Some runners love it. New runners tend to fear it. So what’s this mythical workout really about? For many runners, including myself, a Saturday or Sunday long run is the constant element of the week, setting a rhythm both physically and mentally. A tried and true component to building strength and endurance, long runs are part of most training plans, no matter the race distance. In fact, even without a race on your horizon, there are still lots of reasons to keep running long. You might even learn to look forward to it. I know I did. There’s a lot to cover, so let’s break it down.
“Long” is a relative term
The long run is a common workout, but it’s not the same for everyone — and that’s a good thing. You should adapt your long run to fit your running experience and goals. If you’re a first-time runner hoping to run a 5k, your long run may be only 30 minutes. If your goal is a marathon, your long run could build up to several hours or 20 miles, depending on your plan.
Though the distance may change for people, most plans recommend that you do your long runs at an easier effort. The pace should feel comfortable, even easy, for most of the run.
In my own past marathon build-ups, I found that if I completed two long runs of 20-22 miles, I felt prepared for race day without feeling overworked and stale. But I didn’t do those runs back-to-back, usually adding mileage every other week and backing off in between. So my Saturday runs would go something like 16, 18, 16, 20, 16, 22 in the last six weeks before tapering off for the race.
Every person and goal is different, but this pattern of slowly adding time or miles to what you’re currently doing is easy to adapt to your specific goals.
3 reasons to run long
Despite individual approaches, the benefits of a weekly long run are universal. Danny Mackey, head coach of the professional Brooks Beasts, offers three physiological benefits of a weekly long run:
Increased cardiac output: Improving your heart’s ability to pump red blood cells — the ones that carry oxygen — to your muscles helps you run longer without depleting your muscles.
Improved running efficiency: “The duration is beneficial for improving the body’s metabolism of fat oxidation”, says Mackey. Basically, running at an easier pace for a long time teaches your body to use its energy efficiently and recruit energy from more than just simple carbohydrates. But at a certain point, you’ll need to start bringing some fuel. More on that at the end.
Greater strength and endurance — both mental and physical: By now you know how long runs improve physical endurance, but keep in mind that running for a long time tests your mental fortitude as well. Practising mental toughness helps set good habits for pushing your physical limits.
Improving these areas can help you run farther, faster, and with less effort, all of which lead to better times and improved fitness.
Long runs can be their own reward
Right now races everywhere are cancelled. As someone who loves the rhythm of training, racing, resting, and starting to train again, the COVID-19 pandemic jolted me out of my sense of routine. But even though I’m not training to race, the consistency of a weekly long run has been weirdly comforting.
A long run is an extended physical effort that recharges my brain. It’s time to digest the week before and ponder the week ahead. Because my work at Brooks is a regular 9-to-5 office job — well, home office during this time of COVID-19 — my weekend long run offers a chance to dedicate my morning to running without needing to rush to work once I’m done.
Though there are virtual race options out there, thinking of your long runs as a goal in itself can be a good way to set and achieve goals without the structure.
Progress by slowly adding time or distance
Gradually increasing your time or distance each week is a smart way to make progress without increasing the risk of injury. As Mackey says, “You can always run longer later, but if you get hurt, you will not be running anything!”. One method runners can use is to increase your time or distance by about 10-15 percent each week. “Usually every other week we add in 1-2 miles depending on the athlete’s training history”, says Mackey.
So which is it, time or distance?
The difference between running for time or running for distance is up to you. Some runners enjoy running based on time because there’s less pressure to hit certain mileage if you’re extra tired. Some runners choose distance-based running because they enjoy ticking off the miles and seeing it add up. If you’re not sure what you prefer, try spending a week with each method and see which you enjoy more.
Both methods will lead to improvements if you stay consistent. You’re also more likely to see your endurance increase if you’re incorporating other fundamentals into your training such as strength training, form drills, and 1-2 hard runs during the week.
Watching yourself improve over time is a huge part of why long runs are so rewarding. I remember training for my first half-marathon and getting such a sense of satisfaction from going farther or longer than I’d ever run before — and then breaking that barrier again just a week or two later.
Long runs are boring — but they don’t have to be
No matter how much you love running, spending a long time on your feet can start to feel monotonous. You run out of podcasts. The weather takes a turn for the worse. Your feet hurt. Your brain is tired of overanalysing the lyrics to Lizzo’s latest single — or maybe that’s just me.
Luckily, when things aren’t clicking or the idea of waking up early on a weekend seems unbearable, there are a few things to try that can help snap you out of your funk:
Run somewhere new: Changing your route or driving to a different area to run breaks up the monotony and offers new scenery.
Meet a friend — safely: If possible to do so within the health recommendations of your area, meet up with a friend. Holding a conversation, or even just having a friend by your side, can help the run feel more like a social outing than a chore.
Try a trail: If you’re feeling beat up by spending hours on the streets, head for some softer ground. Depending on the trail, I recommend not looking at your watch either. Steep uphills and downhills might mean your splits aren’t speedy, but you’re still gaining a lot from the challenges of new terrain.
A few reminders for long runs
Just like preparing for a race or any other workout, there are some things you can do to make your long runs a little easier.
Gear: We happen to know a lot about good gear here at Brooks. Getting a good pair of running shoes, for instance, or a bra specifically built for running can go a long way toward a distraction-free run. Make sure you have the right running gear for your weather — layering is a good idea if you’re going to be out in cold weather
Hydration: Proper hydration and fuelling-up are also important to successful long runs. Carry a hand-held water bottle or wear a hydration vest to make sure you can stay hydrated. My general rule of thumb is that I take water and snacks for any run longer than 90 minutes — the longer the run, the more I bring, especially if it’s warm.
Food: Fuelling your long run is important if your goal extends past 90 minutes, or 60 minutes if you’re still a relatively new runner. I like to carry an energy gel or gummy bears for calories that are easy to digest, and I’ll bring a granola bar and some electrolyte chews for a longer day on the trail.
Ready to run
It’s not lost on me that this essay is pretty long. In this case, writing imitates running, which feels right to me. Learning to love the long run — or at least tolerate it — will help your running even as your goals change along the way. Long runs can be tough, but that’s exactly why they’re important. Your heart, lungs and legs will thank you for always keeping a long run in the mix.
A staff writer and editor at Brooks, Katherine has been an avid runner for nearly 20 years. She’s learned from some the best runners, coaches, and sports scientists in the biz. She has also shown up to many meetings in split shorts.