The Long Run!
I’ve been talking to a few people recently about the importance of the long run in their training schedule, in fact any distance running training schedule. For any form of endurance running there will be a longer, slower run in your schedule somewhere; usually each week.
What is a long run?
Put simply it's the longest session in your training plan in terms of distance and time. It will usually increase in distance gradually each week up to a maximum distance just before a race you are training for. For example for a marathon you would usually aim for your longest long run to be between 20 and 22 miles 3-4 weeks before the race. In training you would increase your long run distance by no more than 10% each week in your plan to hit that longest session at the right time from whatever starting point you are at.
The long run should take place at an easy pace, where you can easily hold a conversation, so that you are working aerobically not anaerobically. By this I mean you don't get into oxygen debt and you learn to find a pace where you can steadily cover longer distances. The top mistake runners make on their long run is going too fast, the speed is something you work on in other runs!
As you get over around a 90 minute run duration you will need to start taking on board calories in the form or drinks, gels or real food during your long run as the distances get longer.
Generally most training plans put the long run on a Sunday, if you are working during the week days it's very hard to fit what can be a very long session during the working week. You should also have a rest day after your long run day for your muscles, ligaments, tendons and bones to recover and repair, so running it on a Sunday means you can rest on the Monday but run the day before on the Saturday when you have more time available.
You run the long run at a pace slightly slower than your target pace for your race. I'll talk about pacing in a future post.
Why is it important?
The long run is key as it's the session most like the race you are training for, where you will be on your feet for a long time running at a slower pace. So it's about conditioning and training your body to exactly the sort of effort and challenge you are setting it on race day. So if your race is on road, fairly flat and likely to be in a built up area (so sheltered from the weather a little) than you should try to do many of your long runs in similar areas on similar terrain. Hilly, off road race? That calls for some hilly off road long runs; sorry!
The long run teaches you to be able to spend that long on your feet, learn what that feels like and learn what you need to do to support your body through it. You can experiment with how much you need to drink in different weathers, what kit works well and doesn't chafe and what to eat and how often to find what works for you.
Your long run may well also teach you about the wall, my first training session over 20 miles did. I drank only sports drink and nothing else and hit the wall spectacularly after 16 miles. It felt horrible...! I didn't know whether I wanted to throw up or cry or both! This is the glamorous side of distance running :) On subsequent long runs I experimented with energy bars, flapjack, fruit and buts etc until I found a strategy that worked for me; trying to eat something at 45 minute intervals. As an aside doing this means you still end up with a calorie deficit at the end of a marathon but that's ok as you can use the glycogen in your blood to top up. For ultras the equation changes; so it's even more important to eat and to teach your body to burn its fat stores; another thing the long run will train your body to do.
Another tip is to read up about the race you are training for and what you get at the water stops and energy and how frequent they are. If you are running a big city marathon they will have frequent water stops with sports drinks, energy blocs etc. You may decide to train with the make they are supplying and just use their supplies on race day reducing what you have to carry. On a trail race in the countryside you may get nothing on the way round, so you have to learn on your long run what to take and how you carry it. You also may have other required items you have to take for safety, so practice carrying these too.
One final tip; never wear a new pair of shoes or an item of kit for the first time on a long run or race. Unless you love chafing and blisters...! These things need wearing in on shorter runs first.
How do you ramp up long run mileage?
Most marathon training plans advocate increasing your long run distance by up to 10% each week as part of a training plan with a weekly structure of sessions. Personally I have found this a bit much for me and many of the runners I work with; it's tough on the body. What I have found works better is to train in a blocks with the long run increasing in distances for 2-3 weeks followed by an easier week with a shorter long run of 60-70% of the longest distance.
My other top tip is to look at what you are achieving in training and not to be afraid to adjust your training plan if you find it's not working or you are getting niggles and inquiries. If you have to skip a session don't try to cram and play catch up, re adjust your plan. It's better to arrive on the start line for a race slightly under trained than over trained and injured.
Of course I can help by writing a training plan tailored just for you, as well as ongoing coaching packages where you get loads of support and an adapting training plan.
The other important element of the long run is to make it interesting, especially as the distances get longer. For me that involves trying new routes to explore and beautiful places to run in.
For others that may mean music or a podcast to listen to, a running buddy to chat to or other mental distraction techniques; whatever helps you stay mentally strong and not focussing too much on the distance you have left to go! Again bear in mind what you have access to on race day, if you aren't allowed headphones and you running buddy isn't racing then try at least some long runs without those supports.