It’s long been accepted that long runs are imperative for runners training for long races (e.g. marathons or longer). However, long runs can also be an important weekly inclusion for a runner who tackles shorter distances (from mid-distance track races to half marathons). It mostly boils down to the major physiological benefits. A long run helps your heart get stronger, and it helps your respiratory muscles build and make it easier for you to breathe during your race. Additionally, your mitochondria become denser, which translates to better endurance. Moreover, you build your mental endurance, which is incredibly important for races. If you can weather a 12-mile long run, what’s stopping you from rocking a measly 5k?
Aside from the physiological and mental benefits of the long run, there’s also a practical aspect. Let’s take for example a female 5k runner who likes to train 45 miles a week, running 6 days a week. Spread evenly over 6 days, that’s 7 to 8 miles that need to be put in every day. Not only is that hard to fit in on a lunch break, it also causes troubles when incorporating workouts. If that runner wants to do two miles worth of track work, she would feel obligated to add an abnormally long cool down run just to get to the right mileage. Not only are those miles not likely to be much fun, they are also unlikely to be as useful as miles added to a regular training run.
Having a long run that is around 25% of her total mileage (or around 10-13 miles) is a great way to add flexibility to the rest of her running week. She can end the workout cool down when it feels appropriate without worrying as much about the miles. Conversely, she can take an easy 3-mile day if she is feeling tired from a long workout, or wants to get some rest before a hard workout. When should one run a long run? Weekends make the most sense for long runs for two major reasons: 1. Long runs take longer than your typical run, and it’s hard to time this extra time during the workweek; 2. It is important to get rest before a long run, so it makes sense to plan to have long run on a day that you have a bit more control over the hours that you can catch the night before.
It is important to note that the “long run” for the non-marathoners is quite different the usual interpretation of a long run. Long runs for marathon are a horse of a different color. Runs that go beyond 90 minutes require more careful planning. At the very least they require hydration during the run. To counter the complete depletion of glycogen stores that can happen as a result of the run, it’s best to also refuel with some form of calories during the run.
In either case, the best benefit of a long run still applies: You can feel free to eat as much as you want afterwards.
(Photo courtesy of Ariel da Silva Parreira)