Found on RunnersWorld.com and written by Jen A. Miller
Runners often have a love/hate relationship with the long run. We love the sense of accomplishment we feel when it’s over; we hate the anticipation of actually getting out there.
Yet it must be done: The long run is the keystone of any training program—5-K to marathon.”The long run builds endurance and strength and teaches you how to deal with fatigue,” says Maria Simone, a USA Triathlon—certified coach and owner of No Limits Endurance Coaching in Absecon, New Jersey.
Indeed, extending the distance you normally cover triggers several lasting changes in your body, says 2:24 marathoner and running coach Kevin Beck. Capillaries in your muscle fibers increase in number, which enables more energizing oxygen to reach your muscles. Your mitochondria, the aerobic powerhouses of your cells, also grow in number and size, which helps you sustain energy. Your muscles also learn to store more glycogen (carbs), which wards off fatigue over long distances. There are psychological benefits, too: Long runs build mental toughness to help you manage discomfort. They also serve as a dress rehearsal, giving you an opportunity to test gear and fueling options so when race day comes, you know what works best.
Long runs aren’t easy, but they don’t have to be death marches, either. There are a number of ways to make going the distance comfortable—enjoyable, even.
PROS Running with music can stop your brain from getting overwhelmed with anxiety about the distance you have to cover. “It’s a dissociative strategy; it keeps your focus off what’s ahead,” Simone says. It can also distract you from tired, achy legs. Research from Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D., a leading authority on music and exercise, shows that music can reduce perception of exertion and increase endurance by 10 to 15 percent.
CONS Music can make you oblivious to important things, like that oncoming car, or your body’s signals (Too fast, you’re going too fast!). You can also become dependent on it—not a good thing if your device’s battery goes dead midrun or if you plan to race without it.
DO IT RIGHT Karageorghis’s research says fast-tempo songs that exceed 120 beats per minute (BPM) are ideal during high-intensity exercise when you’re working at 75 percent of your maximum heart rate, and slower speeds are best for less-intense efforts. Because songs that push you through an interval session might be too frantic for a slow, steady effort, craft separate playlists for your workouts. Or try an app like PaceDJ, which configures a playlist based on your specific running pace. Podcasts and audiobooks are also a good option—they won’t inspire you to sprint. For safety purposes, keep the volume low enough so you can hear yourself talking over what’s coming out of your earbuds. You can also try headphones that are designed to let you still hear your surroundings, like AfterShokz. And be sure to do some long runs sans tunes if you plan to race without them.
PROS Running with a training partner can turn a long run into a social hour (or two or three), says Colleen Tindall, a USATF-certified running coach in Moorestown, New Jersey. “It’s more fun, it’s safer, and it makes you accountable,” she says. “You’re less likely to cut a run short if you’re with someone else.” Planning long runs with one person gives you more scheduling flexibility than you’d have with a club that might only meet at, say, 8 a.m. Saturday mornings. Also, beginners who might find a large training group intimidating can benefit from hooking up with an experienced running friend who can provide one-on-one support.
CONS If you rely totally on one person, what happens when she gets injured or goes out of town? More critically, if your partner’s pace is incompatible, your training could suffer. “If you’re running too hard on your long runs, you can risk injury and lose confidence,” Tindall says. “It works the other way, too. If you’re with someone not running fast enough, you might not be reaching your potential.”
DO IT RIGHT Know your schedule and your pace goals, then look for a suitable partner. There are several online sites that can help you connect with a local runner, like buddyup.com (which even asks runner compatibility questions), meetup.com, and the Runner’s World forums. Your local running club could help you connect with another member who also has a quirky schedule and needs to go long on Fridays, for instance. And consider this: Your buddy doesn’t need to be a runner—got a spouse, friend, or kid who likes to bike? They can keep you company (and carry your water).
BE A GROUPIE
PROS Signing up to train with a large club or training organization (like Team in Training or Joints in Motion) gives you a real sense of commitment—you’re less likely to skip your runs if you’re paying membership dues or pledging to fund-raise. Many large groups break off into smaller subsets, so you’ll find runners that match your pace. They may offer coaching—helpful if you need pacing, fueling, or stretching advice. Plus, organized long runs often follow premeasured routes with water and sports drinks provided—all you have to do is show up and run!
CONS You’re locked into the group’s schedule, so if you have to miss a group run, you’re on your own. You can also become dependent on the group for pacing or distraction, which can hurt you if you’ll be racing solo. “It’s important for runners at all levels to learn how to manage the fatigue and discomfort on their own,” Simone says.
DO IT RIGHT Mix group runs with solo ones so you have the best of both worlds. Stick with the gang when you’re going really long and need the support and companionship. But on a week when you’re stepping back in distance, go it alone so you get practice pacing yourself and developing your own mental coping strategies.
RUN IN CIRCLES
PROS Breaking a long run into several smaller loops makes a daunting distance more manageable. Instead of focusing on running 15 miles, for instance, you can just take it one five-mile segment at a time. Looping also allows you to create your own aid station. “You can stash water and fuel at a set location you know you’ll be hitting several times,” Simone says. Loops from your house are especially helpful if the weather changes or you need a pit stop. It’s comforting to know that an extra layer and bathroom are never too far away.
CONS Looping again and again…and again with no variety in scenery can be boring. Very boring.
DO IT RIGHT Simone suggests alternating the direction you run on each loop—it’s a small change that can be surprisingly refreshing. And recruit a friend looking to do a shorter run to join you for a loop.