The long run is canonical. Most training programs incorporate a weekly long run as a core workout. The recognized –– almost official –– day of the long run is Sunday and for devoted distance runners, there is something approaching a religious obligation involved. One does the long run without question, because one has always done it. It simply is.
Yet, as with all matters of dogma, it’s good to inject some healthy scrutiny to what otherwise could become mindless habit. Why do we do a weekly long run? How can we get more out of the long run…in the long run?
The Origin of the Long Run
New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard probably deserves the most credit for introducing the long run as the signature workout of distance training. In the late 1940s, the commonly accepted method of training runners –– all runners –– was through timed intervals of short duration. Lydiard, however, took to running the undulating roads and tracks of the Waitakere Mountains in New Zealand on a quest to find the limits of the human body. By experimenting on himself, Lydiard managed to win the New Zealand national marathon championship in 1953 and 1955.
It was also around this time that he started to attract the attention of up and coming athletes in New Zealand who wanted to replicate Lydiard’s distance success. The success of Lydiard-trained athletes Peter Snell, Murray Halberg, and Barry Magee at the 1960 Olympics confirmed the wisdom of his method.
Why does the long run work and what is it supposed to accomplish? Lydiard’s critics insisted (wrongly, it turns out) that emphasizing longer distance at the expense of intervals would result in burnout. They believed long slow distance would make long slow runners. In fact, slowing things down and being able to go longer activated new training stimuli heretofore untapped by interval work.
The long run trains your body to make more efficient use of fuel. Your body will adapt and increase its ability to store glycogen for future use by depleting muscle glycogen during a long run. Running long also develops your body’s ability to use fat as a fuel source by using fat rather than glycogen as it becomes depleted during the later miles of a long run.
Long runs also help strengthen slow-twitch muscle fibers and increase the capillaries around those fibers. Capillaries enable the exchange of water, carbon dioxide, and oxygen, as well as nutrients, fuel, and waste between blood and the surrounding tissues. By stimulating the production of these capillaries, the long run helps to increase muscle efficiency –– the more capillaries, the better.
Long runs also increase the mitochondrial volume within muscle fibers and improve the activity of the enzymes in the mitochondria that produce aerobic energy. The more mitochondria that your muscles contain, the more efficiently you can produce aerobic energy.
The efficiencies conveyed by the long run are not limited to fuel and muscle, however. Long runs also strengthen bones, tendons, ligaments, and fascia, allowing you to better manage bodily impact and the stresses that accompany running.
The final physiological benefit comes through training the nervous system through repetition. As the miles pile up over time, one’s running economy begins to improve. Through constant mindful reiteration, the body finds its own best rhythm and migrates toward the most efficient way to propel itself.
Long runs also raise your psychological game, training and strengthening the mind-body connection. You have, perhaps, heard the maxim, “Running is 90 percent mental and the rest is physical.” The long run helps build confidence to draw upon when the going gets tough.
How does this actually work? The brain often tries to intervene during hard training or racing by warning you (duh!) that you are growing tired. As effort increases, the brain sends even more signals to slow down. By going long on a weekly basis, it is possible to overrule your brain –– you know you can go farther and you push on.
Long runs allow you to test out fuel, gear, and other aspects of your racing preparation. Try out that new flavor of GU to see if you like it (and to see if it is kind to your stomach). Experiment to see whether gels, blocks, or bars fuels you best. The experienced runner uses the long run to fine-tune clothing and shoe choices as well. Nothing is worse than finding out that your favorite singlet turns into a cheese grater around mile eight or that pair of shorts actually rides up uncomfortably. If in doubt, test it out. (Actually, even if you’re not in doubt, you still better test it out.)
How Often, How Long, How Fast?
So, you are now a believer in the Gospel of the Long Run. But how often should you worship? No need to be fanatical. The stimuli that make long runs effective can also lead to injury. Breakdowns and injuries result when you overdo glycogen depletion and excessively stress muscles and connective tissues. You should, therefore, only go long once or twice a week. Injury-prone runners might want to limit themselves to a biweekly long run.
And how long should your long run be? Don’t think distance. Think time. It takes about 90 minutes of conversationally paced running to stimulate most long-run benefits. Eventually, you will want to build up to around two hours for your regular Sunday long run. If you are training for a marathon, you will want to incrementally build your long run to match the amount of time you will spend racing, to a maximum of three and half hours. If you just can’t break yourself of needing to run a set distance, the rule of thumb is that your long run should be about twenty-five percent of your weekly total mileage.
How quickly should you run? Not very fast. In fact, one of the common mistakes runners make is taking their long run at too quick a tempo. The training stimulus is achieved through 90 minutes or so of repetition and the stress of long slow distance. It is better to err on the side of slow, rather than proceeding too quickly and risking injury. Run your long runs about one to one and a half minutes slower than your regular pace. Relax, maintain a conversational pace, and enjoy the scenery.
Legendary coach Bill Squires (the guy who trained Bill Rodgers and Dick Beardsley for the Boston Marathon) was known for saying that “The long run is what puts the tiger in the cat.” Because it contributes so much to a runner’s efficiency, the long run should not be missed.