Long runs have gone down in folklore as the bedrock of endurance training for runners and triathletes, but where did this train of thought come from? Can it justify its claim to be an integral part of your training programme or has it just been around for so long that it’s acquired a level of reverence that goes unquestioned?
Long runs: a short history
At the ’32 Los Angeles Olympics, British runner Sam Ferris took silver with a 2:31:55 marathon. Post-war, Tom Richards – then the British record-holder – registered similar times to Ferris using almost identical training methods. That training consisted mainly of running moderate distances and cross-country races. Deeper levels of endurance for these guys was built on a foundation of long walks in leather boots.
This was perhaps due to the military influence of the period and also because running footwear was a little crude by today’s standards. Plimsoles were the shoe of choice and, when you think about tabbing 20 miles in a pair of old-school Dunlops, you realise why long runs weren’t all the rage.
When Jim Peters came along in the Fifties, incorporating 20-plus mile runs into his training on a regular basis, he dropped the world marathon record to 2:17:39. By the ’70s, Ian Thompson (European and Commonwealth Marathon Champion ’73 and ’74) gained infamy for training over distance to prepare for his marathons. Few had experimented with this session before but, then again, few ran 2:09:12 races.
Thompson would cover up to 30 miles in some sessions (at around 5:20mins per mile pace) and even raced the 52-mile London to Brighton bike ride on several occasions – on foot. So, over a few decades, the long session wrote itself into training manuals as a key session for endurance runners.
How long is long?
The length of a long run depends almost entirely on what you’re training for. A long run for Olympic-distance triathletes may be 8-12 miles (130-200% race distance), but for someone with long-distance ambitions, it could be as much as 20-26 miles (80-100% race distance). Occasionally, a challenging long run for an Ironman athlete may even go over 26 miles, but this effort requires meticulous preparation to avoid injury or excessive fatigue
Long run, big benefits
The first, and most obvious, benefit is endurance – especially specific muscular endurance in your legs. Triathletes tend to have good aerobic conditioning due to the volume of training the sport requires, but a long run beats your legs up in a totally different way to a long ride.
Long runs prepare your legs in a precise way, allowing them to cope with the stresses of racing while leaving you less vulnerable to injury and the common condition known as delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS). It also encourages better use of the energy stores in your body through fat utilisation.
Training like this applies volume overload to stimulate improvements in your aerobic efficiency that can’t be replicated with shorter, fast-paced runs. It also gives you confidence because it’s comforting to be standing on the start line knowing that you can cover the distance you’re about to race over. If your long runs have taken you to – or even over – the distance required, you’ll be mentally and physically prepared for the task ahead.
Personally, I enjoy my steady long runs more than almost any other training session. I think this is because I can consciously relax in a way that isn’t possible on the bike (I might fall off) or in the pool (I might drown). It’s especially true if you can do your long run off-road in a natural environment.
When to go the distance
The long run is a key element in your base-building during the off-season. In this phase, your main aim is to overload your body with sufficient volume to stimulate aerobic development, with the idea of adding race speed later on. Long runs during this time should be at a comfortable pace and measured by the time you spend running rather than mileage.
It’s a significant part of a weekly overload for your body and, personally, I like to do this off-road and over a fairly hilly route – there’s less risk of injury, it’s more pleasant and it also helps build strength. Short-course athletes might run for 60-90mins, while long-distance competitors should aim for 80mins-2hrs, depending on your experience and ambitions.
You can slot your long run in almost anywhere during your training week, as it’s not a particularly demanding session. It makes sense not to put it one day either side of your longest bike ride, though, because they use similar energy systems. However, if you have to fit them both in on a weekend, you should vary the emphasis – longer run, shorter ride one week and vice versa the next.
Long runs in the base phase are a great way to get out and run with friends due to the comfortable pace. Try not to get competitive and race each other just yet; that can make a weekly training run into a physical and mental battle, and take far more out of you than intended.
As the season approaches, most short-course athletes will ditch their long run in favour of races and more-specific speed work. An occasional long run when there’s a gap between races will help maintain endurance throughout the season. However, there’s no great need to continue knocking out regular 90min steady efforts when you’re racing much shorter distances. Instead, intervals and extra recovery time should take precedence.
For long-course racers approaching a key event, the long runs go from being part of a general conditioning programme to becoming specific simulation sessions. Each of these has a goal attached to it – usually to sustain progressively longer blocks at, or slightly above, race pace, or to practise nutritional strategies. Don’t do these every week because they’re highly fatiguing. Once a month is plenty, with supplementary steady runs in-between to maintain condition.
It’s important that your last long simulation run isn’t too close to a big race because it can take more than two weeks to fully recover – a fact completely ignored by British runner Dave Francis. Francis travelled to Switzerland in ’80 to run the 22-mile uphill Sierre-Zinal mountain race. He arrived the day before the event and asked organisers for a map to familiarise himself with the course before competing. They obliged, assuming he meant to read the map with his feet up in his hotel room. However, Dave had other ideas… he set off to recce the 22-mile route, and jogged back down once he’d done it. Although he did manage to finish in the top 10 the next day, it has to be said that 44 miles 24hrs before might have taken the edge off his speed.
There’s a strong argument to be made that long runs deserve their reputation as a key training session in a triathlete’s programme. But, like any demanding training, it needs to be introduced progressively alongside a suitable amount of recovery. So, as long as you don’t do a Dav’, it should work for you.
FUELLING ON THE RUN
Gone are the days when real men laughed in the face of thirst and ran marathons without water. We now know that just 2% dehydration has a significant negative impact on endurance. Therefore, carrying fluids on any run over 75mins is a must. Not only will it make you feel much better in the last few miles, it’ll aid your recovery and make any training later that day or the next more productive.
There are some great hydration systems available in the 21st century – from bladders you carry like a rucksack to bottle belts round your waist – so there are no excuses for not drinking. On really long stints of more than 2hrs, energy gels every 20mins or so are also really helpful, and running on a looped course so that you can pick up extra fluids and supplies is a sensible option.