The Long Run and How to Do it Right

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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.

Long Run Basics

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:

Fitbit Charge HR Wireless Activity Wristband, Black, Large

Polar Ft1 Heart Rate Monitor, Black

Garmin vívosmart HR Activity Tracker Regular Fit – Black

Suunto Ambit3 Sport HR Running GPS Unit, Blue

Distance:
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).

Duration;
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.

Nutrition:
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. 

Benefits of the Long Run

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:

Burning Fat

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.

Optimize Metabolism

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.

Increase Glycogen Storage

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.

Trains your Musculoskeletal System

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.

Mental Training

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.

Low Intensity and Variations

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:

Increase pace towards the end

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.

Sprinkle in some fast segments

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.

Going up a hill in the second half

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.

Where is the Limit

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.

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Happy running
mikula

17 comments on “The Long Run and How to Do it Right”

  • Mike says:

    Nice article. For my long runs I stay at a low heart rate using the Maffetone Method, which is 180 minus your age. This is almost always below conventional levels, but ensures you burn mostly fat and put minimal stress on your heart. Using this method was frustrating and slow at first, but I have seen my mile time drop by two minutes in the last month. Not only that but recovery time is minimal.

    • Mikula says:

      Thanks Mike! Interesting, I didn’t know the Maffetone Method. I usually take 220 minus my age, multiply it by 0.75 and try to stick around this.
      Yeah I know the feeling, my first long runs felt like walking it was so slow 🙂

  • gene says:

    Loved the article – 1 comment though I always eat during my long runs 100-200 calories an hour to train my stomach to take and process food to avoid gastro problems in long runs or races when I need to eat. At first eating was difficult but I have I think now successful trained my stomach

  • Grant says:

    Great article, Mikula. Lots of useful advice and tips in there!

  • Mark says:

    The Maffetone HR target method makes sense for under-40 athletes (he suggests adding bpm w/increased age), and 220-age (Haskell-Fox) was for the general population. Both +/- 10 bpm

    Tanaka’s research on HRmx for all age groups points toward 206.9-0.67*age, +/-6 bpm. If the target is 75%, Tanaka’s would simplify to 155.2 – 0.5*age. For me, that would be ~126 bpm (could range from 120-132 bpm).

  • Mark says:

    I might add that your assessment on staying aerobic is consistent with everything I have read, even if it means walking to stay in target. This is a great discipline, as many of us want to do more and go further than staying aerobic would allow. I like your comments on duration as well. It takes great focus and patience to become a distance runner, IMHO.

  • William says:

    Outstanding article Mikula, thank you so much for this information. I’ve just started training for my first and this will be a big help.

  • William says:

    Thanks! I’m going to run the Walt Disney World marathon in January, so excited!

  • adidas nmd says:

    Just wanna input on few general things, The website style is perfect, the written content is real good :D.

  • arliaus fu says:

    very informative and great article about distance running tips I ever read so far.

  • Shelley says:

    I would like a suggestion as to how often the long runs should be? How many days between runs? Also, how many days before running a 1/2 marathon should be your last long run? Running my first 1/2, female,64 years old. Have been training 5 months, injury free!.

    • Mikula says:

      Hi Shelley

      Thanks for the question!
      Great to hear that you’re injury free! I usuall do a long run once a week but skip it on recovery weeks, which I do every third or fourth week. You should try to do a long run at least every other week.
      Normally I do my last long run before a race 10-14 days before race day. The ten days before your 1/2 you should focus on recovery and not train to intense anymore but rather try to recover and keep the shape you’re in with some easy runs.
      Hope that helps!

      mikula

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