The long run is a staple of most runners’ weeks. Many of us simply have a standing date: Every Saturday or Sunday we hit the roads and trails with a group of friends.
It’s not just a fun social gathering, though. There are lots of physiological benefits to be had from a regular long run—which, no, doesn’t actually have to happen every single weekend or be the same duration every time out
During your long run, says Greg McMillan, founder and head coach of McMillian Running, you deplete your glycogen stores and build up fat-burning efficiency, you condition your musculoskeletal system and recruit new muscle fibers, and you train your brain (and body) for fatigue. You also build capillaries and mitochondria, thus increasing your running efficiency, says Pete Magill, a Masters record holder, coach and author of the forthcoming The Born Again Runner. But some of the mystique of the long run is simply mystique.
“We don’t know exactly why the long run works so well,” Magill says, “but we also know that no one who’s a successful distance runner goes without a long run.”
We also know that successful runners aren’t just slogging through the same boring miles. Here are ways to get more out of your regular long run.
1. Don’t run so far
“It’s a different world when you run 90 minutes than when you run under an hour,” says McMillan. But it’s a whole other world when you run three hours—and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Many new marathoners think if they’re going to do a four- or five-hour marathon, then they need to run four or five hours in training. But that’s not the case, says Magill. You get most of the benefit you need from two hours (or up to three), and new runners overstress their bodies going longer than that. If elite runners only run two or two and a half hours for their long runs, then why would someone who’s not as experienced run farther?
“Unless you’re going to take two weeks off after,” says Magill, then you won’t be able to recover well. And of course you probably aren’t going to take two weeks off.
Your long run should only be about 50 percent longer than the length of your regular runs and not more than 20–30 percent of your total mileage for week.
2. Stop over-fueling
Typically, we’ve been taught that fuel and water are good during workouts. Therefore, more is better. But, according to McMillan, lots of people end up over-fueling. If you’re preparing for a race, you might want to “run without a buffet around your belt,” he says.
Eating and drinking less teaches your body to utilize fat stores more effectively and to become better at dealing with bonking. Research suggests that occasional glycogen-depleted runs can improve glycogen stores and performance. They also teach you to deal with being a little bit miserable. “We need to accept suffering as part of the deal,” McMillan says.
However, not taking in enough fluid or carbs does impact recovery. If you are glycogen-depleted for every run, it could impair your overall performance. Instead, McMillan advises easing into less and less fuel on your long runs. Then, as you get closer to your race, put it back in and practice your race nutrition.
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3. Pick it up at the end
The most important thing in all your long runs, both McMillian and Magill say, is to know what the purpose is. Sometimes that means the long run should be very easy. Sometimes that means it shouldn’t.
McMillan has found his runners have a lot of success with what he calls “fast finish long runs.” In these runs, you start very easy, slowly progress to goal marathon pace in the middle, and then run as fast as you can for the final 30–45 minutes.
“It teaches you to run fast when you’re really tired,” he says. It’s not feasible to run a marathon in practice, so these runs give you a chance to simulate marathon-type fatigue in less time.
McMillan’s runners often do three or four of these types of long runs in the two months leading up to their marathon.
Other types of long runs could include efforts at goal marathon pace or in-and-out tempo work—though many of those workouts are more common among elite runners. And some of your long runs should be very, very slow. The point is to know what the point is.
“You shouldn’t just throw a long run against the wall and hope it sticks,” Magill says.