Should you include long runs in your training?

One long run each week should be the cornerstone of your training, says Andy Blow. Here's why...

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What is considered a long run?

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

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What’s the purpose and benefits of including long runs in your training?

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.

Ironman run training: how important is the weekly long run?

When should you do your long runs?

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.

How often should you do a long run?

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.

How long should you rest after a big training run?

  

Should you include long runs during the race season?

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. 

How to hydrate your long runs

Always start long runs well hydrated. Preloading isn’t necessary every time you exercise, but it can be useful before key training sessions where you anticipate that your sweat losses are going to be high – such as during a long run session. If you run the risk of starting your long run workout dehydrated, drinking a stronger electrolyte drink before you start can really help you maintain your performance and get more out of your session. This can pay dividends on race day…

What to do

  • Drink a bottle of a strong electrolyte drink 90 mins before you begin
  • Finish around 45 mins before you start to allow time to absorb
  • Drink the electrolytes in water you’d have drunk anyway so you don’t overdo it
  • DON’T just drink lots of water before you set off! You can end up diluting your blood sodium levels, increasing the risk of hyponatremia

Hyponatremia: What it is and how you can avoid it

Why?

  • A recent study of 400+ amateur athletes showed that ~31% of them were turning up to training sessions (and, in some cases, events) dehydrated
  • It’ll boost your blood volume, a proven way to enhance performance during intense exercise, especially in the heat
  • It’ll help your cardiovascular system cool you down and deliver oxygen to your working muscles. This reduces fatigue and enables you to maintain your performance for longer
  •   

  Andy Blow is a Sports Scientist with a BSc Honours degree in Sports and Exercise Science from the University of Bath.

An expert in hydration, he has co-authored a number of scientific studies and books. He was once the Team Sports Scientist for the Benetton and Renault Formula 1 teams and remains an adviser to the Porsche Human Performance Centre at Silverstone.

Andy has finished in the top 10 of Ironman and Ironman 70.3 races, as well as winning an Xterra world title. It was his own struggles with cramp that led to him specialising in hydration and founding Precision Hydration.

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