Whether you’re a novice or experienced runner and no matter what you’re training for, the weekly long run is one of the most important runs in your training program. And with good reason! Distance running is an aerobic sport—which means running while effectively processing oxygen—and long runs are the best way to build your aerobic engine. Long runs provide us with a host of physical and mental benefits and prepare us to run faster and more efficiently at any race distance.
No matter how many miles you have logged, at some point you might start to feel stuck in a rut with your weekly long run. Running the same distance, over the same route at the same pace week after week can leave you feeling flat and uninspired. Fortunately, it’s simple to add a little variety to your schedule to make your long runs both more effective and more enjoyable.
Long Run Basics
By definition, a long run is simply the longest run of the week. For a beginner runner this might be 5 miles, and for an advanced marathoner it might be 22 miles. Because the benefits are so universal, everyone should incorporate a long run into their weekly schedule.
Long runs will build over the course of a training cycle, with a scheduled cutback in distance every three to six weeks depending on the individual. Your maximum distance on a long run is typically based on your race schedule. Here is a general guideline showing the maximum ranges, depending on what your training plan or coach prescribes. You don’t necessarily need to go this long, but it gives an idea of how the concept of a long run can vary.
|Race Distance||Long Run Range|
|Half Marathon||13-20 miles|
Benefits of Running Long
Running long has benefits that start at the cellular level and extend to mental fortitude and tenacity. Here’s a quick recap of the benefits of long runs:
They increase the volume of mitochondria in your muscle fibers and create denser capillary networks in your lungs. Together these provide more aerobic energy and allow your body to deliver oxygen more efficiently, especially when you’re fatigued in the latter stages of a race.
They build stronger muscles and improve your mechanics. Since muscles learn through practice, your stride will become more efficient through consistent long runs.
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They increase the efficiency of fuel use. Your body will learn to use a higher percentage of fat as fuel, while also storing more glycogen. Ultimately, the way to get better at running longer is to run longer on a regular basis.
They build mental toughness. Because long runs are so specific to the challenges you’ll face in a longer race, they are the most effective type of mental preparation. If you can be mentally tough when your body is fatigued on a training run, you’ll better know how to fend off negative mental vibes late in a race when you’re trying to set a new PR.
They build endurance and make you faster. With ongoing training, your body will get better at recruiting fast-twitch muscle fibers to help you out. With the increased aerobic capacity and added efficiency, you’ll be able to tackle long runs easier—no matter if it’s a race or a casual run with friends.
Long Run Modifications Appropriate for All Runners
There are endless ways to spice up your weekly long runs. Below are some that are geared toward all runners.
1. Continue to the build length and duration of your long run for as long as it is appropriate. Refer to the table above as a guide for the maximum length of your runs.
2. Running with friends can make long runs easier and more enjoyable. Running clubs typically have a variety of weekly runs geared toward all levels of runners, including at least one long run on the weekend.
3. Changing the route you run is essential to keeping things interesting. Clubs and running partners can be a great source of inspiration for routes you never knew existed.
4. Changing the terrain you run is also beneficial, both for your brain and your body. Running hilly or rolling routes will make you stronger, as will running on the softer, less uniform surfaces of trails. If you are new to trails, plan to slow down as you adjust to the terrain.
5. Play with speed throughout your long run. Adding some unstructured fartleks or picking up the pace over the last mile (or few miles) of your run will wake up your legs and help build confidence to run faster while also simulating race conditions.
These options work no matter your fitness level or ability. But what if you want to take your long run to the next level?
READ MORE: 6 Ways to Keep Improving as a Runner
Intermediate/Advanced Long Run Workouts
It may seem counterintuitive, but changing your long runs to include some faster running will make you feel better instead of worse. Variety reduces physical and mental fatigue and prepares you for a faster race. With a little creativity, these workouts can be modified to fit any runner’s needs.
- Rollercoaster Runs: Find a hilly route and run at a continuous effort. This means your pace will slow a little up the hills, but will increase on the downhill. This is a great strength builder free of structured hill workouts.
- Progression Runs: Run the first half (or more) of your run at a conversational pace. Then gradually increase your pace over the final miles. A challenging option is to start at marathon pace, and gradually dial down to tempo pace in the final mile.
- Structured Fartleks: Insert some faster segments into the middle miles of your run. Typically the shorter the segment, the faster the pace. For example, try running 8–10 reps alternating 90 seconds at 10K pace and three minutes easy.
- Marathon Pace Workouts: Inserting goal marathon pace miles into your long run is essential to help you dial in that pace for race day. Start with just a few and build up to 10 miles at goal marathon pace in your longest runs.
- Trail Runs: Even if you’re training for a road marathon, an occasional long run on the trails will work new muscles and make you stronger. Don’t expect to run the same pace on the trails! Instead, run by time to create an equivalent effort. Or run a portion of your long run on the road and a portion on the trails to mix things up.
- Incorporate a Race: Want to jump into a local race for fun, but also need to complete a long run? Lengthen your warm-up and cool-down miles and add the race in the middle. Just be careful not to get caught up in the moment and race too hard, or your subsequent workouts may be affected.
It’s easy to spruce up your long runs, so give it a try. Your running and racing will benefit!