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Coach Culpepper: The Art Of The Long Run

Learn how to make your longest effort of the week really count.

Thanks to physiological advancements and the work by progressive minds such as Joe Henderson and Arthur Lydiard the long run is now a common element in most training programs. Unfortunately there are some misconceptions surrounding the role the long run plays in an overall plan. It has become either over emphasized in many instances or executed improperly. Let’s break down why the long run is more of art form and much more than strolling along mile after mile to cushion your weekly mileage.

The Role Of The Long Run

The long run is the anchor of the entire week and all other significant sessions should be planned around the timing of this important piece. However the long run is only one element and should not be the entire focus of a program. There are huge physiological benefits with the inclusion of a proper long run but without the complement of short and long intervals, fartlek and tempo runs, the long run is not much more than simply adding more mileage to the week. A longer run every seven days has become the standard, for distances from the 5K to the marathon.

As a rule of thumb the long run should not make up more than about 35 percent of your total weekly volume. For example, if you run about 30 miles a week, then a 20-mile long run is not appropriate. Something closer to 10 to 11 miles would be the proper length, while allowing your body to recover for the other sessions that should be present throughout the week. It is enticing to run an epic long run on the weekend, but if followed by 3 or 4 days of little to no running, then the long run will have been of minimal benefit. Although there is a psychological advantage, the physiological ones are negligible in this instance. You would be much better served to run a 10-mile long run as part of a week that includes five to six other days of running with one or two harder sessions.

— The long run is only one piece and should not be the entire focus of your training.

— Running more consistently throughout the week will provide more significant gains than a big long run with multiple days off on either side of it.

— Remember that a proper training plan should cover all the necessary elements and not a singular focus on the long run.

Variations Of Long Runs

The concept of long slow distance was popularized by Joe Henderson in the late 1960s and it soon became a staple among American runners. There is certainly a time and place for long slow runs: in the base phase, where total volume is the primary focus; during an intense training cycle where three hard sessions are already included in a weekly plan; or during a racing period, where a nice slow longer run amidst a few races is appropriate.

However, running long and slow is not the only approach. By and large, elite athletes use the long run as another high-level aerobic stimulus, and this approach proves valid for all levels of runners. Running the long run at a more moderate effort, about 15 to 30 seconds quicker than a standard easy day, is a very common and effective way to gain aerobic development. The goal is to run the long run quick enough to stress the cardiovascular system into building more aerobic enzymes but not so hard where it affects your next harder workout. If you find that you are feeling fatigued for three to four days post-long run, you are running it too hard.

One last approach is to include a workout in the long run; for example, a tempo run or Fartlek for 25 to 50 percent of the total run. This should not be done week after week but can be included about every four weeks if you typically run only one to two harder workouts during any given week. This is the trickiest approach so err on the side of caution. The long run should not be a marathon race effort attempt. It’s tempting for many age-group and recreational runners to run close to marathon race pace for most of the run to prove they are ready for the distance. Another common mistake it getting caught up in the weekly group run dynamic and end up running more aggressively than desired. Keep your emotions in check and don’t let the long run turn into a race effort.

o A slow long run should be used during the off season or when training very intense but not as often as most people think.

o Moderate effort long runs can provide huge gains over the course of a training period. The key is keeping it moderate and not having it turn into a long tempo run.

o Mix it up, try including a three-to-five mile tempo at goal marathon pace in the middle of your long run or even a short fartlek followed by a few easy miles at the end.

No doubt the long run is critical but don’t get lured into thinking it is the only ingredient necessary for success. The days of just strolling along mile after a mile may prevent you from reaching your goal. Experiment, pick up the effort for some long runs, mix it up to include a workout in the middle and see how you respond. I am confident you will be pleasantly surprised with the results.

This piece first appeared in the September 2012 issue of Competitor magazine. 


About The Author:

Two-time U.S. Olympian Alan Culpepper coaches runners of all levels through