become very obvious, maybe painfully so the first time, the extra special feeling that you get on a hilly course. While you might think it’s the uphill that is giving you the extra benefit it is also the downhill running. You know when the wheels start to fall off in a long run or race it is the impact that is the least comfortable. Conveniently enough, downhill running magnifies the eccentric contraction (lengthening of the muscle while it contracts) in the same way that landing with each stride stresses the muscle. This makes you more and more resistant to fatigue. Depending on where you live hill running may take a bit of planning. For most people it’s not too hard to find hills if you’re convinced that you’ll get more from your training.
I often tell people that getting in three-hour or four hour (or whatever your goal) marathon shape is not the hard part. It is actually running the time that is hard. One of the major variables between a successful day of cashing in training and a disappointing day is how well you manage nutrition and hydration. While there is no one fits all plan there are some guidelines from which you can start and determine your exact needs under various conditions. Any runner that does an exceptional job of staying hydrated and fueled has an incredible advantage over the others that are figuring it out on the fly. Use your long runs to learn your best nutrition practices beginning in the preceding days all the way through the run. This knowledge can prove to be as valuable as the long run itself. Taking this one step further, the more you can rehearse race weekend during your long runs or lead up races, the more it’s a matter of checking off the boxes on your way to achieving your goal.
While I have addressed this in previous posts, I think it’s worth touching on again. The first time you run a distance or the first time you run it at a faster pace there is incredible training effect. As those distances and paces become the norm that training effect begins to diminish. So you need to start running faster or longer to get the same benefit. If those solutions are unattractive or impractical think about the ideal way to run a marathon and the even pacing that it requires. It then becomes easy to go to the opposite end of the spectrum. Go ahead and do your long run inefficiently by running intervals at goal pace or faster, run positive splits (faster in the first half), or add a mix of stressors to make the run more challenging and engaging. These “mistakes” will increase the endurance benefit of the long run by building a deficit. You could also have the added epiphany of just how important good pacing is on race day.
The remaining question is how hard is too hard? The answers to many training questions including this one typically lie in recovery. If your long run is just nice easy jogging for a little longer distance than normal, one recovery day may be enough. But as the distance becomes significant and we start adding ways to make them more stressful, one day will no longer do. I like to plan two recovery days between a long run and the next run of consequence. My rule of thumb is that if two days are inadequate for recovery, then we probably overdid it. If we run into that situation we adjust the week and learn moving forward to the next long run.
Previous Long Run Posts