The mighty long runs… you either love them or hate them. Like it or not, it is the cornerstone element of your weekly training regime. No training plan is complete or effective without incorporating at least one session of long run.
But how far does a run needs to be to be considered a long run? That will depend on the distance or race you are working towards. Some coaches suggest that long runs should cover about two times the distance of what you consider a normal-length run. Most experts agree that a long run should be about 25 percent of your overall weekly mileage. Anyways I think there are no hard and fast rules to this and how far you should run in your longest session would depend on individual’s requirement and ability.
Personally, I keep my long runs on the road to be within 3 hours. Since I am no longer a spring chicken, I have to weigh the increased risk of injury and recovery time needed if I run over 3 hours or 30km in distance. However, for my training leading up to the 100km trail ultras, I plan to incorporate occasional half to full day of trail run mixed with power hike on the trails. I will touch on hiking as a form of training in another article.
How fast should you run? No matter the distance, the long run should always be ran at an easy pace. Meaning the run should be at the lower end of your perceived exertion. Your heart rate should be around 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate, if you know and train with your heart rate. Otherwise you can roughly consider your run to be an easy pace when you are able to breathe naturally and hold a conversation effortlessly.
Why do you need the long runs?
- It builds endurance
Long runs force your body to be more efficient. The heart learns to pump more blood with each stroke and this carries more oxygen to the critical parts of the body. During the long run, slow-twitch muscle fibres are strengthened. These fibres are important because they are full of capillaries and mitochondria. Mitochondria is where energy is produced and stored in the muscles. Long aerobic run forces your body to create new blood capillaries (for smoother oxygen supply to mitochondria) and increase the size of mitochondria (produce and store more energy).
- It builds physical strength
Besides extending cardiovascular gains of a workout, long runs can also develop your physiological system by promoting muscle development, especially in your legs, shoulders and upper back. Running for prolonged periods not only increases the strength of the leg muscles and connective tissues, but also those of the core and respiratory system. Over time, it improves your running mechanics and your running form will be stronger and more efficient.
- It teaches your body to use fat
Your body will learn to tap into fat as an energy source before your carbohydrates are depleted. This allows your stored carbs to last longer, allowing you more chance to refuel along the way before you bonk out (the sudden and overwhelming feeling of running out of energy). You will be able to run longer before depleting your reserves.
- It helps your body to cope with stress
A long run is needless to say, long. The more time you spend on your feet, the more stress you are putting on your body. Long runs ask a lot of our muscles, tendons, and ligaments (main parts of the musculoskeletal system) due to the duration of exercise. So if you don’t train your musculoskeletal system gradually to cope with long runs, you are putting yourself at risk of overuse injuries such as Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis and shin splints during the actual race.
- It prepares you mentally
Running an ultra-distance involves hours no end. Imaging being out there running on trails and roads for more than 20 hours. Even if your legs are able to carry you the distance, the hours spent moving (sometimes alone) can take a toll on our mind. When your mental game deteriorates, your physical ability will suffer and go down the drain. That is why long runs are important to prepare your mind for the psychological challenge of racing for extended hours.
- It gives you the opportunity to try fuelling
Long runs or hikes are the best opportunities for you to try out different types of fuelling options. It is a good time to experiment with different brands of sports drinks, gels or energy bars. For ultra-distances, you will also have to learn to take in real food. There is a limit of gels and energy bars that you can stomach. Find out what food source (especially carbs) goes well with your gut while you are on the move to prevent gastrointestinal issues like bloating, belching, vomiting or nausea.
- It lets you experiment with gears
A trail ultra race is a very long event. This makes every little details of your clothing, socks, shoes and running gears very important. The critical running gears for a trail ultra includes a hydration vest, water bottles or soft flasks, heap lamp, and sometimes trekking poles. Juggling with so many items whilst trying to cover the distance over long hours can be daunting. Testing your gears and learning how to use them properly will remove the surprises on race day.
- It gives you a sense of accomplishment
As daunting as a long run may be, I can personally tell you that the long run is the most satisfying workout of the week. Long runs are inherently challenging and because of this you will feel like you have accomplished something meaningful and worthwhile for the day. My body may be tired but a long run in the bag makes me feel that I have accomplished the most important thing of the day and I am ready to take on anything else thrown at me.
The last reason I can think of for doing long runs is that it gives you the excuse to eat a lot. The caloric requirements of running long may find you needing more food than usual. So if you love food, the long run can give you a reason to indulge. I do not deprive myself of any type of food and I like to go with the motto of eating anything at any time I want. This is definitely unhealthy but the saving grace is that I will always the long runs to come to the rescue.
Enjoy your long runs!