The Art of the Long Run
The long run is the cornerstone to any long distance training plan (marathon and half marathon especially). Often times the 'whys' and 'hows' of the long run are ignored with the simple instruction to "run far." There's a bit more to it than just tacking on miles and with fall training plans in full swing, it is the perfect time to dissect the long run.
Why Run Long: The long run is essential in preparing your body to perform at long distances. There are several changes that occur in your body and mind during the long run that will assist you on marathon day. Your body adapts physically by becoming a more efficient aerobic machine. Your body learns to use fat as fuel as it deals with glycogen depletion and you become better at maintaining your energy levels. Running long runs also teaches your body to become more efficient in gait and stride. There are also mental adaptations. Perhaps when you start your long run is 6 or 10 miles, gradually you increase this distance until you are running 20+ miles. Mentally, six miles doesn't seem so far anymore. You've increased your capacity to deal with discomfort.
How Long is Long: A general rule of thumb is that a long run is 90 minutes or more. Your pace will dictate how far you can get in 90 minutes and using this guideline, "long" has more to do with "road time" than it does with actually distance. I think this is a helpful guideline for runners of any level because it allows you to start your long run at a distance that is commensurate with your experience. For a 10 min/miler a 90 minute run would be 9 miles. For an 8 min/miler a 90 minute run would be 11.25 miles.
How Often: It all depends on what your training for, typically a marathon or half marathon program requires running long once a week. Ultra runners often do multiple long runs in a week, providing them the training they need to complete distances longer than the marathon. Most training plans for a marathon have the long run build over a series of weeks until you reach the 2o mile mark. If you want to complete a marathon one long run of 18 or 20 miles is sufficient. However, I am of the opinion (and you can find differing opinions) that if you want to do more than drag yourself across the finish line of a marathon, multiple long runs of over 20 miles are essential. Ideally three to four long runs of 20 miles or more. They don't necessarily have to be back to back weekends, you can put a step back weekend between these twenty milers (in fact this is probably the better way to schedule them). For example run 20 one weekend and 12-14 the following weekend.
Increasing Long Runs: There are a whole host of coaching theories and rules of thumb for increasing the long run. Most training plans increase the long run by 2-3 miles each week. In addition to this basic formula you can also take into consideration running coach, Jack Daniels' recommendation that the long run comprise no more than 30% of total weekly mileage for runners running less than 40 miles per week and less than 25% for runners running more than 40 miles per week (Daniels 49). For example, if you had a base of 30 miles per week your long run would be about 9 miles. As you increased weekly mileage (lets say by 15%) the following week to 34.5 miles your long run would be about 10.4 miles. Which is an increase of a 1.5 miles from the previous week. It's important to remember that these are, in my opinion, very conservative guidelines. In the past I've increased weekly mileage by more than 20 or 25% (clearly breaking all running "rules") and very often my long runs have comprised a lot more than 30% of my weekly mileage. In regards to weekly mileage and long runs you want to avoid extremes: don't increase weekly mileage exorbitantly and it is unwise to rely on the weekly long run to bulk up your weekly mileage.
Thoughts on Pace: It is very important for your long runs to be at an easy pace. Some call this "conversation pace," another rule of thumb would be to run 60 to 90 seconds slower than your goal marathon pace. Running the long run too fast can leave you burned out and susceptible to injury. Easy paced running is also key to training your body to run in a glycogen depleted state.
Source: Daniels, Jack. Daniels' Running Formula.
Are you training for a fall marathon or half marathon? Do you like the long run?
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