“The Church of the Almighty Long Run” is where runners attend service most weekends. And there’s virtually no better workout to gain endurance, speed and mental toughness.
Consider this: most runners – especially those with less than five years experience – are most handicapped by their (lack of) endurance.
Since they haven’t been running for very long, their aerobic fitness is not yet well developed. Speed, which is built upon a solid foundation of endurance, won’t be fully realized.
For that reason, running a consistent long run is one of the most effective training strategies for getting faster.
But what exactly is a “long run?”
Quite simply, it’s the longest run of the week. For some runners, that might be 6 miles. For others, it might be 22 miles. It depends on your training age, goal race, ability, and willingness to surrender a big chunk of time to running.
No matter what type of runner (miler, ultramarathoner, newbie, trail runner, or veteran), the long run is a staple workout. It’s foundational and a universal training tool to help you improve.
So you shouldn’t be surprised that I think every runner should run a long run almost every week.
What are the benefits of long runs?
There are an incredible number of benefits that are realized with consistent long runs. While some are true for any distance run, they’re more pronounced the longer you run.
For example, most running geeks who’ve read through a few training books know that running increases the number of mitochondria in your cells.
These are the “energy factories” that power movement and cell respiration. And when you run long, you create more of them. This is perhaps the most important benefit of long runs!
But there are so many more. Running long…
Creates denser capillary networks. With more capillaries surrounding your hard-working muscles, your body can deliver more oxygen and work harder.
Builds resiliency and mental toughness. Particularly for long races of half marathon or beyond, the long run is the most specific mental preparation you’ll get before the race. Psychological fatigue is real!
Improves mechanics (in other words, your running form becomes more efficient). Muscles learn through practice and your stride will improve through consistent long runs.
Increases the efficiency of fuel use. LR’s teach the body to use a higher percentage of fat as fuel rather than stored glycogen, while also teaching the body to store more glycogen
Builds stronger muscles. Running for prolonged periods increases the strength of the leg muscles and connective tissues, but also those of the respiratory system (including the diaphragm and core region).
Makes you faster! Yes, with more endurance you’ll be able to hold a certain pace for a longer period of time. But after a certain level of fatigue, slow-twitch muscles get tired so the body recruits fast-twitch muscle fibers to help out.
The end result? You actually improve speed by running easy for a very long time!
Distance runners should view the long run as one of the “Big 3” things to focus on (with the other two being overall mileage and workouts).
How long should I run?
In the spirit of my college coach, I’ll say the longer the better!
But of course, there are limits to how far you can run safely. There’s a point of diminishing returns after 20-22 miles; accordingly, I limit the long runs of my athletes to 22 miles who are training for the marathon or any shorter distance.
Run longer and the fatigue, muscle damage, and necessary recovery outweigh the rewards from the long run. Ultramarathoners are excepted; their exception is because the goal race requires a more specific long run.
But most of us aren’t ultra runners. We’re training for “mere mortal” distances so we should strive to complete long runs in the following ranges:
These are general distances! If you’re a world-class miler (or just really ambitious), you might want to run a 20-mile long run like Olympian Nick Willis. He’s said:
“My best piece of coaching advice… is to get your long run in every week. People are always trying to challenge that and come up with new ideas but I’ve always felt I needed to stick to this tradition.
It has carried me through even when I have been doubtful about some other training mechanisms I’ve had. The long run has proved the tried and trusted piece of the puzzle.”
Regardless of the actual long run distance you’re able to complete, make it a habit. Be consistent – after all, consistency is the “secret sauce” of successful running!
Are there different types of long runs?
Long runs aren’t all the same. Like any aspect of training – from strength exercises to pacing strategies – there’s variation and many ways to change the workout for different goals.
There are eight different types of long runs in my book 52 Workouts, 52 Weeks, One Faster Runner. But today I want to highlight a few staple LR’s:
Easy long run: the majority of your long runs should be at an easy, conversational pace. This type of LR is simple: you just run easy for the distance.
This type of long run is ideal for beginners who are still tackling the distance of LR’s. Once you’re comfortable at a certain distance, you can move on to more advanced long runs.
Rollercoaster long run: one of my favorites, this LR has you run many uphills and downhills over the last half of the run to build strength. Run at the same effort on both ups and downs.
This is a great introductory LR for intermediate runners who want to do more than just run easy. While the pace is the same, the terrain adds an extra challenge.
Fast-finish long run: ideal for longer-distance runners, this type of long run forces you to run fast while fatigued (which put the benefits I described above on steroids). Most runners will do 2-10 miles between 10k-marathon pace to finish their long runs.
This is a more advanced run so you should be very comfortable with the distance before tackling a fast-finish LR.
Fartlek long run: Who says a long run can’t include intervals? Whether they’re true fartlek repetitions or you’re on an outdoor track, the goal is the same: run fast while tired.
Choose either longer intervals of 1,000m – 2-miles with a pace around 10k – Marathon effort or shorter intervals of 400m – 800m at 5k or faster effort. Since this is an advanced type of long run, only advanced runners should attempt it.
There are, of course, many other types of long runs. As with workouts, the sky’s the limit for how you can structure them (here are many more workout ideas).
Play with distance, speed, terrain, and recovery to maximize your fitness and enjoyment from long runs.
How often should I do a long run?
Most runners should do a long run every week. Since most of us are limited most by our aerobic capacity, then improving that capacity should be a top goal.
In other words, most runners lack endurance and that’s why they’re not faster. So to get faster, endurance is the “biggest win” that will improve your speed.
If you’re an intermediate or advanced runner you can vary the types of long runs throughout your running season. Generally, the earlier period of a season should be mostly easy long runs while the last 4-6 weeks can alternate between easy and more challenging runs.
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It’s best not to run long more often than once per week as the risk of injury outweighs the rewards. Some runners even schedule long runs every 10 days rather than every 7 (but I don’t recommend this for the vast majority of athletes).
There also needs to time in your week for other valuable types of workouts:
- Easy runs (most of your running should be easy runs!)
- Tempo workouts (or any other type of structured workout)
- Strength, mobility, and skill training (like drills or dynamic flexibility routines)
- Neuromuscular training (like hill sprints or strides)
Stick with a once-per-week long run and you can’t go wrong. Every 3-6 weeks, depending on how hard you’re training, you may want to cut back the distance of your long run.
This is optional but runners who are pushing the envelope will need to reduce the distance for recovery.
With a regular long run schedule and a variety of types of runs, your endurance will keep improving month after month and year after year. Giddy up!