Not sure how to run longer? We’ve taken a science-based approach to help tackle long runs – possibly even with a smile on your face.
Long runs are the key to building running endurance. So whether your goal is to tackle marathon or ultra distances or to simply not hate running longer, we’ve got the tips and motivation you’ve been looking for.
What are the Benefits of Long Runs?
“The physiological benefits are many,” says Tim Foy, an RRCA-certified coach in Agoura Hills, California. “It improves the endurance of the heart muscle and allows the blood to carry higher concentrations of oxygen to the working muscles. It also creates new capillaries that allow greater blood flow to the muscles. But the most important adaptation when you run long is the increase in mitochondria in the muscle cells.”
The more mitochondria, Foy explains, the more adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is produced—and ATP is the energy source for all muscles. Interesting, right? But that’s not all. According to Foy, who has an exercise science degree, long runs also increase a runner’s lung capacity. They strengthen your running muscles. And they teach your body to use a higher percentage of fat while storing more glycogen (carbs). “When combined,” Foy concludes, “these improvements lead to a much more physiologically efficient aerobic system that allows runners to improve on their performance.”
So to recap, long runs allow for greater blood flow, create more energy for your muscles, strengthen your running muscles, increase your lung capacity and more! Solid reasons to tack on extra miles, right?
How Long Should You Run?
To determine your ideal distance for the long run—performed once a week, if possible, on the weekend—you’ll need to do some math (stay with me here). Your long run should be at least 50 percent longer than any of the rest of the week’s runs. So 90 minutes if your second-longest run is an hour—or 12 miles if your second-farthest run is 8 miles.
The next step is to increase your long-run distance as you build running fitness. Don’t get wild right off the bat. Lengthen it by about 10 percent or about one mile each time, says Illinois-based Cari Setzler. Setzler applies her knowledge as a Level II-certified coach from both the RRCA and USATF to coach runners nationwide through Fast Finish Coaching. Give yourself bonus points (nice work, you!) when it exceeds 90 minutes because that’s when extra benefits kick in.
“These include glycogen depletion, the recruitment of one type of fast-twitch muscle fibers and improved running ‘economy’—the amount of oxygen you utilize at a certain pace,” says Setzler. “All of these can translate to faster race times at distances from the mile on up, so even runners training for short races can benefit from runs that exceed an hour and a half.”
Setzler also has these long-run tips:
- Building up to at least a 13-mile training run during half-marathon training will give you a psychological lift because you’ll see that you can cover the race distance. But it’s risky (and exhausting) to do a 26-miler before a marathon; 16 to 22 miles is good enough.
- About once a month, swap out your long run for a semi-long run (a few miles shorter). Or consider a long cross-training session (more about that later) to give your body a break.
- Don’t go overboard (pay attention, here). A 10-mile weekend run if you only put in 20 miles a week is not only tough, it will take a long time to recover afterward and will increase your injury risk. Stick to long runs that are no more than one-third of your weekly mileage.
What Pace Should You Run?
“Maximizing the benefits while minimizing the chance of overtraining and injury is the key to choosing your long-run pace,” says Setzler. “Cellular adaptations and energy utilization improvements occur when training is at a pace that’s roughly 45 to 60 seconds slower per mile than your goal marathon pace or 90 to 120 seconds slower than 5K goal pace.”
Don’t worry, I’ll translate: You can do long runs at a pretty slow clip and still benefit. You may even need to force yourself to slow down on long runs by taking the “talk test.” If you can’t talk with ease, slow it down. Besides, talking is half the fun of long runs. Unless you’re running alone (but maybe one-sided conversations are your thing?).
Setzler adds that it doesn’t hurt to speed up a bit to goal race pace in the middle or toward the end of long runs. That will instill a sense of proper race-day pacing and give you a slightly better workout. But limit this faster-paced segment to no more than one-third of the long-run distance.
How Do You Fuel on Long Runs?
Taking in liquids and calories—hydrating and fueling—is tricky on long runs. Take in too much of either one and you end up dealing with “runner’s bloat” and a hopefully well-timed dash for the bushes. Take in too little and you end up dehydrated, out of energy, or both. It needs to be just right. And the only way to figure out what that is for you—what to eat and drink, how much and how often for maximal performance without any problems—is to experiment. It’s time to become your own science project.
“It’s a game of trial and error,” says Foy. This game is complicated by other factors too, including the weather (which affects how much you should hydrate) and how robust your digestive system is (which affects the type and volume of calorie-rich snacks and drinks your body can handle without cramps and bloating). It’s essential to get it right before you run a long race because you don’t want to deal with the potentially gross repercussions of a miscalculation on race day – trust us.
Hydration is important before, during and after long runs, while calorie intake is most important only in the later miles. That’s because if you run out of accessible carbs, you run out of steam – fast! If you’d rather not become familiar with the proverbial wall, remember these tips:
- Water is okay, but sports drinks deliver a 1-2 punch of hydration and calories.
- Sports gels offer a good intermittent caloric boost, though some runners do better with sports bars.
- While experimenting with what, when and how much you drink or eat on long runs, start out with small amounts about every 20 minutes, then make adjustments as needed.
Are There Any Substitutes for Long Runs?
Long runs are the best way to build running endurance, which makes running feel easier. But you can get most of the endurance benefits of long runs by occasionally doing some other endurance-boosting activity.
A long walk or hike—or even better, because it won’t pound your legs, a long road or mountain bike ride—is an effective occasional replacement for a long run. For example, if you’re in the habit of long runs every Sunday but this weekend you’ve planned a getaway trip with non-running friends or family members, you can look into renting bikes at your destination or finding a great hiking trail so you can still check off that long-workout box. It won’t be the same, but it won’t diminish your endurance fitness either.
Here are some “substitution” considerations:
- Don’t get in the habit of long-run substitutions. If you do a weekly long run, switching it out for a long hike or bike ride once a month is about right. The variety and the break from long runs can do your mind and body good.
- Don’t go too long or too fast if it’s been a long time since you did the substitute activity. Walking and cycling stress the muscles in different ways than running does, so if you’re not used to those activities, moderation is best—even though they’re easier on the heart and lungs.
- Find out more about cross-training options here.
How Can You Make Long Runs Less Boring?
There are plenty of ways to beat boredom on long runs, besides thinking about post-run brunch (that’s a good yet torturous long run activity). Here are some ideas:
- Run with people. Whether it’s a friend, family member, colleague or running-club pals, conversation makes long runs seem shorter.
- Crank it up. The ideal long-run mixtape starts mellow, then progresses to pump-me-up tunes for when the running gets hard (you’ll be so thankful). Example: Start with Adele and finish with Pitbull.
- Just chill. A quiet solo run—no conversation, no music—may be the only time all week when you can just let your mind wander. (Here are some weird things that may go through your head.)
- Mix it up. Change the route, run off-road, include some hills, throw in some pace changes—whatever adds a new element to your all-too-familiar long run route.
- Incentivize yourself. Promise yourself micro-rewards for each landmark you reach. This fun method is surprisingly effective.
Comment below to share your favorite tip for running longer.
Author bio: Bob Cooper is a former executive editor of Running Times and a former contributing editor to Runner’s World. The finisher of 45 marathons and ultramarathons currently runs, bikes and kayaks in San Anselmo, California.
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