Updated: Jun 29, 2019
The long run is the cornerstone of a sound training program.
The long run is one of the best ways to increase endurance and stamina for races of all distances and surfaces. Consequently, every effort should be made to ensure that the long run is a regular part (once every 7 to 10 days) of your training routine.
For our purposes, the long run is defined as any run longer than 90 minutes. We use the 90 minute benchmark because this is when the body begins to run out of carbohydrate stores in the bloodstream and consequently begins to burn the fat that is already stored in the body at a higher rate. Running continuously for 90 minutes or more every 7 to 10 days primes the body for greater fat metabolization throughout the week.
Steady Long Runs
Steady long runs are what most people think of when they think of a long run. Putting time in on the feet, while running at a steady, sustainable effort for the duration of the run.
Olympian Alan Culpepper described the goal of the long run as "quick enough to stress the cardiovascular system into building more aerobic enzymes but not so hard where it affects your next harder workout. If you find that you are feeling fatigued for three to four days post-long run, you are running it too hard.” Read more about the long run from Coach Culpepper or the source of Culpepper's insights on the long run, Coach Mark Wetmore.
“The goal is to run the long run quick enough to stress the cardiovascular system into building more aerobic enzymes but not so hard where it affects your next harder workout. If you find that you are feeling fatigued for three to four days post-long run, you are running it too hard.”
Rolling Long Runs
Rolling long runs are similar to the steady long run, but are done on undulating terrain so there will naturally be changes in pace depending on the ascent or descent at any given point throughout the run. Rather than fixating on a particular pace, rolling long runs lend themselves to organically surging uphill and down.
Simulating Race Day
When training for a race of 90 minutes or more, the long run takes on even greater importance because it is the one run that most resembles race day. With this in mind, it’s important to use at least some long runs to simulate race day. This does not mean that you have to race every long run.
However, there are some things that you can do in training to simulate a longer race:
1). Practice maintaining effort up and down hills.
2). Practice changing pace.
3). Practice race day nutrition (before, during, and after the run).
4). Practice increasing the effort as you progress throughout the run.
5). Run by time - gradually approach the duration you may run on race day.
Cut Down Long Runs
Cut down long runs start comfortably and the effort increases throughout the run.
Cut down long runs are an effective way to prime the legs and lungs for future hard efforts. The beauty of a cut down long run is that the intense portions of the run occur well into the run when the body is already warmed up. Cut down long runs are a way of adding quality and intensity to the training week while reducing injury risk by ensuring that the body is thoroughly warmed up prior to any hard efforts.
ORGANIC CUT DOWN RUNS
Cut downs can be organic meaning that you simply start comfortably and increase the effort as you go. Most training runs naturally progress this way. However, if you make a concerted effort to increase the effort of the run from start to finish I’d call that a cut down run and not simply an easy or recovery run.
TRADITIONAL CUT DOWN RUNs
Cut down long runs can take on a couple of different forms. Some forms include precise accelerations at specific intervals. For example, start at 10:00 per mile and "cut" the pace by 10 seconds every mile - 10:00, 9:50, 9:40, 9:30, 9:20, 9:10, 9:00, 8:50, 8:40, 8:30, etc.
TREADMILL CUT DOWN RUNS
For even greater control, cut downs can be done on a treadmill by simply increasing the pace by 0.1 mph or kph every .25 mi/km.
THIRDS PROGRESSION RUN
Other cut down runs call for breaking the run into thirds - 30:00 minutes @ COMFORTABLE effort, 30:00 minutes @ sustainable, STEADY effort below the THRESHOLD, 30:00 @ goal marathon pace/effort or faster. Sometimes these are called “Thirds Progression Runs.”
FAST FINISH LONG RUNS
Still others are simply a long, steady run with the final 1/3 to 1/4 at goal pace/effort or faster. Sometimes these are called, “Fast Finish Long Runs.”
Cut down long runs can be particularly effective at teaching the body and mind to push even when fatigued. This is a vital skill and ability when you reach the final stretches in a race and you feel like you have nothing left to give.
Running cut down long runs will give you the confidence to know that despite the pain, soreness, and fatigue, you are still capable of grinding through and running goal pace or better.
Squires Long Runs
“The long run is what puts the tiger in the cat.”
Bill Squires, the legendary coach of the Greater Boston Track Club and the likes of marathon greats Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar, Dick Beardsley, and Greg Meyer, notoriously emphasized race simulation in the long runs leading up to the marathon. Naturally, those who have tried to pattern marathon training after the great marathoners Squires coached have named such long runs after him.
Squires Long Runs include surges ranging from 30 seconds to 12 minutes. Early in a marathon training plan the surges will be shorter and at a higher intensity while the recovery intervals are longer. As race day approaches, the surges grow longer and closer to goal marathon pace. Recovery intervals are shortened to simulate marathon running goal pace/effort on tired legs.
An example of a Squires Long Run progression in a marathon build up could look something like this:
10-12 Weeks out from the Marathon:
15-30 minutes easy
6 x 2 minutes @ 5K pace/effort w/8 minute recovery jogs
15-30 minute cool down
Total of 1:30 to 2:00
8-10 Weeks out from the Marathon:
25-45 minutes easy
6 x 4 minutes @ 10K pace/effort w/ 6 minute recovery jogs
25-45 minute cool down
Total of 1:50 to 2:30
5-7 Weeks out from the Marathon:
35-45 minutes easy
6 x 6 minutes @ Half Marathon pace/effort w/ 4 minute recovery jogs
35-45 minute cool down
Total of 2:10 to 2:30
3-5 Weeks out from the Marathon:
45 - 60 minutes easy
6 x 8 minutes @ Marathon pace/effort w/ 2 minute recovery jogs
45-60 minute cool down
Total of 2:30 to 3:00
Mix it Up
Long runs can take on several forms. Most athletes will benefit by including a variety of long runs in their training plan. Consider the long run one of two to three key workouts per week. As with day-to-day training, it is best to alternate between easier and more intense efforts from week to week.
The 3 Hour Rule
From a physiological and aerobic standpoint, the gains that one stands to make from a single long run will occur by the 3 hour mark. Running continuously for more than 3 hours, on the other hand, actually increases the risk of physical injury and often leads to diminishing returns, fatigue and soreness that ultimately hinder progress. For more on this subject, please read this article.
What should you do if your race is expected to be greater than 3 hours?
Make the long run a priority and run between 1.5 and 3 hours every 7 - 10 days.
Will you be able to run the race distance on race day if you have never run the distance on race day?
Yes. Hundreds of thousands of people each year complete race distances they have never run before race day. By incrementally building your base and training consistently with adequate time to prepare for the challenge, you increase your chances of arriving rested and ready to race when it counts. Read more about "Winning the Race of Preparation."
Remember, race day is meant to be a test. It should feel special. It is not necessary to run the entire race week after week in training. In fact, trying to do so would quickly lead to fatigue, injury and/or burnout. It also defeats the purpose of making race day special and a true test. Save your race for race day.
What about if you are training for an ultra marathon?
While the surfaces, distances, and durations of ultramarathons often differ from most standard road races, the aerobic demands are essentially the same.
In many cases, one stands to gain more aerobically by running continuously for up to 3 hours (even on a treadmill or paved surface) than if one were to do a combination of running, scrambling, and hiking for 3-5 hours. When you add in the time it may take to drive to such a location, most runners are better off running continuously close to home.
That said, from a skill and specificity perspective, it is a good idea to spend some time on surfaces similar to what you might encounter on race day to develop the confidence and competence that you’ll need to be successful on that surface. However, these outings are not to be confused with nor should they replace the bread and butter steady long runs or other variations of the long run with surges or cut downs.
Ultra Long Runs
Ultra long runs are not runs in the traditional sense. In fact, they may more appropriately be called "hikes." That doesn’t mean that they aren’t beneficial. However, if the schedule calls for a "3 hour long run" and you spend 2-3 hours bushwalking through the woods, you won’t make the aerobic gains that you stand to make by running continuously for 3 hours. Furthermore, many of the skills that may be sharpened by doing a hike could just as easily be gained on shorter outings on another day of the week or as a second workout (on the treadmill if necessary) a couple of days each week. .
If you feel that you need more time on your feet to prepare for an upcoming ultra challenge, alternate between more traditional continuous long runs and ultra long runs for your long runs. Don't entirely forsake continuous running as that is where you stand to get the best bang for your buck. Instead, add a few ultra long runs and/or back-to-back long runs to your build up.
Jim Wamsley, one of the best ultra runners the world has ever known, spends plenty of time running up and down mountains and the Grand Canyon, but in addition to all of the ascending and descending he does throughout the week (as his full-time job), Jim still regularly meets with professional road runners and does a 2-3 hour steady long run each week. In fact, he doesn't even refer to the longest runs of the week as his "long run," but rather his standard 20 miles at 6:00 pace around 7,000 ft. The combination of the two is what makes Jim so hard to beat. He pushes his aerobic system with regular steady long runs while also ensuring that he is always sharpening the ascending, descending, and scrambling skills required to run well on trails.
Back-to-Back Long Runs
Back-to-back long runs are an effective way to simulate how the body will feel during an ultramarathon or stage race. Back-to-back long runs are generally two long runs ranging between 1.5 and 3 hours in duration starting approximately 24 hours apart. Generally, the total of the two runs should not exceed 6 hours. If the goal race will require considerably more hiking than running, the durations of these back-to-back outings can extend to 5 hours of a combination of running and hiking for a total of no more than 10 hours. Back-to-back long runs take a lot out the body and should not be a weekly part of a training plan for most athletes, but rather once every 3 to 4 weeks leading up to a goal ultramarathon or stage race.
There are certainly more variations on the long run than those mentioned above. However, we wrote this to illustrate some of the variations on the long run so that one might see how to alternate between steady long runs and long runs more specific to the goal race.
In time, we'll write about more variations on the long run as well as other workouts and include them in our resources library.