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The Long Run: Reasons, Misconceptions, and Strategies for Success


Running Cocodona 250 Mile Endurance Run. Sedona, AZ
Cocodona 250 Mile Endurance Run. Sedona, AZ

For race distances from the half marathon to the longest ultramarathons in existence, athletes hail the long run as the mighty defender of race performance. If you want to run your best at any of these distances, they say, then your long runs better be good and better happen often. Ask the same athletes why it’s so important, or what other training long runs might need to be complimented by, and you’re liable to be met with a more jumbled reply and perhaps some head scratching.


Knowledge is power. Understanding what long runs do for us as athletes as well as what they don’t do, will put us in a better position to manage our training when the plan needs adjustment, whether it be for life, time management, fatigue, or something else all together.


First, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page- what constitutes a “long run”? The simplest answer is that it’s any run that challenges the athlete’s fitness primarily through the continuous time or distance run, rather than through some other component like running fast or with elevated intensity. Long runs are about finding what feels like our “I could do this all day” running pace, and then backing up that claim by doing so. If an athlete is training with long runs as a component of their schedule, it’ll typically make up anywhere from about a third up to half of their weekly training (as measured by time or distance).


Great, we’re all intimately familiar with long runs- many of us painfully familiar! Why are they so critical to our success in long distance events?


  1. They’re the epitome of race-specific training for long events. If you’re training for a long event, then long training sessions are going to be a lot like the race day experience.

  2. Mental fortitude. This also has to do with training for the specific demands of the event, but the essence of this point is really that working through pain and fatigue on race day will be challenging, and by meeting those same sort of obstacles in training (though usually to a lesser degree), we brace the mind to perform when we’re faced with that familiar type of adversity on race day.

  3. Aerobic fitness development. Aerobic fitness is developed slowly, over the course of tens to hundreds of training hours. I went into the weeds on what this all means in a post back in 2022, but one of the primary benefits of a long run is the accrual of a lot of aerobic training time collected all at once. We’ll come back to this point in a minute.


Most of that is probably also familiar. Runners love to tote the benefits of long runs, so much so that we might have been told long runs do some other things for our fitness that they truthfully, don’t.



Running through a tunnel at Cocodona.

Misconceptions


1. "Long runs make you faster.” 

That’s a tricky statement. The fact of the matter is that training slow, trains you to move slow. There’s no miracle that happens behind the scenes where you do all running at 10 minutes per mile and then one day you’re suddenly training at 9 minutes per mile. The caveat is that moving slow for a very long ways (like 13 miles, 26 miles, 100 miles….) can start to seem fast. Athletes with long run experience maintain their, admittedly somewhat slow pace, as athletes with less long run practice may begin to fade and slow further in the later stages of these long events.*


*Fading in ultramarathons is a well documented, nearly universal truth. Try and name someone that ran the last 50 miles of their race faster than their first 50 miles. What the research has shown is that the winners just slow down less as the race progresses.



2. “You must run at least X distance long run if your event is Y miles long”. 

The statement has lost a lot of traction in ultrarunning already, as most of us intuitively understand that an 80 mile long run is probably a bit much even if preparing for a 100 mile race. Yet we still hear this all too often for events from half marathon to 50K. The mythical 20 mile long run in a marathon buildup works great for some but isn’t the singular way to success at the marathon race distance. The boundaries on how long a long run needs to be are ambiguous, and there’s more than one way to arrive at the three benefits of the long run we already touched. Long runs don’t need to reach a specific maximum in order to be “long”. Mental toughness isn’t honed exclusively through long aerobic efforts, and aerobic fitness is developed solely by the long run. More on what this means for training strategies below.



3. “The long run is always the most important workout if you’re training for a long distance race.”

Like most aspects of training, the truth isn’t so black-and-white. There are shades of gray when it comes to long run importance. Is it the most race-specific training session in your schedule? Almost definitely. The problem is that if we’ve gone weeks or months consistently getting our long runs in, but also consistently missing our strength, mobility, and speed training, then our priorities begin to shift. Runners are athletes first, and if we’re neglecting the components of foundational fitness too long, they’ll inevitably become a limiter for us, even in our most race-specific training sessions.



Mountain view and strategies for training success

Strategies and Variations in Training Method


“Every body is different.” It is a common refrain in the sport, espoused as a reason to customize training to fit an athlete’s unique physical strengths and weaknesses, but one that doesn’t consider the other factors that influence how we need to train, like where it fits in our lives. Long runs work for a lot of people who have extra time on the weekends (or any day of the week they have off from work). Not everyone gets a day off. Perhaps you work a hectic schedule that has you traveling long distances on weekends, or even more commonly, perhaps you have family obligations that put constraints on your time.


Just because we’re faced with time restrictions that don’t allow us to fit in, say, a 20 mile long run every week, doesn’t mean we can’t successfully train for a long distance event. There are limits of course; planning for a longest run of two hours when you’re aiming to run a 24-hour long event is unlikely to end well. But what I’ve seen is that many of us are limited by our belief that we can’t successfully train for long distance events unless we have the ability to run for 4+ hours one day a week, and I hate to see athletes robbed of the opportunity to go after something big and exciting as a result of that sort of ill-conceived notion. Below are strategies that can still lead us to success even if we’re facing challenges with the traditional weekly training schedule.


Traditional training structure for long run planning



Back to back training structure for long run planning


Strategy 1: Back to back long(-ish) runs

If an athlete’s training for a 12 hour event, then say they’d ideally get a longest single-day training run of 5 hours, but realistically they can only dedicate up to 3 hours to running on their day of greatest time availability. Instead, we can split this up, running for 3 hours one day and then running another two hours the following day. The common concern with this strategy is that it’s not as hard to do 3 hours and then 2 hours as it is to do 5 hours in a single push. True as it may be, any athlete that’s done back to back long runs will assure it’s still not easy. Remember, our three main benefits of long runs are 1) race rehearsal, 2) mental fortitude, and 3) aerobic fitness development. Benefits 2 and 3 are completely satisfied, with only a modest concession in race specificity (a 3 hour run still requires many of the same mental and nutrition skills that a 5 hour run would require.) 



Aerobic run emphasis training structure for long run planning

Strategy 2: Emphasized aerobic training volume

Sometimes athletes may have a pretty busy, but stable day-to-day schedule where they have up to, say, two hours to train on any day of the week. While this athlete might not be able to get a 5 hour long run in, or utilize the back-to-back long run strategy above, the athlete still has a whopping 14 hours a week they could theoretically dedicate to training. Instead of having a few easy aerobic runs of 45-60 minutes, as is typical of most training plans, this athlete can instead still get in all the training time they need to, but perhaps by running for 90 minutes a day without any designated long run. Though they might not get the race-specific experience of a 5 hour training run, they still get plenty of aerobic development and will develop mental fortitude as the fatigue accumulates from day to day throughout the week.*


*There are caveats. Training the same way each day can begin to feel monotonous for some, and monotony of training might be tied to increased risk of overtraining (Foster et al, 1998). This particular strategy is best taken on with proper oversight from a training professional.




Biweekly training structure for long run planning

Strategy 3: Biweekly long runs

Where is it written that long runs must be a weekly occurrence? There’s simply no physiological foundation for this. It’s a pattern developed primarily out of consistency and convenience as athletes train towards long distance goals, effectively utilizing the extra leisure time many have available on the weekend.


On a physiological basis alone, it should be argued that many athletes will respond better to long runs on a different cycle. Fitness is gained through rest and recovery, and some athletes may simply require longer breaks between long training sessions.


From a scheduling perspective, it too may be easier for many athletes to swing very time-intensive training efforts with less frequency. Doing long runs biweekly, for example, can still yield excellent results. In some cases, when training for day-long or multi-day events, this may even prove a more race-specific training strategy focusing on fewer, but very long training days, with a respective increase in recovery periods to avoid risk of overtraining.



Training is never perfect, and it can help to remember that in the schedule-challenging moments. Life gets in the way, and hopefully this post provides some ways to adapt to what life gives you and still achieve your goals. Long runs are a powerful ingredient to training for long distance events, but they aren’t the one elixir to success either. Make sure to keep some variety. We’ll be more fit and we’ll have more fun as a result.



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