The Long Run is a staple to any training plan. Many avid runners without a goal race will still regularly do a longer run. There’s something about getting out there a long way from home and putting some time in on your feet. As therapeutic as running is, the long run just allows for more therapy time. This weekly staple can vary widely depending on the goals and purpose of a training plan.
While the purpose of one long run will differ from another depending on the goal of the training, there are overarching benefits to all long runs. The main benefit is to add endurance. Muscle and cardiovascular endurance is very important to any distance running goal whether you are trying to get faster at the 5k or complete your first ultra-marathon. A very simple and highly effective way to gain endurance is to simply sustain running for a longer period of time.
Another main benefit with running longer and running more often is simply spending more time at an aerobic level. All distance running events are highly aerobic. The more time your are able to spend in an aerobic zone, the higher your aerobic capacity will be and therefore making you a better, faster runner.
This should obviously be longer than the rest of you weekly runs (hence the name), but “How long?” is the question. Length depends on what you’re training for i.e. a 5k’er may only go up to 13-16 but regularly do a faster pace, and a marathoner with the same mileage will do longer runs up to 20-23, often slower.
Most people train on a weekly cycle because we have work schedules, but many professional runners train on a 9-day cycle (speed, easy, easy, tempo, easy, easy, long, easy, easy- or something like that) which means they don’t quite do each of their hard workouts each week. If it’s hard for you to do 18-20 every week once you get to the longer runs in a training cycle, you can do one every other week. I often do this especially when I start running faster, more specific long runs and need more time to recover. Just because lots of folks do a long run on Sunday after a tempo on Saturday doesn’t mean it’s the best plan.
Marathon Long Run-
When looking at the long run for the purpose of running a faster marathon, there are a variety of goals you may want to accomplish with your long run. This is where questions about pace generally come from for most people.
Endurance- you will always gain endurance as you do your longest run of the week, month, or training cycle. Early on in a training cycle this should be the focus in order to perform harder workouts at longer distances. Endurance usually has to be built back up for each new cycle after even a short break. Run slow, build based on distance and/or time at an everyday pace or even slower.
Burning Fat- In order to burn fat while running you have to be running comfortably. For the marathon, it’s important that your body use fat as it’s first choice of fuel so that by the end your body has carbs left over to burn. Once you start burning carbs, your body will often not resort back to burning fat, it’s like a switch that can only be flipped on. This is why it is important to train your body to choose fat as it’s primary source of fuel. Additionally, this is helpful for those desiring to shed a few pounds. You can do this by always staying in a fat burning zone during you run, or at least until the later stages. This is also why some athletes do a long run in a fasted state so that their body has no carbs to burn and stays in a fat burning state. Previously, I used to hate running on an empty stomach especially for long runs. However, with the understanding of how my body will store and utilize fat as fuel, I began doing a large portion of my runs including easy runs, long runs, and hard workouts with less carbs in my system.
Clearing Lactic Acid- You don’t have to be doing a tempo run to work on your ability to clear lactic acid and remain aerobic. Running at a pace that is close to your threshold without ever going over for a sustained period of time helps your body learn to clear lactic acid from your muscles, especially for longer races.
Marathon Specific- Then there are the harder workouts (which we’ve talked about before) that you do when you’re later in a training segment to target very specific things for the marathon. Like pushing and running fast at the end of a long run, focusing in on marathon pace so that your body has a good feel for it, and running faster than marathon pace to make marathon pace feel easy (and to get your body used to burning fat at marathon pace).