The long run is considered one of the most important aspects of distance running training. A long run has a similar intensity to an easy or moderate day of running with the main difference being time spent on your feet. Long runs fit neatly into our training schedule and have numerous physiological, physical, and mental benefits that make this type of run one of the most important runs we do on a weekly basis.
Reasons for Doing Long Runs
The most important reason for a long run is to condition the muscles to delay the onset of fatigue. By doing this, the body must learn to physiologically tap into and utilize energy reserves from fat storage sites after the glycogen (fuel stores in the muscles, converted over from carbohydrate food sources) have been depleted.
Through long run training, the capacity to store more glycogen within the muscles increases. An increase in glycogen stores translates into the ability to maintain one’s pace during the marathon and delay the onset of fatigue.
Besides delaying the onset of fatigue, long runs also work on strengthening the heart (increasing stroke volume) and open the capillaries, both sending energy to working muscles and flushing waste products from fatigued muscles. We can also see benefits physiologically in the increased number and size of mitochondria and increased myoglobin concentration in muscle fibers.
Finally, a distance runner should realize that not all long runs will be easy to complete. Bad patches will arise, and when they do, the better one can persevere through these stretches will develop the necessary mental toughness needed for racing.
Benefits of Long Runs
As a distance runner, there are numerous benefits that we can gain from doing our long runs. Most of these benefits are physiological benefits, such as cardiovascular adaptation, increased size and quantity of mitochondria, and increased use of fat as a fuel source. While others, like mental toughness, experience, and added mileage are both mental and physical benefits. Let’s go through each and see how they benefit us.
• Cardiovascular adaptation: By running more miles, we strengthen our heart and improve its ability to get oxygen-rich blood to our working muscles. While this happens during all running, it especially happens during the long run.
• Adaption of fast-twitch fibers: After roughly 90 minutes of continuous running, the slow twitch fibers that become depleted and our bodies switch to using fast twitch fibers. So in essence, long runs over 90 minutes also become a form of speed work.
• Increased size and quantity of mitochondria: Mitochondria are the powerhouse of cellular respiration – the ability to turn food into energy. Therefore, the bigger and more mitochondria we have, the better our engine will run.
• Increased number of capillaries and capillary density: Bigger capillaries mean we can carry more oxygen to our working muscles. More capillaries equal more oxygen, which means you can run faster and longer in an aerobic state.
• Increased glycogen storage: Muscle glycogen is the body’s primary source of fuel during exercise. Long runs teach your muscles to store more glycogen.
• Increased use of fat as a fuel source: Although fat is a less efficient source of fuel, the more your muscles can use it early in a race, the less likely they are to become depleted of muscle glycogen.
• Experience with long runs and glycogen depletion: You can gain a lot of experience from running for an extended period of time. The more you run log and to depletion, the more confident you’ll be that you can handle the discomfort in a race.
Ways to make a long run feel “easier”
• Hydrate before, during and after races.
• Eat a meal high in carbohydrates within an hour of finishing running.
• Do a dynamic warm-up of stretches and drills before your runs and a static stretching routine after your run.
• Massage or “put your legs up” after a race or long run.
• Wear compression gear to alleviate swelling.
• Consider running for time rather than distance. Going for time will enable you to be flexible and open-minded about your route.
When you design your next training plan (or get a coach like Marc at TrainWithMarc to do that for you), remember the importance of the long run and be sure that you’re scheduling one every week to 10 days during your training cycle.
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Marc is a USATF Track and Field & Dr. Jack Daniels VDOT O2 certified running coach. I have more than 19 years of experience running and more than 10 years of experience coaching runners. Click for more information!