We all run long, but the length of a long run can really vary depending on many factors such as age, fitness, race and training history, targets, objectives and available time. I get asked and read, time and time again, the question, ‘How long should I run?’
‘What session you doing?’
‘Long run today,’ the answer.
But, what is a long run and how long should a long run be?
Before that question can be answered, one needs to understand why one is running long and for what purpose. Typically this will be a long-term event that is planned in the diary that may or may not be a race.
Having a date to work too is a great starting place as it provides a deadline point. This helps focus the mind and plan the time accordingly.
Ask yourself, what your objectives are? For example, there is a difference between competing and completing?
What distance is the event? (What is the time limit, what are intermediate cut-off times?)
If you are used to running 5k and 10k events, a long run for you may well be 75-90 minutes? If you are a marathon runner, your long run may be 3 to 3.5-hours. If you are running an ultra, this is where it gets tricky.
Why do we run long?
In summary, we put an emphasis on 3 key points:
- Mental Strength
- Muscular and physical adaptation
- Efficiency to use fat as a fuel
If you have never run for more than 1 hour in training, then 3 hours on your feet just feels like a really long time, so, you need to adapt mentally for the challenge ahead and you need to be strong to get the job done. This time on feet, needs to be appropriate to the challenge one has planned.
Muscular and Physical Adaptation:
Muscle soreness will come for everyone, however, we can train to reduce the impact or delay the process by progressively running longer in training. With recovery periods, we allow our muscles to adapt to the stress and they become stronger. Delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS) is not pleasant and it something that can really be painful in the 24/ 48 and 72 hour period after hard/ ;long training or racing. By running long in training we adapt to delay or reduce the DOMS.
Efficiency to use fat as a fuel:
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 during 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.
The Long Run
Running longer requires running slower, especially if we are going to switch fat burning on. It requires a pace that one can maintain for hours and hours and yes, that pace can be walking. The long run/ walk is specific to you and nobody else!
Running hard and faster has its place and yes, top elite runner can and will incorporate faster paces within a long run to adapt. But be specific and think of your objectives and what you are trying to achieve.
Be specific with terrain. No point for training for a 50-mile trail race with loads of vertical and technical trail and then run all sessions on the road.
Runners get stressed and worried by mileage, pace, miles per minute and so on. Relax. Think of your long run in terms of time, not distance. Particularly important if running off-road.
To help provide perspective, 3-hours on the road you may well allow one to cover 20-miles, but on the trails or in the mountains, one may only cover 12-miles.
A common mistake is that we make our long run too fast and our faster runs not fast enough. We therefore end up one paced. Make longer sessions slow and make hard sessions hard. If in doubt, use RPE, Rate of Perceived Exertion. Quite simply, when running long and easy you should have a perceived effort of breathing calmly and being able to talk. If running hard, you should have a perceived effort of difficulty, shortness of breath, discomfort and an inability to hold a conversation.
The big question, how long should the long run be?
Short distance runners often run ‘over distance’ in training. For example, a 10k runner may run a long slow half marathon to build endurance. A half marathon runner may run a long and slow steady 16-20 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 30-minutes in preparation for a race. But these generic terms do not take in to account the individual. Think of Kipchoge, if he did long runs at 3.5 hours, even running slow (7 min miles for him,) he would cover over 30-miles!
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. So, typically, if you are running longer than a marathon, you will have been running for some time.
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.
What do I mean by progressive?
Let’s use a 12-week scenario based on a runner who can currently run 2-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 3-weeks and recovering for 1-week.
- Week 1 – Sunday 2:30 hours
- Week 2 – Sunday 2:45 hours
- Week 3 – Sunday 3:00 hours
- Week 4 – 2 hours
- Week 1 – Sunday 2:45 hours
- Week 2 – Wednesday 90min / Sunday 3:00 hours
- Week 3 – Wednesday 90min/ Sunday 3:20 hours
- Week 4 – Sunday 2:30 hours
- Week 1 – Wednesday 90min/ Sunday 3:00 hours
- Week 2 – Wednesday 1:45 hours/ Sunday 3:30 hours
- Week 3 – Wednesday 2:00 hours/ Sunday 4:00 hours
- Week 4 – Wednesday 60min/ Sunday 3:00 hours
The above scenario provides a structured example on how to build up from running 2 hours comfortably to 4 hours. But remember the above scenario is 12-weeks of running 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, can I run the distance?
As mentioned above, it’s not wise or sensible to run too long in anyone session. 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 (see below.) Ultimately though, running too long in terms of distance or time is something that should be very carefully planned. 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.
- Week 1 – Saturday 2:00 hours/ Sunday 3:30 hours
- Week 2 – Sunday 4:00 hours
- Week 3 – Wednesday 90 mins/ Saturday 2:30 hours/ Sunday 4:30 hours
- Week 4 – Sunday 3:00 hours
- Week 1 – Saturday 2:30 hours/ Sunday 3:45 hours
- Week 2 – Wednesday 90min / Sunday 4:00 hours
- Week 3 – Wednesday 2 hours / Saturday 3:00 hours/ Sunday 5:00 hours
- Week 4 – Sunday 2:30 hours
- Week 1 – Wednesday 90min/ Saturday 3:00 hours/ Sunday 3:00 hours
- Week 2 – Wednesday 1:45 hours/ Sunday 5:00 hours
- Week 3 – Wednesday 2:00 hours/ Saturday 3:00 hours/ Sunday 6:00 hours
- Week 4 – Wednesday 60min/ Sunday 3:00 hours
Running or walking long is a voyage of discovery and you need to balance long-distance with adequate recovery.
Listen to your body.
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, but surely that’s why you’ve entered?
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