Long runs matter in training. They boost your confidence and benefit your training if you feel good on your long runs – or can lead you questioning your fitness if they do not. (Remember, your fitness is not just one run – it is the summation of many.)
Long runs mean any extended time on your feet, for a longer duration than your other runs of the week. They build endurance and increase your resistance to fatigue. Even if you are not training for a long-distance race, a long run is a weekly training staple because it makes you a stronger, more economical runner.
Long runs do not have to be slogs. You can enjoy them and maximize those endurance-boosting benefits. Most of long runs can be confidence-boosting efforts, with some practical adjustments to your routine.
Shake Out Your Legs the Day Prior
If you ever feel sluggish from the start of a long run, the culprit may not be something you are doing during the long run. The cause may be your activity the day before.
How do you know if you should run the day before a long run? Examine how you feel on long runs. Muscle tension from previous workouts affects how you feel during the long run. If you feel sluggish even after a rest day, try moving your rest day and doing a short, easy run the day before your long run.
Some runners prefer an easy run the day before their long run. An easy run promotes neuromuscular activity and muscle tension, which will leave you feeling snappier and fresher on your long run. If you run most days a week, you may already be running the day before your long run. Some runners find that a set of strides the day before a long run improves how fresh they feel on the long run. Since strides are so short, you do not have to worry about accumulating fatigue from them before a long effort.
If you normally rest the day before a long run, take a short walk instead. Gentle movement will promote blood flow to your legs, thus aiding in recovery (the purpose of your rest day).
Start Out Fueled and Hydrate
Virginia Woolf proclaimed “one cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” I am positive that if Ms. Woolf were an athlete, she would include run well in her list. One cannot run well if one does not eat well.
If your long runs consistently feel like crap no matter how you pace yourself or fuel during, look at how you eat and hydrate in the hours and days preceding the long run. You may not be eating enough or you may be under-hydrating for your needs.
You do not need to carb load for a weekly long run. (Carb loading being the deliberate consumption of 70% or more of your calories from carbs.) Eat what you normally eat. If you are prone to GI upset, reduce irritating foods such as high-fiber vegetables, beans, or dairy.
You do want to eat enough the day before. Energy availability plays a significant role in running performance. Eat to satisfy your hunger. If you are running high mileage, be mindful of eating a bit extra to support your long run.
You can hydrate perfectly during a run, but if you start out slightly dehydrated, you simply cannot dig yourself out of that hole. In the day before your long run, drink plenty of water often throughout the day. Before your run, top off with water or an electrolyte drink.
Prioritize Replenishment During the Run
Yes, this point is obvious to the extreme, but it bears repeating: you need to replace fluids during your long run. If you are running for longer than 90-100 minutes, you want to replenish calories as well.
During the run, drink fluids at frequent and consistent intervals. The exact frequency will vary; you may prefer small sips every mile or bigger gulps every 15-20 minutes. Electrolytes aid in fluid absorption. You especially want to consume electrolytes if you are running for more than 90 minutes, you are a salty sweater, or you are running in high heat and/or humidity.
Fasted or low-carb long runs can be beneficial during particular specific training blocks for some athletes with particular training goals. However, for a majority of runners the majority of the time, consuming calories during the run will help you feel good during your long run. Calories will provide you with a steady stream of energy and reduce the chances of bonking.
Unless you are running at an extremely low heart rate, your body will use a combination of carbohydrates (glycogen and glucose) and fat for aerobic metabolism. When your muscle glycogen stores drop too low on a run, the body begins to utilize protein from within the muscles as an alternative fuel source. The catabolism of the muscle proteins produces a high amount of muscle damage. You will feel sore and fatigued sooner into your long run.
If sucking down 30 grams of carbs per hour from a gel sounds unappetizing to you, consider alternative fuel sources. Chews, dried fruit, stroopwafels, liquid sports drinks, and even savory real food options provide energy and are often gentler on the stomach. Just be sure to consume your fuel with plenty of fluids; otherwise, your gut will pull fluids out of your bloodstream (and away from working muscles) to aid in digestion.
That all said, you do not want to bring a buffet in your fuel belt. Eating too much on a run, especially sugary gels, can upset your stomach or leave you feeling sluggish. The whole purpose of fueling is to energize you, not leave you feeling worse off.
Remember also that your gut is a muscle and can be trained to digest better while running. Just because a gel did not sit well with you once does not mean you should always skip fuel. Find a fuel that works for you, then introduce it on shorter long runs. Give your gut time to adapt, and then gradually increase the amount and/or frequency. (Here’s more on how to train your gut for long-distance running.)
Warm Up Before You Run
Never underestimate the power of a warm-up. A thorough warm-up primes the body for smooth, enjoyable running. A warm-up decreases your risk of injury, particularly injuries such as muscle strains, while also sending signals to your brain that it is time to run. In short, a warm-up makes your run more enjoyable, because you will feel better when you start running.
Dynamic stretches are ideal for a warm-up. Dynamic stretches such as leg swings and lunges improve your range of motion, increase blood flow to your working muscles, and alleviate any lingering stiffness. Skip any static stretches, as these can decrease muscle tension and running economy.
If you need a bit more time to warm up, incorporate a 5-minute walk or very light jog before starting your long run. This little walk or jog should be so light you do not even change your breathing rate.
Even after a dynamic warm up, your body will still need time to transition into efficient running. Aim to make your first mile your slowest, almost an extension of your warm-up. If you start out too fast, you could accumulate too much fatigue too early on, which would slow you down later.
Chunk the Route into Segments
Even to an experienced runner, long run distances are intimidating. An effective mindset trick is to mentally divide your long run into segments. This approach removes stress or anxiety from the run by encouraging you to stay present. Instead of focusing on all fourteen miles at once, think of four 3.5-mile segments. Focus on one segment at a time and count down those miles. You know you can do 3.5 miles!
Fueling intervals can easily break a long run into segments. (The same applies to a race!) If you are taking a gel every 4 miles, focus on each 4-mile segment rather than the whole 16 miles.
Plan Your Route Ahead
Most physiologists and coaches recognize that fatigue is both cognitive and physical. Too many mentally demanding tasks during a long run can cause you to fatigue sooner.
Attempts to navigate mid-run can interrupt your state of flow. The thought process wastes mental energy, especially if you also try to calculate the exact distance. Have your route planned ahead of time. During your run, you can immerse yourself in your thoughts, nature, a podcast, or whatever you enjoy, without having to think about where to run.
How do you feel good on your long runs?