The Art and Science of the Long Run
Running with Clint Cherepa –
A weekly long run is more than burning calories and enjoying a few hours on the roads or trails. The weekly long run is a staple of any successful runner and is the name of the game when it comes to ultrarunning.
You run long so you can run longer and stronger. Every long run you complete will add to your overall fitness base, boost your confidence and is a building block to run even further on your next long run.
Ian Sharman is Head Coach at www.sharmanultra.com, which includes coaching runners all over the world via Skype. He’s also a professional ultrarunner for Altra, a two-time winner of the Leadville Trail 100 and holder of the fastest time in a trail 100-miler in North America (12 hours, 44 minutes in the Rocky Raccoon 100).
Ian Sharman cruises a downhill stretch during the 2016 Gorge Waterfalls 50K. Ryan Kaiser photo
Sharman notes, “Even for short-distance runners there are significant benefits to running for more than around 90 minutes. This creates the foundation for many adaptations to running, especially creating more capillaries to transport blood (and therefore oxygen) to the muscles where it’s needed.”
What Exactly Constitutes a “Long Run?”
The length of the long run is relative. For one runner, 5 miles is an eternity, and then for another, 20 miles is what they start calling long. For the sake of unity, we are going to call anything over two hours a long run. In most cases, a runner would call their long run the longest run in their training week.
Stephanie Howe – the winner of the 2014 Western States 100 – has a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and is a coach and sports nutritionist. She says, “I coach lots of different athletes and the long run might be vastly different among individuals training for the same race. It’s important to take into consideration individual differences and design a training plan that will maximize the potential fitness of that individual. There is no one-size-fits-all.”
Howe explained that if she is training for a 50K race, her long run is 18 miles or so. While a longer race means running 24- to 30-mile-long runs. She adds, “I never run longer than 30 miles for a training run. That is a long time to be on your feet. And, I don’t do that every weekend. I would aim for one or two runs that long in a 12-week block leading up to a race. Sometimes my long run is just 75 minutes. To absorb the benefits of a long run, you have to rest and recover.”
Many runners have found that using races as long runs makes training more interesting and enjoyable. The social aspect and the camaraderie of a weekly training group can also help you to not skip the long run.
A Bit of Science
The key to grasping the importance of the long run is understanding what happens during and after the long run. While running hours on end you’re accomplishing various objectives. First of all, you are increasing the size and amount of muscle capillaries and mitochondria, which are responsible for aerobic metabolism and produce energy during exercise. The more mitochondria inside your muscles, the better. Second, you are becoming more efficient at amassing muscle glycogen. Glycogen is the main way the body stores glucose for later use. Since most of the carbohydrate we eat ends up as glucose, it’s important to be able to store some of it to control blood glucose levels and provide glucose to the parts of the body that need it. Next, you are training your body to become more efficient at burning fat, which is an optimal fuel source. And lastly, you are learning how to keep going mentally and physically even once you are heavily fatigued.
Long Runs—The Spice of Running
“Variety is the key to any training regime and the details of all runs, including long runs, become more specific to a target event as it approaches,” said Sharman.
Having your goal race in mind will help you to determine what type of long run you should concentrate on.
The arsenal of the successful runner would not be complete without a handful of truly challenging back-to-back long runs (running long two days in a row.)
Howe incorporates back-to-back long runs in her training, usually on Saturday and Sunday. She says, “you can’t really run 100 miles to prepare for a 100-mile race, so I like to simulate it best I can by running longer (20-30 miles) two days in a row.”
Another option is to use races as your back-to-back foundation. For example, Sharman will do a marathon or a 50-kilometer race the day before or after a 20-mile training run.
“With many of the clients I coach, we incorporate both back-to-back long run weekends or triple days, plus races for two or three weekends in a row, with the effort levels and distances dependent on the individual’s strengths and recovery speed,” says Sharman.
Two-a-Day Long Runs
Take two mid-sized runs and do them in one day and you will find yourself with a long run. Before tackling two-a-days, it is important that you have a deep base of running and are injury-free, because they will take their toll on your body.
It is mentally and physically draining to run a couple hours in the morning, and then go back out eight hours later for another two hours. But it helps you learn how to run fatigued.
Two-a-days can also work well when you can’t find a three- or four-hour block of time to run.
Carbohydrate Depleting Long Runs
Strategically withholding carbohydrates during a long run can benefit your performance. By limiting carbohydrates before and during the run, you increase your fat-burning capacity. Your body will learn to use fuel more efficiently and perform well with low blood sugar. This enables you to run further while taking in less fuel.
A well-suited time to do this is first thing in the morning before you have eaten anything, although you can drink coffee or tea and electrolyte drink.
It is best to do these during a low-intensity run, and slowly build up your time without fuel. Try building up to a two- or three-hour run without fuel.
Ian Sharman crests a mountain in the Western States Endurance Run. Matt Trappe photo
Fast-Finish Long Runs
These are exactly what they sound like. You start out your run at a normal easy pace, increase effort slightly in the middle of the run, and finish off the last 30-90 minutes at faster pace (marathon pace) or a harder rate of perceived effort.
This is a very race-specific form of training and can be very challenging to pull off. You are training your body to perform more efficiently while extremely fatigued. They also prepare you to mentally keep going at a faster pace than seems possible.
When and Where
Most runners schedule in their longest run during the weekend. Sunday has long been held as the sacred long run day worldwide. Why? These are the days when the average runner has time to get away and pound out hours of running.
Where is the best place to get out and run extra-long?
Surely, most of us would agree with Howe, who says, “Trails. I love being alone on the trails, seeing places few people get to see.”
For my use
Ian Sharman by Matt Trappe
Ian Sharman crests a mountain in the Western States Endurance Run.
Ian Sharman Gorge Waterfalls 50k 2016 by Ryan Kaiser
Ian Sharman cruises a downhill stretch during the 2016 Gorge Waterfalls 50K.