How To Run Longer: A Science-Based Approach

How to Run Longer

Whether you are a beginner or an experienced runner, a common training concern is how to run longer. You may wonder if you are doing the right things to run longer or why you are struggling to run longer. You may want to train for your first race, chase your personal best in the marathon, or venture into ultra-marathons. Running longer is ultimately a matter of aerobic endurance – with interplay from nutrition and the central nervous system. This article explores how to run longer – without breaking your body down in the process. 

Understand The Science of How to Run Longer

If you want to run longer, you want your training to confer the desired adaptations to support that goal. The adaptations to run longer include mitochondrial biogenesis, angiogenesis, aerobic enzyme production, and muscle fiber recruitment. 

When you engage in endurance training – aerobic without excessive anaerobic training – your body adapts to be able to support the energy demands. Aerobic exercise (such as long-distance running) relies predominantly on oxidative metabolism. Oxidative metabolism uses both carbohydrates (turned into pyruvate via glycolysis) and fats, plus oxygen, to produce ATP (energy) in the mitochondria of the cell. Aerobic training causes both growth and division (increase in density) of the mitochondria in your muscle cells. The more mitochondria you have, the more energy you can produce via oxidative metabolism. 

Angiogenesis is the expansion of your capillaries and is another result of aerobic training. Your body literally creates new blood vessels, which aids in the efficient delivery of oxygen-rich blood to the cells in the working muscles. So not only do you have more mitochondria for energy production, but you also have more oxygen to make energy with. 

Metabolic processes require enzymes for the reactions to occur. Aerobic training increases the activity of aerobic enzymes – which further aids in oxidative metabolism. All these changes are happening predominantly in your slow-twitch muscle fibers. Over time, you may even see a shift in intermediary fibers (which can be both oxidative and glycolytic) being used more in an oxidative capacity. 

That’s a simplified approach of aerobic training adaptations. However, it provides helpful context for thinking about how to run longer. Train in a manner that supports these adaptations, rather than counteracts them. If you want to run longer, that means favoring aerobic training over anaerobic training. 

Have a Weekly Long Run – and Allow Time to Adapt to It

One long run per week is essential to run longer. A long run stresses the metabolic, musculoskeletal, and neuromuscular systems that are required to run long distances. Fat metabolism, biomechanics under prolonged load, and muscle fiber recruitment all improve in response to long runs. As a result, you are then able to run for even longer than before. 

Always begin where you are with long runs. Do not jump into a 10-mile run if the furthest you have ran in months (or ever) is six miles. Add a mile to your current longest run each week and then allow yourself a week or two to adapt to it. When increasing your long run distance, keep the long runs at a comfortable, conversational effort. The goal right now is not to run fast, it is to accumulate time on your feet. Sprinkle in cutback weeks with deliberate reductions in long run duration every 3-5 weeks. (Here’s how to feel good on your long runs!)

Sample Long Run Progression:

  • Increase (Week 1): 10 miles
  • Adapt (Week 2): 10 miles
  • Increase (Week 3): 12 miles
  • Cutback (Week 4): 9 miles
  • Adapt (Week 5): 12 miles
  • Increase (Week 6): 13-14 miles

Support Your Training with Your Nutrition

When thinking about how to run longer, do not neglect nutrition that supports that goal. Running longer distances places a large energy demand on the body. You want your nutrition to support that energy demand so that you can run longer without bonking. (If you do struggle with bonking, here’s how to avoid hitting the wall.)

Energy availability and carbohydrate availability are important factors for running longer. Without adequate energy, you will likely bonk on your long runs. Your risk of an injury that could take you out of weeks of training also increases when you do not eat enough. Ensure you are eating enough, including enough carbohydrates based on your training volume, to support your training for running longer. 

Long runs should also be fueled once they exceed 90 minutes in duration. By taking in carbohydrates and calories on your long runs, you provide your body with the energy it needs. You can run longer with better energy, better performance, and better recovery. Contrary to previous belief, withholding carbs on a long run is not a superior approach for improving endurance. As stated in a 2022 review in Sports Medicine, the train-low approach “could be too reductionist, as it does not account for the recovery that is required after such a session.” 

Scale Back on High-Intensity, Anaerobic Training

Orange Theory Fitness, CrossFit, and other high-intensity workout classes can have their place in a training plan if you truly enjoy them. However, these classes are not the golden ticket to being able to run longer. For the average recreational athlete, high-intensity workout classes detract from training time that could be spent with aerobic training (running or low-intensity cross-training). 

Even if time is not an issue, energy availability and recovery are priorities. Even some of the best runners in the world would risk overtraining if they attempted to build running volume while attending high-intensity workout classes. If you feel stuck in your ability to run longer, look at your other training. It may be worth scaling back on anaerobic workouts to allow more time and energy for runs. You may simply be able to run longer because you feel less tired! 

Likewise, exhausting track workouts are not the approach for how to run longer. Over time, high-intensity running workouts with heavy anaerobic involvement lead to different adaptations. Your aerobic system may gradually regress over time. There is a reason why athletes focused on the ability to run long-distances favor pyramidal approaches (mostly easy with lots of threshold work) over polarized approaches (mostly easy with the rest very hard). (See Casado et al., 2022 in International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance.

Increase Overall Mileage with Easy Runs

Whether by increasing the duration of individual runs or how often you run, increasing your training volume generally leads to increased endurance. (Note: every runner has an individual point of diminishing returns, where more is not better). It is important that you increase with easy runs, so that your training supports your goal and so that you minimize risk of injury.

Increases in volume do not have to be significant to be beneficial – especially if you can sustain it consistently. For example, you increase from 30 to 35 mpw as your baseline mileage. Those five miles per week can add up to 260 miles more per year. The goal is to find a volume that you can sustain without overtraining, burnout, or injury. It may take trial and error to determine how many miles to run per week. Once you find what you can maintain without breaking down, you will be able to run longer – and notice it feels easier and better. (Here’s how to safely increase your weekly mileage and how to sustain it without burnout or injury.)

If you are only running three or four days per week, adding one run per week can increase your endurance. Dr. Stephen Seiler lists frequency/volume as the foundation in his hierarchy of endurance training needs. When increasing the frequency of runs, stop at the first sign of injury. If you are limited on your number of run days, you can add in days of aerobic cross-training such as the bike or elliptical instead.

Once your easy runs reach ~90 minutes in duration, the metabolic costs of adding time outweigh any potential benefits. If an advanced athlete wanted training volume beyond this point, adding a second run or a cross-training session later in the day. For advanced athletes, a second run may be used to improve endurance. However, double runs should only occur when the athlete has first increased other factors (frequency and duration), is able to ensure adequate energy availability, and has been injury-free for several months. 

Do Not Neglect Your Running Economy

Only easy running will make most runners slower in the long-term. Why? Without neuromuscular reinforcement, running economy will decline with time. 

Think of running economy as the oxygen cost of running. A higher running economy means more efficient use of the oxygen you consume. No matter how high your VO2max (maximum oxygen uptake) is, if you have poor running economy, you need more oxygen to support any given intensity. Running economy matters for running longer; if you are efficient, you have lower oxygen costs during very long efforts. 

Gut-busting track workouts are not required to improve your running economy. Small, intentional, and consistent doses of strides, hill repeats, and appropriately-paced short intervals will all increase your running economy. They will be only a small percentage of your training, but a significant part nonetheless. 

Stay Consistent

One mistake runners commonly make is taking too much time off from running throughout the year. Recovery periods are essential for long-term growth. However, too much time off will begin to reverse the physiological adaptations that increased your endurance.  Even four weeks of detraining will result in a loss of the cardiac adaptations that improve endurance. (Learn more about how quickly fitness is lost in this article.) 

Due to the detraining effects on your musculoskeletal system, you will also need to start at a lower training volume (including a longer run). If your goal is to run for longer distances, each prolonged break sets you back on this goal. You do not have to maintain the same volume; small doses and one longer run per week can maintain the adaptations during off-seasons. (Read here for more information on how to safely return to running after time off.) 

(Of course, take time off if you are injured or ill!)

Take Rest Days and Cutback Weeks

Recovery from the applied stimulus is vital for adaptation. If you do not support training sessions with adequate recovery, fatigue builds – not fitness. Rest days and cutback weeks all support the goal to run longer. 

For virtually all runners, a weekly rest day allows recovery. During a day off, your central nervous system recovers, which plays a key role in fatigue resistance. Your musculoskeletal system recovers, which allows it to tolerate increasing distances without injury. Without rest days, you would eventually plateau – or end up injured. 

Cutback weeks serve a similar purpose of supporting recovery and reducing plateaus. A cutback week deliberately reduces volume and/or intensity every few weeks. During the cutback week, your body is able to recover and adapt. For most runners, cutback weeks also encourage consistent training by reducing burnout. 

Be Patient

Aerobic adaptations take time. You may not be able to run longer within a week. However, if you can stack several weeks of consistent aerobic training as outlined above, you will find that you can run longer – and feel better on those runs – than before. Be patient, stay consistent, and embrace the process.

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