Ask a Running Coach: Long Runs

Ask a Running Coach: Long Runs

The long run appears simple: you run for a long time. But whether you are a novice or experienced runner, first time half marathoner or seasoned ultra runner, you likely know that long runs are not always as simple as they seem. 

I put out a call for questions about long runs on Instagram and Facebook. Here are the answers to some of the most common questions on long runs. 

Before I answer the questions, it is essential to define the long run. The primary purpose of the long run is to build endurance. Physiologically speaking, a long run exceeds 90 minutes in duration. It does not matter whether you run 7 miles or 12 miles in this time; your body produces the same physiological adaptations. In terms of a training plan, a long run is the longest run of the week. Even if you aren’t running for 90 minutes, you will still build endurance by running longer than normal one day per week. 

Ask a Running Coach: Long Runs

How often do I need to do a long run?

Not every runner can do or should do a weekly long run. The real answer is anywhere from every 7-14 days. This is a wide range; the exact answer depends on several variables.

The first variable is your schedule. Not everyone’s work and family schedule permit weekly long runs – and that’s ok. You can still train for a long distance race with a long run every 10-14 days. I’ve seen this work in practice: I’ve coached multiple athletes to complete their first marathons and run marathon PRs with long runs about every 2 weeks.

The second variable is your recovery rate. Typically, older runners, pregnant/postpartum runners, runners with chronic illnesses, highly injury-prone runners, runners recovering from injury, and novice runners may have slower recovery rates. There are always exceptions to this: some masters runners can do weekly long runs with absolutely no problem, while some runners outside of these groups may simply need more recovery time.

If you still feel sore or in need of extra rest days in the few days following your long run, considering lengthening the time between long runs. Long runs are important, but they are not the only aspect of training. 

A third variable is the rule of specificity. If you are base building, you do not necessarily need a long run every week. However, if you are within 12-16 weeks of a long-distance race, a weekly long run is beneficial. 

If you aren’t sure, try working with a running coach. A professional opinion can help you find the optimal frequency of long runs for your lofe. 

What pace should my long runs be? Should I run at marathon pace?

The purpose of your basic long run is to build endurance, store more glycogen, increase fatigue resistance, and improve mental strength. The easy pace zone – an effort comfortable enough that you can carry on a conversation – is optimal for building endurance without over-accumulating fatigue. 

Typically, this is 1-2 minutes per mile slower than marathon pace, at least 90 seconds slower than half marathon pace, and 2+ minutes per mile slower than 5K pace. Effort should be your guide: if it feels comfortable and sustainable, it’s appropriate. If you are struggling, slow down. Long runs are not time trials or races. 

What about marathon pace? Marathon pace long runs do have their value. I do not recommend them for first time marathoners (unless one is a highly experienced runner at other distances). Covering the distance at a comfortable effort is enough of a new stimulus.

For the intermediate to experienced marathoner, marathon pace runs offer the opportunity to practice goal race pace. You do not want to do the entire run at marathon pace nor do you want to include marathon pace in every long run. Incorporate 45-90 minutes worth of marathon pace running into a long run every 2-3 weeks during training. (Some coaches do more; this is simply my training philosophy). A workout such as a long run finishing at marathon pace will train you to sustain your goal pace when tired. 

For half marathoners, I like to take the same approach of incorporating some miles at half marathon pace in long runs. Since you do not want to do these too early in the season, start adding half marathon pace into long runs approximately 6-8 weeks from race day. Like marathon pace in long runs, you run at goal pace in small segments to mimic the demands of racing without doing too much in training.

Ask a Running Coach: Long Runs 

When should I start fueling on my long runs?

The best answer is before you feel hungry. When exactly is that? For most runners, it’s somewhere between 30-45 minutes on long runs lasting 2 hours or longer. Some runners may choose to take in fuel for 90 minute long runs. The intensity, what you ate before, and your metabolism will impact exactly when you need fuel. For long runs over two hours, you want to take fuel to minimize muscle breakdown and provide energy.

Generally speaking, you do not need any fuel if you are running at an easy to moderate effort for less than 80-90 minutes. One of the valuable adaptations of a long run is training your body to burn fat and access your glycogen stores. If you start taking gels on hour-long runs, you miss out on some of these adaptations. 

Are you interested in learning more about how to fuel your long runs? The Fuel Your Fastest Running e-Course covers how to fuel long runs and races without bonking and without GI distress. 

My legs fatigue before I feel tired – what can I do to avoid this?

Muscular fatigue can occur for a variety of reasons: poor recovery, strength imbalances, inappropriate pacing, and more.

If your muscles have not recovered from previous workouts, you might fatigue earlier into a long run. Accumulated fatigue is a principle in some training programs, but that doesn’t mean it works for every runner. Look at your training in the couple days leading up to your long run. You may find that strength training too close to your long run leaves you tired. Some runners feel better with a rest day or cross-training day before your long run. You can also try focusing more on proper recovery such as foam rolling, stretching, hydration, and sleep.

You may also be starting off your long run too fast. A pace that feels comfortable early on may fatigue you before you finish the run. Try starting your long run at a controlled and slower effort than normal. Reference above for more on pacing your long runs.

Another reason could be that you have strength imbalances. Your glutes are the primary source of power on any run. If they are weak, they will fatigue early into a long run. Your quads and calves will attempt to take over, but neither of those muscles is large enough to generate enough power and so they fatigue. Strength training will improve muscle strength and fatigue resistance. 

In some less common cases, a runner may have a high aerobic capacity but an unadapted musculoskeletal system. This occurs in runners with a background in other sports such as cycling and swimming. They are incredibly fit but their muscles aren’t able to withstand the impact yet. In these scenarios, slowing down the long runs, adding in more volume of easy runs during the week, and strength training can help.

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11 Responses

  1. Great Q & A! The long run always generates a lot of questions even though it seems straight forward – you just run long, right? 😉 Pacing is particularly hard for those runs, especially if it feels harder to run slower than their “normal” everyday pace. But it works!

  2. Such a fascinating read! I’m not sure I really have questions about long runs. I do know that sometimes they’re a struggle, sometimes they’re ok & every once in a while they go really good.

    About the only question I guess I have is that I still feel my endurance isn’t what it ought to be — whether that’s mental or physical I don’t know. Sometimes I have a very consistent race & other times I slow down after mile 10 & am not always sure why. Not sure there’s a real answer to that.

  3. Great tips for runners who are unsure about how to get started with long runs. This training cycle, I spaced out my long runs so that I could give myself more recovery between longer runs.

  4. I’m a 2xp/year marathoner, middle aged. For first time marathoners, I suggest including a 26.2 mile walk- the actual race path if possible. It allows the brain to have a “memory” of what 26.2 miles IS… I think it avoids burnout, being overwhelmed etc.. While doing a weekly 11 mile long run is awesome, adding the long walk so that my brain said: ” piece of cake” really paid off too.

    1. Yes! A majority of long runs should be at an effort slow enough that you could carry on a conversation. This is especially true if you are a beginner runner or injury prone; then almost all long runs should be slow.

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