The weekend long run is a rite of passage for most runners. Everyone from your weekend warrior to the world champions include this staple workout as part of their weekly training schedule. Famed coach Arthur Lydiard seems to have cemented this tradition when his New Zealand troops would traverse their 22-mile route every weekend. If everybody is doing it and it has stuck around this long, it obviously has a lot of merit, but are you getting the most out of your long run, or are you just trudging through the miles and in dire need of a new stimulus?
Long runs are no different than any other workout. In order to continually adapt, the stimulus has to be slightly altered. In a set of repeats on the track, we might decrease the rest, increase the pace, or increase the length of the repetitions. For a long run, we can obviously increase the length and the pace, but those options are limited to an extent. The good news is that there are a few different ways we can squeeze out a little more adaptation. How do we accomplish that? Simply, by adding “stuff” to your long run.
“Stuff” refers to adding strides, surges, pickups, or progressions to the typical easy or steady long run. The goal in adding these components is to change the stimulus for adaptation ever so slightly. By adding in some faster running toward the end of the long run, you force recruitment of muscle fibers that generally are never trained at an easy or steady pace. By slightly changing which muscle fibers are recruited, you now train those harder-to-recruit fast twitch-type fibers under aerobic conditions, therefore increasing their endurance.
Strides and Surges
Strides and surges are two easy ways to get a little more bang for your buck during the long run without adding much undue fatigue. They both work by changing the muscle fiber recruitment slightly, and can prevent the post-long run flatness that often occurs. This happens because the faster segments change the tension in the muscles and leave you with some “pop” in your legs instead of staleness.
Strides should be done immediately after the completion of the long run and should include four to ten by 100-meter runs in length at about your 10K race pace. This should be seen as an introductory session, which then progresses to surges over the following weeks.
Surges should be done during the last 3–4 miles of the long run and should include segments where you pick it up to around 10K race pace and then back off to your easy pace for a short segment. I recommend starting with 5 x 30-second surges with two minutes of easy running between reps and work your way up progressively to where you’re doing 8-10 x 45 to 60-second surges with 2-3 minutes recovery in between. This should not be a taxing workout, but instead a comfortable surge that lets the legs loosen up a little bit.
Pickups and Progressions
Pickups and progressions are two slightly more challenging options for adding some spice to your long run. The goal of these runs is to press the pace down so that the body gets used to increasing speed, increasing the aerobic demand, and recruiting muscle fibers when glycogen levels are getting progressively lower at the end of the long run. Once again, we are looking at training muscle fibers that aren’t normally trained aerobically and triggering the body to become more efficient with using up its glycogen stores.
Pickups should be introduced in small doses. Start by picking up the pace to marathon race effort or slightly faster during the last 5 minutes of your long run. Every few weeks, increase the length of the pickup by 5 minutes until you get to the point where the last 20 minutes of your long run is done at a quicker pace.
Progression long runs, on the other hand, should take a gradual approach. Instead of spending the last bit of your long run making a sudden change in speed, spread that speed increase out over a longer distance. Start with a gradual progression over the last quarter of your long run (the last 4 miles of a 16 mile run, for example) and increase that until the last half of your long run is spent gradually ratcheting down the speed. The goal is the same: get down to just faster than marathon race pace by the end of the run.
Anytime you add new workouts to your regime, it’s important to do so gradually. Keep your easy long run in the rotation, but start adding some “stuff” to it every other week. By adding “stuff” such as strides, surges, pickups and progressions to the long run, you’re increasing the amount of stimuli your body has to deal with, and more importantly, adapt to. So stop slogging through the same old long run–add some stuff to it!
Steve Magness is the head cross country coach at the University of Houston and also coaches several professional runners. He is the author of three books and maintains the blog ScienceOfRunning.com, a place for him to display his inner science and running nerd to the world. He owns a best of 4:01 for the mile and has a M.S. in Exercise Science from George Mason University.