An integral part of running training is the long run.
So what is the long run? Depending on your race distance, the long run can be anything from an hour for new recreational runners training for fun runs, to three hours and onwards for marathoners and those running ultra marathons.
Why do we need to run long?
These runs produce more mitochondria and capillaries in your muscle cells, increase your aerobic capacity, improve your cardiovascular system's efficiency, increase the amount of glycogen stored in your muscles and liver, strengthen your musculoskeletal system, give you a greater ability to work through muscular fatigue, and increase your body's ability to use fat as fuel.
Let's define that very basically:
1. Long runs teach your body to use fuel in an efficient manner.
2. Long runs train your body to use oxygen efficiently.
3. Long runs teach your body to handle the load associated with running.
These are all physiological benefits of running long and it's also important to note the psychological benefits of long runs. The biggest takeaway with regards to running performance lies in developing the confidence to run for a long time, but there are also many other psychological benefits to running long, and running in a general sense. Click here to read about the impact running has on your brain.
How long should your long run be?
This is an interesting point of discussion and like most elements of training, relative to the individual circumstances of the athlete. It's important to look at the long run in the context of the week, and not in isolation. How many kilometres a week are you running? How many sessions a week are you doing? What is the proximity to your event? Too often, new runners place too much emphasis on the long run and place less emphasis on building consistent mileage through the week.
Imagine you are running a weekly long run of 20km with a total weekly mileage of 35-40km. That's 50% of your weekly total in one run. Why could this be a problem?
1. You're spending a large part of the week recovering from one single run, missing the opportunity to log more runs during the week. This is too much time spent adapting to the stress placed on the body. In some cases, these runs cause a huge amount of tissue damage and cell damage (mitochondria and capillaries) that compromises recovery and lead to an imbalance between recovery and adaption. To improve, we must first adapt.
2. You're placing excessive stress on the musculoskeletal system. It's not uncommon for people who have developed aerobically through swimming or cycling to transition to running and not have the structural strength to support their aerobic system. This is a fast track to injury, inconsistency and burn out.
3. You're neglecting training other energy systems that are capable of producing positive results for your running. If you can't back up from your long run to run a workout or two during the week, or to get out for an easy run, then perhaps the workload of your long run is too much. Even if you do manage to get out the door, the quality of your running can be compromised due to be in a consistent state of muscle glycogen depletion.
Consider instead the total workload of your week across all runs and look to progressively build your running volume relative to your chosen event. A very rough rule of thumb is to think of your long run as 25-30% of your total weekly volume. If you're running an ultra marathon this percentage may increase with the intention of introducing longer loading stress to your musculoskeletal system and to practice race day fuelling strategies, however the process of recovery and adaption must be respected.
What are some of the types of long runs?
If you're just starting out on your running journey then the long run should be run easily to ensure you're managing your training load. For runners with more years in their legs, the long run provides an opportunity to experiment with race specific work, target multiple energy systems and the ability to run at a varying pace. It's important to remember that the long run can be as or more stressful than a workout during the week, so respect the stress this creates.
That was a lot of reading, I just want to head out for a big day in the mountains.
That's fine! Training doesn't always have to be perfect, but it is important to establish healthy habits and a healthy structure to ensure you're able to spend those long days on your feet when the time arises.