The Importance of the Long Run

I was sitting in a café this weekend and heard two men sitting at the table on my right conversing about running. They looked like they were back from a run and were having a debate about the need and purpose for weekly long runs. I pretended to read something on my phone and listened to what they were saying. At one point in the conversation, I smiled. I had my next article’s topic.

Why is the long run an important component of your training ?

The question seems easy to answer, but many aspects of the long run that may elude runners. I will try to answer the question from my own perspective and experience. That said, each of us has his own view on the matter.

The long run, generally, is a run that exceeds the usual runs you perform weekly. For example, if a runner goes for a 10 km run four times per week, his long run may be around 15 to 21 km (or more). But there is a note of caution. If you are not an ultra-marathoner (a runner who regularly runs distances above the standard marathon distance, 42.195 km), I would not recommend you go out on a long that exceeds more than 50% of your total regular mileage. Using the previous example, four 10 km runs per week equals 40 km. The long run should not exceed 20 km by more than 20% ( 24 km or 25 if you like 5 km increments.)

If you are a runner who increases his mileage weekly, then it is fair to assume that your long run will also increase gradually. I emphasize GRADUALLY. Most injuries I have sustained occurred when I decided to immaturely increase my long run drastically (or if I ran while being upset). Your body must adapt periodically to a progressive increase, not a brutal one. Now, this is a general rule. I know of a runner who went from regular running to 100 miles in one shot without specific training. He trashed his body beyond imagination. But he completed the run! Anyway, for safety, do not exceed by too much what I have prescribed above.

The long run is a way to stretch your physical abilities and gradually build a more endurant runner. However, this is not supposed to be a milestone run each time you perform a long run. What I mean by MILESTONE RUN is a distance that you have never covered before, like a personal distance record. The purpose of the long run is to strengthen you in time; the milestone run is an achievement from which you can assess how strong you have become. For obvious reasons, you cannot indefinitely run milestone runs. However, if you are a relatively new endurance runner, most of your long runs will be milestone runs until the distances become so long that you cannot perform often. But eventually, once in a while, you may decide to exceed your average long run to assess how strong you have become. If you do not DNF (Did Not Finish), your new run is a «milestone run» and a personal distance record.

The long runs are also opportunities for gradually increasing your “forever pace.” If you run long runs weekly, you will eventually, without really trying, increase your pace. The reason for this pace increase is that your body has become more comfortable and efficient (running economy), and you have gained more confidence in your endurance abilities. Therefore you can run slightly faster without consciously making the extra effort. The «Forever Pace» is a pace you can sustain ( virtually ) indefinitely. For example, my «forever running pace» is somewhere between 5 min to 4 min/km. Slower than that pace, I am uncomfortable and do not run smoothly. Faster than that pace, for over 50 km, I become taxed and must slow down. A gradually faster «Forever Pace» is a good fitness indicator. The long run is the weekly opportunity to improve your FP. But don’t forget, you must train regularly for this improvement to reap the benefits. If you run once in a while, forget it. It will not happen.

Long runs are also great ways to clear your mind. As you (eventually) run effortlessly, you can switch to auto-pilot and relax and enjoy your run. Try to think of nothing important, stressful, or requiring mental effort. Just run. Clear your mind. Make room for clarity. At the end of the run, you should feel tired, maybe a little stiff, but you should not be mentally exhausted. If you are, two things probably happened. One, you pushed too hard, and your mind needed to use more energy to cope with the requirements of a longer run. Two, you spent too much energy thinking about things that made your mind use up more fuel than it had available to perform the thinking AND the running. OK, other elements could affect your mind, like overestimating the distance, nutrition, aches here and there, hydration, terrain, weather, etc. But usually, when I feel mentally exhausted, it is because I ran too fast, for too long, or I tried to solve complex problems on my long run.

Long runs are ideal opportunities to build confidence in your body’s ability to perform when needed. I recall many times when a friend asked me to help do something hard and physical, and I felt no anxiety from providing the needed help. I felt confident that I could be useful because I knew my body (and mind) would allow me to perform adequately.

How to prepare for a long run ?

Going out on a long run is no more difficult than going for a regular run, except that the distance difference requires more energy. Hydration and nutrition should be in proportion with the distance. However, too much of any will reduce your ability to run smoothly. Here is an example. If I go out for a 30 km run, I will sweat about 3 litres. Sweating this volume means I will need to drink substantially, but not exactly the amount I will sweat. Nevertheless, I will still carry the equivalent of my total sweat volume, just in case something unexpected happens. Also, on a long slow run, you will burn more energy in the form of fat. If you want to lose weight, the long run is a great way to achieve your weight goals. However, you must ingest calories during the run to avoid hitting the proverbial wall. On average, I will consume 1 GU gel per 10 km. I will have one 20 minutes before the run, then one at 10 KM, then another at the 20 km mark. This rate of ingestion will do the trick for me. If I go beyond the 50 km mark, I will take in solid food somewhere around the 30 km mark, and I’m not talking about a steak! I will probably eat one or two Clif Bars. Don’t forget to check your route in advance. You must know a little bit about what to expect. If you need to go to the bathroom often, be «prepared»! Choose the right shoes for the terrain. Always err on the side of caution. If you do not, the stress will ruin the experience. However, the perceived duress will also improve your mental strength (if you cover the distance regardless of the hardships experienced).

You may want to practice visualizing. You could drive or bike the route in advance to mentally rehearse it later at night before going to sleep. Visualization of your run has many benefits, but essentially “virtually seeing yourself” performing is a great way to perform well on your live run. I cannot stress the importance of mentally rehearsing your run (if you know the route). However, I enjoy the unknown and perform better while unaware of what awaits. But that works for me.

If you want me to elaborate more specifically in the long run, you can use the contact form to request it or to ask questions. I answer EVERY email.

OK, enough on this already!

I want to conclude with this fact. The long run, not the milestone run, is an essential component of your training. Failing to incorporate it into your weekly schedule will eventually introduce boredom (or the feeling of plateauing) which will degrade your performance, even at a regular distance. I strongly recommend you vary your long run and introduce a few curve balls, like going out in miserable weather, at night, or even after an exhausting work day. These duress elements will help improve your mental strength and provide an enhanced feeling of (unbreakable) confidence.

Now, go lace up and hit the road!