The Run Down on the Long Run

By Ryan Warrenburg, ZAP Fitness

My junior year in college our cross country team had a breakthrough season. Reflecting back years later I attribute it to a variety of factors, but there are two in particular that standout: we started running more, and our long runs became a bigger priority. Last month I discussed the basics of building a base, addressed the importance of aerobic volume in starting a training plan, and the benefits of running a bit more. This month I’d like to delve a little bit deeper into the topic of aerobic development and discuss the importance and execution of the long run. The long run serves a number of purposes, depending on what event you are preparing for, but it should be a staple of any distance runner’s training program.

Aerobic Development

When starting a training program the goal is to build aerobic fitness, the primary purpose of the long run. The long, uninterrupted bout of exercise increases capillary density, improves your ability to transport oxygen efficiently to the muscles, and builds strength in the tendons and musculature. In beginning a program, when workouts should essentially be non-existent, the long run provides the best aerobic stimulus of the week. The long run also requires more recovery and should not be undertaken more than once a week. However, I strongly recommend including a “medium long run” in the middle of the week that is 15-20% of your weekly volume. The medium long run provides similar aerobic benefits without taking as big of a toll on your body. It also incorporates variance into your weekly routine, which, for many people who are used to running the same route and distance every day, provides an important change in stimulus.

Prioritizing the Long Run

Long Run at Virginia Creeper TrailIf the medium long run should be 15-20% of your weekly volume, what percentage should the long run make up? This answer requires significant qualification as the duration of your long run will vary depending on your weekly volume and what event you are preparing for. The long run should be a minimum of 20-25% of your weekly volume, but could be as much as 45-55% of your weekly volume if you are running a 20+ mile long run in preparation for a marathon.

Many people train for a marathon on 40-50 miles a week, and if you are limiting your long run to 25% of your weekly volume you will be grossly underprepared for the marathon distance. As you get closer to your key race the emphasis of the long run may change. In the final 8-10 weeks of training before a key race, the specific phase, your priority should reflect what you are preparing for. In the case of the marathon the long run will remain the most important run of the week as it is the most specific to your race. If you are preparing for a 5k, your most important workouts will be your 5k specific workouts.

Long Run Execution

Long run execution is a critical aspect to getting the most out of your long run, as well as not shuddering at the idea of a long run, which you may be doing right now. Most people start their long run far too fast. When I describe the idea of negative splitting a long run or a long race I inevitably hear, “it doesn’t matter how slow I start I’ll die at the end anyways.” People who say this start their runs too fast; it’s like Elizabeth Taylor giving marriage counseling.

You should start your long run up to two minutes per mile slower than your marathon pace and work your way through the run where you finish the final miles near marathon pace. I promise you will feel better throughout the run if you do this. More than likely you’ll end up finishing the run faster overall as well. One of the secret components to the long run I learned from the former author of this column, ZAP Fitness head coach Pete Rea (who in all fairness got it from the great Bill Squires) is incorporating pickups in the long run. Pickups can range from 1 minute in length to several minutes and should be done in the latter stages of a long run.

Long Run Pickups

For instance, I might prescribe someone to do alternating 1 minute and 2 minute pickups over the last hour of their long run with 5 minutes of running between each at the pace they were running before they started the pickups. The pace of the pickups isn’t important, but you should be able to resume your normal long run pace immediately, if you have to slow down to recover you’re doing them too fast. For most people, I suggest starting at marathon effort and moving forward throughout the sequence.

The pickups serve two critical purposes. From a physiological perspective, the pickups recruit fast twitch muscles late in the run when your slow twitch fibers are fatigued. This strengthens the fast twitch fibers and helps improve leg speed, particularly improving ability to finish fast at the end of a race when you’re tired. Additionally, the pickups provide great psychological training as they force you to break up the run. Including pickups will make the last hour of the run go by faster because you are only focused on 1-2 minutes at a time. There is great application here for racing. If you can translate that idea to a race and focus on 1-2 minutes at a time the race goes by faster, and you’ll run much stronger over the final stages.

Prioritizing your long run and improving the execution will boost your performances in every event from mile to the marathon!

*This Article Originally Appeared in the May 2014 Issue of Running Journal