If you want to train for longer distances or just increase your aerobic capacity, a regular long training run is a must for your training routine. Running longer has so many other benefits than just help you “going longer”. But when is a run considered long? And how can you do it right? Read all about it in the following paragraphs.
After you started running you might be asking yourself how you can train more specific and goal-oriented. If you aim to race a half marathon or a marathon you also have to run longer distances in your training. A weekly or bi-weekly long run is the single most important training method to improve muscle endurance and increase your aerobic capacity. So how do you do a long run? Here are the basic facts:
Intensity: Low (70% – 75% of your maximum heart rate)
It’s important to not run too intense on your long run to get the most out of it. If you don’t have one this is now the moment to consider buying a heart rate monitor. There are dozens of options also some cheap ones:
This depends a bit on your current level and the goal you want to achieve. Important is to start with the longest distance you ran previously and increase step by step from there. For half marathon training it’s usually enough to go for a maximum of 13 miles (20km) if you plan to do a marathon the long run can go up to 20-22 miles (32-35km).
In my opinion the duration is more important than the distance. When focusing on the time and intensity the distance is automatically adjusted to your current abilities. For the full benefits you should at least run for 1.5 hours. But remember to increase step by step and don’t just go out running for 1.5 if your longest run before was 20 minutes. Usually for marathoners a long run can be 3 to 3.5 hours or even more if you’re training for an ultra.
There is quite a debate going on what and how much you should eat on long runs. Most long distance runners state that you should eat regularly during the run and there are coaches and books that tell you to not fuel at all as this trains your fat metabolism in the best way. If I do slow long runs in the flat for not more than three hours then I fuel before and after but not during the run. However I don’t recommend this to beginners. Also if you run for more than 3 hours or run on trails or with higher intensity then you should fuel. Use sport drinks that help you fill up electrolites and foods that are easy to digest like bananas, energy bars and gels.
It’s pretty obvious that when you train longer you have it easier in longer races. But there are much more benefits from a regular long run that most don’t automatically think of. These are:
Endurance training with low heart rates is the best way to burn expendable fat. Normally your body uses carbohydrates and fat together with oxygen to deliver the energy needed by your muscles to work. The amount of carbohydrates in the energy metabolism is much higher when training at an intense level. And so it is lower when going slow and fat is the biggest energy resource. Logically running for two hours burns twice as much as running one hour so a slow long run burns fat like crazy. Especially in the end of the run when your carb levels are low you burn even more fat compared to carbs.
This is in addition to the first point. When you don’t refuel with carbohydrates during your long run the carbohydrates stored in your muscles get empty. This forces your body to adapt and burn more fat to deliver the energy needed. A regular long run increases the percentage of fat used in the energy metabolism and lowers the amount of carbs needed to perform longer runs. This is not only great to lose weight you also need to refuel with less food during a race giving your stomach less work.
Also your storage space for carbohydrates in your muscles gets bigger with the low intensity long run. To be able to store a lot of carbs in your muscles is a precondition for an effective Carboloading before a long race. Eating tons of pasta before a Marathon doesn’t help if your body cannot store the energy.
Long distance running does not only demand a lot from your cardiovascular system and needs an efficient energy metabolism, it is also pretty tough on your joints, bones and ligaments. Your musculoskeletal system needs much longer to adapt to higher training volume than your heart. To stay injury free and prepare your body for the hard workload of a long distance race it’s ideal to train your musculoskeletal system with long runs. But remember: increase the distance or time you cover on your long runs gradually week by week and cut your long run by 30-50% on every third week to give your body some time to adapt.
When you do a marathon you’re running for some hours straight. This is also a challenge for your mental abilities. You need to be strong mentally to keep going when you’re already tired. The big challenge of a Marathon race begins after 20 miles. This is the point when your energy level is down, your legs are tired and you still need to run 10k. Be sure to be prepared for this point as good as you can. The long run is a great way to learn how to deal with running for two, three or more hours. Some tips on how to not get bored and keep your mind occupied are described in this article.
For the best results for the described benefits of the long run it is absolutely key to not go over 75% of your maximum heart rate. Especially if you are new to training for longer distances you get the best effect regarding aerobic capacity by only going slow the entire long run. If you are a bit more advanced there are some variations to the long run that you can try. I don’t recommend this for beginners but if you already ran a marathon and want to increase your finishing time this might help. I’ve experimented with the following variations:
A great way to get even more out of your long run towards the end of the marathon training is to speed up and run at your anticipated marathon pace for the last stretch of the run. Don’t overdo it when you first try this. Just run the last 5k at your Marathon pace at first and increase the distance you go fast the next week. I usually do the last 15k at Marathon pace, not more. If you do this it’ll give you a feeling how it is to go faster when your energy level is down and you legs already fatigue. In my opinion this is the best way to prepare for a marathon.
If you also want to improve your speed on the long run you can include some fast segments. You could do some increasing intervals towards the end (1k fast, slow down, 2k fast, slow down, and so on) or just speed up until you get to a specific tree, bridge or whatever landmark is in sight on your training course. Again it’s important to always be aware that the main focus of the long run is to train at a low intensity level and the faster segments should only be the minority of this workout.
This is something I started doing when training for hilly races or mountain marathons. I usually run slowly in the flat for 20 to 25 kilometers and then run up a hill when I’m already a bit fatigued. Of course you need to have a nice hill around that is not too steep so you can still run and don’t increase your heart rate too much. This is also a great simulation of an actual race situation if your targeted race is not flat.
So how long should your long run be? In order to have an effect on your metabolism you need to run when your carbohydrate level is lowered. For this to happen you need to run for at least 90 to 120 minutes. So if you train for a half marathon I suggest you aim at a two-hour long run. If you train for a marathon you should try to get 5-7 long runs of about three hours into your training plan. To protect your body and not get injured you shouldn’t do runs that are longer than 3.5 hours or 22 miles. However this is a general rule that works for most runners doing races up to the marathon distance. If you’re training for an ultra you also need to run for maybe five or six hours or up to 60k depending on the distance of the race. If you do stuff like this you should be quite an advanced runner that knows his/her body very well. I wouldn’t consider running an ultra marathon if you still need more than four hours to finish a flat marathon. I can’t really say where the limit of the long run is and when it’s becoming unhealthy. I currently do four-hour runs with some 3000ft of elevation gain two or three times a month. So this is really up to you and how your body reacts to the increased workload. The higher your training volume the more you should focus on not getting injured. You find some tips on that topic in this post.
So what are your experiences with longer runs? What is your recipe to prepare for longer races? Let us know in the comments section below.