The Scientific Benefits of Long Runs

(Updated March 18, 2022) – Every runner should be doing long runs. Even if you’re just training for a 5k, you still need to do a weekly long run. 

If you download any of my free training plans, ranging from a 5k to a marathon, you will notice a weekly long run. That’s because long runs help you run longer, faster, and prevent injury–no matter your goal race distance.

In this article, I am going to cover the scientific benefits of long runs, long run variations, and tips to succeed at doing long runs. So, let’s go!

15 tips to make long runs successful
Pin this for later! 15 tips to make long runs successful

What is a long run?

A long run is a sustained effort of running longer than your typical run. A long run is usually 30 percent of your typical weekly mileage and usually longer than an hour.

Its purpose is to make your body more efficient at running and stronger. Long runs also make you mentally tougher, giving you the confidence that you can complete the race distance.

How do I train myself to run longer?

You train yourself to run longer but running more frequently and progressively running longer week over week. You need to run a bare minimum of three times per week on nonconsecutive days with one run about 20-30 percent of your total volume per week. That is your long run.

How do long runs make you faster?

Long runs:

  1. Build the number of mitochondria in your cells. These are the “energy factories” that power movement and cell respiration.
  2. Increase max VO2 and blood volume, maximum stroke volume (the amount of blood ejected from the heart with each beat), and build new capillaries and red blood cells. This helps get oxygen (to use for energy) to your muscles.
  3. Build mental toughness. When you toe the start line, you know you can go the distance because you already have—and in some cases—and then some.
  4. Make your running more efficient. Muscles learn through practice, so your stride will improve through consistent long runs.
  5. Teach your body how to fuel itself. Your body will learn to tap into fat before glycogen, delaying glycogen depletion during a long race. This helps delay hitting that proverbial wall.
  6. Make your muscles, bones, and tendons stronger. Running for prolonged periods increases the strength of the leg muscles and connective tissues.
  7. Increase your body’s ability to use fat as fuel. Your body uses both carbs (glycogen) and fat to fuel your runs. Long runs increase your body’s ability to optimally and efficiently use these fuel sources to power you.
  8. Make you faster! By improving your endurance, you’ll be able to hold a certain pace for a longer period of time. And, then as your slow-twitch muscles get tired, your fast-twitch muscle fibers pitch in. 

Related: 26 Tips to Recover from a Marathon

How often should you do a long run?

Typically, the long run is done once per week that’s to allow for your body to adapt. As The Mother Runners co-coach Laura Norris explains, “A long run produces a significant amount of damage – which requires recovery in order to adapt.

Too frequent of long runs can also compromise the quality of training in between – and those runs matter too!” (Get more tips on increasing stamina here.)

How long should my long run be?

Most experts, including famed coach Jack Daniels, agree that 20 to 30 percent of your weekly mileage should be devoted to a long run. If you’re running 40 miles a week, then your long run should be about 8-10 miles.

A runner averaging 80 miles per week would go 16-20 miles. An elite marathoner running 100 miles a week would be running 20 miles in their long runs. These guidelines scale the run to your current ability level and training load.

Related: How Many Miles to Run a Week?

How long is a long run?

Long runs are considered long if they last more than an hour.

Long runs are typically considered to last between one and three hours.

Related: Self-care tips for busy moms

How fast should I run my long run?

Long runs should be performed at a pace that is comfortable and conversational (unless doing a workout).

This pace is roughly one minute slower than your marathon race pace, or around 90 seconds per mile slower than your current 10K pace, and two minutes slower than your 5k pace.

Running at these easy paces teaches the body to tap into your fuel sources efficiently so that it learns to use both carbs and fats. 

“When you run below your aerobic threshold (slower than marathon to 50K pace for most runners), you utilize both fat and carbohydrates for two separate pathways of aerobic metabolism,” explains Laura, also founder of Laura Norris Running. “If you go too fast, your body converts to just aerobic metabolism with carbohydrates (assuming you stay below your anaerobic threshold); while you still use fat, you neglectfully adapting the fat utilization. Slowing down trains your body to use both energy systems – and helps bonk-proof your marathon.”  

What should I eat on long runs?

Eat a carb-dense meal of about 300 calories about an hour before. Take a gel about every 30-45 minutes with water. Ideally, aim for 30 grams of carbs every 30 minutes. Studies show that runners who fuel early and often on their long runs have better performance.

Eat a carb and protein-dense snack of about 300 calories or more within 30 minutes of completing your run. Then eat another meal full of carbs, proteins, and healthy fats about 2 hours after your run. This is key to recovery.

Related: 3 proven ways to refuel after a long run (& 2 yummy recipes)

3 Long Run Variations

There are several ways to do a long run. The most common way to run a long run is to do LSD, or long slow distance. However, you can concentrate stress by embedding workouts into a long run.

Related: Benefits of an Easy Running Pace

This teaches the body how to run fast on tired legs. The quantity of your faster paces is relative to what your race distance will be and where you are in your training. (This is where a running coach comes in handy!).

Related: 10 Reasons to Get a Running Coach

Usually, a workout embedded in a long run is alternated at least every other week to balance the stress of your training. For example, you’d have a long run tempo one week and then a long slow distance run the following week.

Related: How to Concentrate Stress for Optimal Training

Here are three popular variations of long runs:

Fartlek Long Run

long run
Pin these long run variations for later!

Include some speed play into your long run. This long run variation is typically performed towards the middle of a long run after at least 2 miles of a warm-up.

  • You can do on/off intervals, for instance, you run 1 minute hard and 1 minute easy.
  • You can do a tempo in the middle. For instance, running the middle miles at a moderately hard pace.
  • You can do mile repeats, running one mile hard, one mile easy, and so on.

Progression Long Run

A progression long run is where you run the majority of your long run at an easy pace, and then the last few miles you progressively pick up the pace (about 10 seconds per mile) until you are finishing at a faster pace (about 1 minute faster per mile, or race pace, depending on where you are in your training).

You can also do a fast finish long run where you finish the last mile or so at a moderately harder pace.

Related: The Best Spring Half Marathons & Marathons

Race Pace Long Run

A race pace long run is when you run your goal race pace typically in the middle or end of your long run. For instance, for a peak marathon training workout, you may run 10 miles at an easy pace and then run the last 10 miles at your goal marathon pace.

This teaches your body how to switch gears and run that pace in a fatigued state. It also teaches your mind that YOU CAN DO IT!

Related: 10 Mental Training Tips for Runners from Sports Psychologists

How can I make a long run easier?

15 Tips for Successful Long Runs

1. Slow your pace.

Remember, you got to go easy to go fast! The biggest mistake people make on long runs is going too fast and running out of steam. Don’t make the run harder than it needs to be. Some long runs may have you do a tempo in the middle of a pick-up at the end. If that is the case, then yes, do that but be sure to run EASY the rest of the miles. 

2. Mentally break the run into sections.

If you have a 12 miler, after you do 6, then another 6 is like a weekday run. No big deal!

3. Entertain yourself.

Run with friends, music, podcasts, or audiobooks. (Get more tips on avoiding boredom here)

4. Do just one long run per week.

This avoids mentally and physically over-taxing the body.

5. Take a break.

Scale down your long run by 30 percent every 4 weeks (also known as a down or cutback week) to absorb your training.

6. Take walk breaks as needed.

The goal is “time on feet” so walk breaks save your muscles and tendons from over-use but don’t impede the physiological adaptations.

Focus on eating within 30 minutes of finishing your run and then another meal about 2 hours after that.
Focus on eating within 30 minutes of finishing your run and then another meal about 2 hours after that.

7. Focus on fueling!

Eat a carb-dense meal about an hour before. Take a gel about every 30 with water. Studies show this helps you run longer and faster.

Eat a carb and protein-dense snack within 30 minutes of completing your run. Then eat another meal full of carbs, proteins, and healthy fats about 90 minutes after that. This is key to recovery.

8. Hydrate!

Focus on hydrating starting the day before your long run. Drink water or electrolytes before and after your runs. Aim to get your weight back to pre-run weight when hydrating. Drink to thirst during your runs. 

9. Lube up. 

Avoid chaffing by using vaseline or an anti-chaffing stick on areas such as under your arms, your inner thighs, your waist- and sport bra bands. This is crucial in warmer months.

10. Increase gradually.

Only increase a long run by 1-2 miles per week.

Pin these 15 tips to rock your long run for later.

11. Take it easy. 

With the exception of ultramarathon training, the next day should be focused on recovery. Light foam rolling, stretching, and walking should be the only thing related to exercise you should be doing!

12. Plan ahead.

Tell the family what time you plan on going and about how long you will be. This helps avoid meltdowns from kids when they wake up and mommy isn’t home.

13. Be prepared for pick-up.

Also, be prepared for the house to be a wreck when you get home because your partner or sitter was focused on entertaining the kids. It’s also not uncommon for me to come home to them all sitting around eating donuts! Your run time can be a wonderful bonding time for them!

14. Recover!

Let your family know that it is important you get some time to eat, foam roll, and take a shower when you walk in the door. Try to resist going right back into mom-mode when you walk in the door. Take a couple of minutes to rehab.

(And remember, if you are truly running easy, you should not be completely gassed from your long run.) 

15. Be patient.

It typically takes about a month for the physiological adaptations to be made. Your fitness will come! 

Go long, mother runners! 

PS-I’d love to help you reach your running goals whether it be to run your first 5k or run competitively! Email me at [email protected] with questions or check out my Coaching Services page!

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