By Ian Corless
Every weekend, runners all over the world lace up their shoes and head out for a long run. But what is a long run and how long should the long run be? Ian Corless explains.
Running long depends on what type of ultra you are training for, what your objectives are, what the date of the event is and so on. If you don't have answers to these three questions, stop, find the answers and then start planning. Read an article about planning and running a race here.
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, this is where it gets tricky.
First of all, let's look at why we run long. This is something discussed in a previous article on 'Base Training,' it would be a good idea to read that here. In summary, we put an emphasis on three key points: Efficiency to use fat as a fuel, muscular and physical adaptation and mental strength.
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 mentally for the challenge ahead and you need to be strong to get the job done.
You have had sore legs from running, yes? We have all been there, it comes from running fast and hard and building up lactic acid or it comes from running long. Muscle soreness will come for everyone, however, we can train to reduce the impact or delay the process. 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. Check out our diet advice for training here.
The Long Run
Let's be clear here, running longer requires running slower, especially if we are going to switch fat burning on, mentally make you strong and allow you to last the distance. Running hard has its place for sure but be specific and think of your objectives and what you are trying to achieve.
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. Time on feet does very much depend on 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. You can read an article on this here.
The big question, 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.
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.
What do I mean by progressive?
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 2:30 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 two hours comfortably to four 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. 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. Running long is a voyage of discovery. Check out our 50km training plan to start you towards your 50 miler here.
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?