Owning the Long Run

Dr Martin Yelling

There is no escaping it; 26.2 miles is a long old way. It’s time to stop kidding yourself and embrace the LONG RUN!

January was all about getting your running established and simply hitting the streets. Now, February is all about building up, practicing more, staying on track and progressing. One of the most important aspects of your marathon preparation is the long run and how to tackle it.

Firstly, let’s get something really clear: don’t be fearful of running longer. If you’re really anxious about upping the miles, it’s time to calm down. The marathon is a very long run – in fact it’s more likely for many to be a very long run with some walking, and for some a very long walk with some running! Whatever you do is fine, but what won’t change is the requirement to run, jog, walk or crawl 26.2 miles around London. So, instead of being anxious about upping the distance of your longest runs over the next couple of months, embrace the benefits that go hand in hand with going long.

Why are long runs so good for you?

Long runs build the stamina and endurance that is vital for marathon success. They develop your running efficiency, your cardio and respiratory systems (heart and lungs) and the strength and sustainability of your muscles, bones and joints. Importantly, they teach you how to suffer when you want to stop. Long runs prepare you both physically and mentally for the demands of a sustained time on your feet and what’s to come on Race Day.

What is a long run?

The distance of a long run varies depending on a person’s experience, fitness, marathon aspirations and motivation. For some novice marathoners in mid-February a long run may well be in the region of 10 miles. An experienced PB-hunting marathon campaigner may be racking up regular miles in excess of double that. The key to long is what is long for you and what you need to do to build your physical confidence and competence. You certainly don’t need to run 26.2 miles in training – nor do you need to bang out week after week of painfully long miles – but you do need to look to progress your long runs so you can manage between 18 and 22 miles around three weeks before Race Day.

How fast is a long run?

The pace of a long run depends on the fitness, experience, aspirations and motivation of the person running it. The simple rule is that the longer you are running, the slower you should be running. In order to keep going for longer, and for the pace and effort to be sustainable, it’s essential to learn how to be efficient, controlled and economical.

A good guide is your degree of breathlessness. When your breathing rate is controlled, you can hold a conversation and the pace feels manageable and you can keep going. What feels ‘easy’ (for example, an effort level of 5 out of 10) at the start of a long run won’t as the duration continues to increase (where the effort required to hold the same pace will inevitably go up). With going longer, it’s the distance – not the intensity – that causes fatigue. The effort required might go up as the distance covered increases but the pace will remain constant. At least that’s your goal!

Long runs: what can you expect?

Going long hurts. There, I said it. Unlike trying to run faster, where it’s the intensity that causes you to slow down, it’s the duration that causes the stress and discomfort when going long. The trick of mastering the long run is to start off at a predetermined effort or pace, keep going and minimize (or remove) the rate of slow down. Successful distance runners (and I’m going to include your successful future marathon-self in this!) have an ability to tolerate discomfort for an incredibly long time. Blisters, chaffing, deep muscle ache, thirst, hunger, energy levels and strength and motivation to keep the shuffle going are all factors in long run success.

Four ways to own your long runs

1. Progress

What is your longest run to date (e.g. 10 miles) and what is your aspirational long run distance (e.g. 26.2 miles)? Add miles gradually and progressively and see your long runs as stepping stones to your overall distance target. Running smart long runs should see your overall strength, stamina, fitness, and conditioning improve as the weeks and months progress and not break you down and leave you feeling tired and battered. If that’s the case you’ve clearly done too much too quickly.

Don’t rush progress, be patient and steady. The best foundations are laid slowly over a long period of time. Be gentle, consistent, build up appropriately and progressively for you, just a few miles or minutes a week and stick with it. If you’re up to 10 miles, you’ve got plenty of time to realistically build to 20 over the next six to eight weeks.

2. Fuel

One thing you’ll notice as you start to tick the big miles off is the demand that this places on your energy reserves. When you run slower you are working a different energy system than when running faster. We’ve all got enough fat supplies to keep going for ages and ages at a very slow speed but very few of us are conditioned well enough to be able to access and effectively utilise those stores. It is possible to teach yourself to be more ‘fat oxidative’ on longer runs (for example, through fasted long slow runs) but these adaptations take time.

Most of us need to think about the ways in which we keep our body as tip-top as we can when going long and consider taking some fluids and fuel with us. To be sensible and safe the longer you’re running for have some fluids and food accessible.  Just what you choose to take on your long runs to fuel and hydrate you will vary from person to person.  Your long run in training gives you the perfect opportunity to trial and retrial your energy sources and requirements so you feel ready to put this in to place on Race Day.

3. Pace

Pacing your marathon is perhaps the most important aspect of getting race day right. It’s easy to get excited on the day and forget the best laid plans of starting slowly and go off too fast.  Starting too fast makes running the second half of the race very tough indeed!  You need to learn how to control your pace and run an even and well-paced marathon.  It’s your long runs in training that give you the awareness of pace and distance, the experience of how it feels, the courage to keep going and the confidence to finish.

To begin with long runs are best done at a controlled and manageable pace (perhaps 45 to 60 seconds slower per mile than your target marathon pace). On a long run, it is the fatigue of the duration that you are training your body to handle. What feels controlled at the start will get harder to maintain as the run progresses. Your target on a long run is to not slow down.

As your stamina improves it’s both relevant and recommended to drop some miles at target marathon pace into your long runs. Even if your marathon race goal is to survive and finish you should know your target pace to within a few seconds each mile. This will give you confidence that you are in control in the early stages of your race and are on track to reach your goals throughout the race. Long runs in training are the perfect learning ground for understanding and perfecting pace control.

Knowing your pace is about understanding what effort you can sustain for the duration of a marathon. It’s about having the patience at the start, feeling in control, feeling confident and the master of your race and being ready to face the demands of the final stages of your race fresher, stronger, more focused and bang on target. You might not be totally sure of this right now, but with long run experience this will become more apparent.

4. Mind

Perhaps the toughest challenge you’ll face on your long runs is in your own head.  Before you’ve even set off you’ll be talking yourself out of it, convincing yourself that you can’t do it, and thinking of reasons not to go. Once you are out there running that naughty inner you will be constantly harping away that you’re not good enough, that the marathon is a step too far for you, that you’ve bitten off too much this time, that you are so tired you need to slow down, stop, and go home. One of the wonderful things about running longer in training is that you get to tackle these negative self-sabotaging thoughts, emotions and anxieties head on and build yourself up an armory of positivity to get through 26.2 miles come Race Day.

There really is no glossing over the fact that at times your marathon is going to feel like something you wished you hadn’t signed up for. It’s going to test your sinews and your synapses. It’s going to challenge your own perceptions of your boundaries and you are going to ask physical and mental questions of yourself and visit places in your body and mind you’ve never been. That’s marathon running.

Here’s the great news: long runs prepare you for that. Raising your awareness of what’s to come helps you develop and select positive psychological strategies that work for you that you can call on when the demons come knocking, as they inevitably will, in the latter stages of your marathon.

Three ways to change up your long runs

Instead of just churning out your long runs at the same pace week in week out, running long runs differently can really add an extra dimension to your training, especially if you’re looking for that marathon personal best.

Long runs more often

Achieve greater marathon success by including more long runs more often. Start your long run build-up earlier and include six or more long runs of 18-22 miles in duration. Stringing together blocks of long runs really helps boost your specific marathon endurance. A word of caution however – remember the importance of balance and recovery when you structure your plan and in particular your long runs.

Long runs faster

Pick up the pace of your long run and add a progressive intention. You can try doing this in different ways e.g. running the entire duration of the long run at a faster pace, a ‘fast finish’ long run where you pick the pace up throughout the duration of the long run so that you finish at or faster than target marathon pace for the final few miles.

Long runs differently

Think of your long runs as specific training sessions and not just an enjoyable social run. They’ll probably be one of the hardest of the week. Run on roads to get your legs accustomed to repeated pounding and intensity of a hard surface. Run some of your long runs solo. Running without the company of others or music teaches you to focus your mind fully on the task at hand. Use your long runs to dial into your marathon pace and lock on to marathon pace during different sections of your long run. A long run (20 miles) completed with the final eight miles at bang on target marathon pace will give you bags of confidence that training is working and you are close to hitting your marathon goal.