Runners all over the world, week in and week out add ‘A Long Run’ to their training. One question that I am often asked is, ‘How long should my long run be?’
Now of course, there is no one answer and before you can even begin to answer that question, you need to ask two important questions:
What am I training for? (This will usually be a race or target event)
What date is the event in question 1?
When you know the answers to 1 and 2, you can start to formulate a plan and this then will begin to give a better understanding to ‘the long run’ question. It is also very important to consider experience and running history.
If you are used to running 5km and 10km events, a long run for you may well be 75-90 minutes. If you are a marathon runner, your long run will typically be 21/22 miles or 3 to 3.5-hours. If you are running an ultra, mmmmm, well, this is where it gets tricky.
WHY DO WE RUN LONG?
In summary, we put an emphasis on three key points:
Efficiency to use fat as a fuel.
Muscular and physical adaptation.
If you never run for more than one hour in training, then three hours on your feet just feels like a really long time so you need to adapt for the challenge ahead both from a physical and mental perspective.
Have you had sore legs from running?
We have all been there, it comes from running fast and hard and building up lactic acid or it comes from running long and fatigue. Muscle soreness will come for everyone, however, we can train to reduce the impact or delay the process. This why we ‘train,’ we train to get better! Progressively running longer with recovery periods allows our muscles to adapt to the stress and become stronger. The term DOMS refers to the ‘Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness’. You may well feel muscle pain during a training event or race but it’s usually in the 24/48/72-hour period after that the soreness really kicks in. By running long in training we adapt to delay or reduce the DOMS.
You need fuel to do anything, even a shopping trip. Our bodies can only store so much carbohydrate and once those stores are used up we have only two options left: top them up or slow down and maybe even stop if they have got very low. As an endurance athlete we need to tap into our almost unlimited fat stores. We do this by ‘teaching our body’ to use fat as a fuel in the long run. The more efficient you become at this, the longer you can run and the longer you can maintain a pace. Ultimately it means the whole race/training experience will be better and more enjoyable.
Let us be clear here, running longer requires a slower pace, especially if we want to ‘turn on’ fat burning. Think of long runs in terms of time and not distance. Distance adds some confusion and also as runners we get stressed and worried by mileage and minute per mile pace. Mileage does not always tell us the full story too… Time on feet takes into consideration the terrain we are running on, for example in three hours on the road you may well cover 20-miles, but on the trails or in the mountains you may only cover 12-miles.
This brings in another very important and key point, make long runs specific and in line with your objectives. No point doing three hours on the road if you are doing a 50 mile mountain race with 4000m of vertical gain.
Slow down! Many runners run the long run too hard which impacts on the following days’ training and it also impacts on the long run session. Maybe use a heart rate monitor or GPS to keep on top of this and don’t worry about walking. Walking is a key element in completing ultra distance events. I am a huge fan of RPE – Rate of Perceived Exertion. Long runs (mostly, there are exception) should feel easy and on a scale of 1-10, that means a 5.
HOW LONG SHOULD THE LONG RUN BE?
Short distance runners often run over distance in training. Think about it, a 10km runner may run a long slow half marathon to build endurance. A half marathon runner may run a long and slow steady 16 miles in preparation for a fast race.
This all falls apart when we go to the marathon and beyond. How often have you heard in marathon training that the long run should be 21/22 miles or 3 hours and 30 minutes in preparation for a race.
So how do you run long in ultra training?
Long runs and adapting for an endurance run such as an ultra comes from not one run but a combination of all runs. It’s about your accumulative run history. They all add up to make you an endurance machine.
First and foremost, consistency is key and long runs should be progressive and based on ability and experience. A long run should test you but not break you.
Let’s use a 12-week scenario based on a runner who can currently run two hours in a long run. I am not looking at base training here, but the specifics of a long run and how to make the long run longer. I’m a big fan of building over three weeks and recovering for one week, I call this 3/1.
Week 1 – Sunday 2:30hrs
Week 2 – Sunday 2:45hrs
Week 3 – Sunday 3:00hrs
Week 4 – Sunday 2:00hrs
Week 1 – Sunday 2:45hrs
Week 2 – Wednesday 90min / Sunday 3:00hrs
Week 3 – Wednesday 90min/ Sunday 3:15hrs
Week 4 – Sunday 2:30hrs
Week 1 – Wednesday 90min/ Sunday 3:00hrs
Week 2 – Wednesday 1:45hrs/ Sunday 3:30hrs
Week 3 – Wednesday 2:00hrs/ Sunday 4:00hrs
Week 4 – Wednesday 60min/ Sunday 3:00hrsh
The above scenario provides a structured example on how to build up from running two hours comfortably to four hours. But remember the above scenario is 12 weeks with over 37 hours of running, just in the long runs! That is huge and a great place to start for any endurance challenge.
BUT MY RACE IS 50 MILES?
As mentioned above, it’s not wise or sensible to run too long in anyone session (for most people, there are always exceptions.) But the 12-week plan above on a 3/1 scenario shows you how it’s possible to build time and confidence. As you gain more experience you can look at doing back-to-back sessions and plan long training weekends all as part of a long term plan. Ultimately though, running too long in terms of distance or time is something that should be very carefully planned.
Week 1 – Wednesday 90min/ Saturday 2:00hrs & Sunday 3:00hrs
Week 2 – Wednesday 1:45hrs/ Saturday 90 mins & Sunday 3:30hrs
Week 3 – Wednesday 2:00hrs/ Saturday 3:00hrs & Sunday 4:00hrs
Week 4 – Wednesday 60min/ Sunday 3:00hrs
You will always here about runners who can do 200 mile weeks or 50-mile training runs; they are exceptions and not the norm. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security and don’t feel inadequate, we are all individuals and this is maybe the most important aspect.
Training should be about preparing you to tackle the challenge, but it will never FULLY prepare you. There’s always going to be a bit of extra and a bit of unknown on the day of the event…
Surely that’s why you’ve entered the race or event?