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Go long to be strong: Making the most of the long run

Runners know that the long run is critical for success in the marathon. However, incorporating a longer run each week can be valuable no matter what distance you're training for

Rejean Chiasson
Rejean Chiasson
Photo: Jess Baumung.

The long run explained

A long run is a relative term but generally refers to any run that lasts 90 minutes or more. The 90 minute threshold is about the time it takes for the body to begin making many endurance-specific adaptations and improvements. Long runs increase your overall endurance by stressing the cardiovascular system to continuously deliver blood and oxygen to the working muscles. In time, this improves the efficiency of the heart, lungs and circulation system (including the number and size of blood vessels). The metabolic system also becomes better at creating and using available energy by building more mitochondria (a cells’ power plant) and by learning to better oxidize fats. Finally, the stress of running for long periods forces the muscles, bones and joints to become stronger, durable and more resistant to injury. Altogether, the long run develops a better running body.

How long is long?

A general rule of thumb is that the longest run you do should make up between 20 and 30 per cent of your weekly running mileage. Those running more mileage will likely be closer to the lower limit, while those running less can aim for the higher end. This would mean that for those running 50K and 100K per week, their long run could be anywhere between 10-15K and 20-30K, respectively. 60-90 minutes is best considered a “medium-long” run while 90 minutes or more is definitely long enough to reap the most benefits. Regardless of speed, running for more than three and half hours is generally not worth the added risk and stress to the body. Those training for a marathon should probably aim to run 30-34K or three and a half hours, whichever comes first.

How fast should I run?

This depends entirely on your experience level and what your goals are for running long. Those who are more experienced or aiming to run faster or set a new personal best should aim for an average long run pace that is 30-90 seconds per kilometre slower than marathon race pace. They should also consider the variations below.

Beginners who are hoping to simply run longer should aim to run at whatever pace they can comfortably maintain without having to stop. Taking occasional rest or walk breaks in order to complete the distance is also a popular and effective method of completing longer runs.

Related: Become bonk-proof: How to avoid hitting the wall

Is distance all that matters?

The old thinking went that long runs should be done as ‘LSD’ which stands for long slow distance. This was shown to reap the greatest boost to aerobic fitness while minimizing the risk of injury. While LSD runs still have a time and place in most training plans–especially for those new to running long–more recent evidence suggests there are better ways to get the most out of the long run. This often involves adding some form of quality, often speed or strength work, into the long run.

Some variations of the standard long run will provide additional physical and psychologically benefits that can help prepare you specifically for your upcoming race. Here are but a few ways to get bigger and better gains out of your long runs:

1) The progression run. Start slow and run the first half at a comfortable, controlled pace. Then, in the second half, pick up the pace and finish faster than you started. This is called a negative split.

Example: Run 10-15K easy then pick up the pace and run the last 10-15K at a progressively faster pace, ending at or around goal race pace.

2) The marathon-paced tempo run. Warm up for several kilometres before incorporating a tempo segment at or near marathon race pace in the middle of the long run. Be sure to cool down and finish the run at an easy pace after the tempo session.

Example: Run easy for 5-10K, then do a 5-15K tempo, either run continuously or broken up into two or three shorter (3-5K) segments and run at goal marathon pace, followed by a final 5-10K at an easy pace.

3) The fartlek long run. Run easy for several kilometres to warm up then add several short intervals into the run. These intervals could be by time (anywhere from one to ten minutes) or by distance (several-hundred metres to a few kilometres) at a pace that is faster than marathon race pace.

Example: Run easy for 10-15K then add 10 x 3 minutes at half-marathon pace (or faster) with ample rest in between.

Other considerations:

Long runs are an ideal opportunity to practice for race day. This means waking up at the same time, eating the same foods, running in the same shoes and clothes you’ll wear on race day and fueling as you would during a race. If possible, try running on the same route as the race course or one that mimics the race so you become familiar with the type of terrain you’ll encounter as well as establish a few points of reference.

Long runs also require some consideration to fueling and hydration. Be sure to be properly hydrated and fueled before your long run by eating a small and simple meal composed of some basic carbs a few hours before you run and possibly a high carb meal the day before. For runs lasting longer than 75 minutes or so, you’ll also likely want to consider taking fuel while on the run. Aim to intake between 30 and 60 grams of simple sugars per hour of running. You can do this by taking your favourate energy drinks, gels and chews. On warm, hot and humid days, taking water or an electrolyte beverage to stay hydrated is also highly recommended. You can carry your own using a fuel belt or handheld bottle, and stopping at water fountains or at a convenience store for a mid-run beverage is also an idea.

RELATED: Fueling for performance: Carbo-loading dos and don’ts

Due to the length of time you’ll be out running, you should also consider having a strategy or plan if the run doesn’t go smoothly. This could be as simple as planning the route in advance, telling a friend or family member where you’ll be or carrying some spare change or a credit card in case you need to end the run early. You may also want to familiarize yourself with some potential places to take a pit-stop if need be.

Finally, because long runs induce a considerable amount of stress to the body, they should always be followed by a period of rest and recovery to allow for the desired adaptations to take place. Take a day or two off or run very easy for a few days before attempting another hard effort.