Whether you’re a newbie 5K runner or a hardcore marathoner, the long run is essential to any successful training program. It’s foundational and a reliable training tool to help you reach your running goals.
Long runs help build stamina, speed, and mental toughness—the building blocks for efficient training.
But knowing how to do the long runs right (and safe) can often confuse any runner.
So, what is a long run? How long should it be? How to schedule it?
Keep on reading to discover the answers.
Long Runs Explained
As the name implies, a long run is a prolonged effort run with the main purpose of increasing endurance and stamina.
These 60 to 120 minutes (even more) runs are all about running at an easy pace— one that’s slow enough that you could carry on a conversation without huffing and puffing.
What defines the long run varies from one runner to the next, depending on fitness experience, training goals, motivation, and racing aspirations (if you have any).
That’s why these sessions may mean different things for different runners. For beginners, a long run might be a 7-miler. For the more experienced, it might be a 16-miler, or longer.
Once you get fitter, the meaning of “slow” will change. You’ll actually be able to finish your long runs faster and stronger than you did when you just started off.
Long Runs Benefits
Long runs have a lot to offer. Sure, some of the benefits still apply for other runs, but they’re more evident the longer time you spend on your feet.
Let’s look at some of the benefits of long runs.
Running for extended periods increases the strength of the primary running muscles (glutes, quads, and calves), and connective tissues, as well as those of the respiratory system—including your diaphragm and core muscles.
Unlike intense running—such as fartleks and speedwork—long runs at a slow pace don’t put too much pressure on your bones.
Even though bones are sill prone to overuse injury from high impact, adding more mileage in a gradual and a slow manner stimulates them to make more tissue, thus becoming denser and stronger.
So, don’t be surprised if you aren’t getting injured as often as before. Additional fact, study shows that in runners, the weight-bearing bones of the spine, pelvis, and legs tend to be stronger than the bones of sedentary people.
One of the major benefits of running long and easy is the development of capillaries, which are the smallest of the body’s blood vessels and are vital for delivering oxygen and nutrients to the muscle tissue.
The more capillaries you have surrounding your muscles fibers, the more efficient you can send energy to your working muscles.
Mitochondria are microscopic organelles that use oxygen to transform carbs and fat into energy, which contributes to Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) production.
That’s why the greater number of mitochondria you have, the more powerful your engine.
According to research by Holloszy and Dudley, the greatest mitochondrial development takes place at about 2 hours of running at 50 to 75 percent of VO2max.
Improved Aerobic System
Long runs train the aerobic system, and strengthen the heart. The more time you spend on your feet, the stronger and powerful your cardiovascular system gets.
The long run is the ideal opportunity to spend lots of (quality) time honing the different aspects of proper running technique. This helps make your running more efficient, improving your speed and reducing injury risk.
Long Runs Tips
To start (and keep) a long run routine, use these four vital principles to guide you throughout training:
- Your distance
- Your pace
- Your recovery
- Your nutrition
Let’s dissect each one.
Your Long Run Distance
Long runs aren’t created equal. Distance varies from one runner to the next. As I explained earlier, one runner’s long run is another’s recovery workout.
Here are the main factors that determine how far you should go:
- Fitness level,
- Training goals (What are you aiming to achieve)
- The type of race you’re training for, (the date of the event)
- Your inclination to sacrifice a big chunk of your precious time for running.
The General Rule
Most experts recommend that about 20 to 30 percent of your weekly training volume to be devoted to the long run.
For instance, a recreational runner covering less than 30 miles per week might do a 10-mile long run (30 percent of weekly mileage) whereas an elite athlete logging 80 miles may clock at 16 miles (20 percent of weekly volume).
Here are more recommendations for long run distance based on target distance goal.
- Mile or 1500m = 4- to 10-miler long run
- 5K = 9- to 15-miler long run
- 10K = 11- to 17-miler long run
- Half Marathon = 14- to 20-miler long run
- Marathon = 17- to 22-miler long run
Your First Session
Your first long run session is the longest distance you ran within the last two weeks, even if it was just a 5-miler.
Have a starting point? Great! This is how you build it up:
While keeping a comfortable pace, plan your long running route so you could run one extra mile—or roughly 10 minutes—further from one week to the next.
Make sure to never exceed the upper range as doing more than your body can handle increases the risks of injury and burnouts.
Whatever you do, don’t give up. Time flies by, and before you know, you’ll be covering 10, 12, 16, even 18 miles every weekend.
Leave your other runs and cross-training workouts at the same intensity and distance. Do not try to change many variables at once—that’s how you get injured and/or burned out.
Your Long Run Pace
The cardinal rule of long-distance running is to go slow and steady.
More specifically, long runs should be performed at roughly one minute slower than your marathon race pace, or around 90 to 120 seconds per mile slower than your current 10K pace.
Also, keep your heart rate within roughly 65 to 75 percent of your maximum. Whatever you do, do not exceed the fast end of that range as doing so increases the risks of injury, excessive fatigue, and overtraining.
In case you don’t have a current 10K or marathon pace time or are not using a heart rate monitor, then run at a conversational pace, or around 5 out of 10 on the perceived exertion scale.
This is a pace at which you can easily chat, or recite the pledge of allegiance, whiteout gasping for breath. If you can hear yourself panting for air, you’re going too fast.
As I mentioned before, once you get fitter, you’ll want to make your long run pace more challenging. Here are two options.
The Negative Split
Doing negative splits, which is running the second half of a long run a bit faster than the first, is a great way to push the pace without running your body into the ground.
Here is how:
Run the first half at a conversational and controlled pace. Then, once you reach the middle point, gradually pick up your pace and finish it off a bit faster.
For example, if you’re planning to run a 16-miler, run the first 8 miles at an easy and controlled pace, then at the 8th-mile mark, start to gradually pick up the pace and run the last 8 miles at, at least, 10 to 20 seconds per mile faster. Make sure you pick a suitable pace you can maintain until the end.
The Marathon Pace Long Run
When training for a long distance event, try to not run your long runs at your goal race—or else, you’re flirting with disaster. If you put too much stress on your body then your risk extreme fatigue—for the short term—and injury, and/or a painful burnout—over the long haul.
For the ideal pace, shoot for one minute to 90 seconds slower per mile than your marathon pace goal.
You can also do a negative split during your marathon pace long runs. For example, for an 18-mile long run. Run the first 9 miles of your long run at an easy pace, then steadily speed it up to goal marathon pace over the last 9 miles.
Your Long Run Recovery
Long runs will take a toll on your body. That’s why recovery is as important as the training itself.
When you recover properly, you will bounce back quicker after hard workouts and run with fewer injuries.
Here are four things you need to do to ensure maximum recovery after a long run.
Immediately after finishing a long run, drink plenty of water to meet your fluid needs. Electrolyte water can be an option, but never the main. Energy drinks or supplements are shun.
Have a recovery day—or a couple of days—after your long run. Don’t want to take a day off? Try cross-training—doing preferably low impact activities with minimum stress on the body.
Stretch Your Running Muscles
Although the science on the effectiveness of stretching for injury prevention and recovery is still inconclusive, I still believe in its importance. This is especially the case during the post-run window when your muscles are warm and ready for a stretch.
Focus on major muscle groups—especially the muscles you use the most during your runs—and breathe into any tightness so you can release it. Stretching also good to avoid cramps.
Ideal Running Program for Maximum Recovery
Here is how a typical running schedule may look like
- Monday: Interval run
- Tuesday: Rest day or recovery
- Wednesday: Fartlek run
- Thursday: Hill run
- Friday: Easy day
- Saturday: Long run
- Sunday: Rest
Overall, this is just an example. You can always come up with your own training schedule. In fact, I urge you to do so.
Note – Here’s how often should you run per week.
Your Long Run Nutrition
Long runs can take a toll on your energy stores. Therefore, you should pay attention to your daily calorie intake, especially during your long run training days.
Two hours before a long run, eat a small meal that consists of .5 to 1 gram of carbs for every pound of bodyweight.
For example, if you’re a 180-pound, you should at least aim for 90 to 160 grams of carbs, that’s the equivalent of 400 to 600 calories.
Eat & Drink On the Run
During long runs, you run the risk of depleting your energy stores, especially when you start running for more than 60 to 90 minutes. This is why it’s important to take in calories during your long runs in the form of dried fruits, chews, gels, or powder you can add to water.
Don’t worry. It’s not rocket science. The secret lies in fueling early and doing it consistently. Start refueling 45 minutes in, and every 20 minutes during your long run.
By fueling early, you’ll be less likely to exhaust your stores, reducing the risks of hitting the wall, which can be really hard to bounce back from.
Dehydration will kill your performance without any doubt.
Here is my full guide to eating on the long run.
Eat as soon as possible after completing a long run. Consume carbs and protein within 10 to 30 minutes after finishing your session to replenish your glycogen stores and provide your body with the necessary building blocks for recovery.
Then an hour to two hours after the workout, eat a regular meal.
Eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, lean protein, and healthy fats, olive, seeds, nuts, or avocado.
No junk food is allowed. There’s a reason why they called junk. Prioritize eating for recovery during the hours after a long run.
The key is To Experiment
Keep experimenting with different foods and drinks until you find what works best for you. You’re going to need to keep well hydrated, and likely eat something to sustain your glycogen stores.
The long run might be the most important piece of your training program, and all other significant sessions have to be planned around the timing of this vital piece.
But this does not mean by any stretch of the imagination that long runs should be the ONLY focus of your training program. Even the marathoners not only trained with long haul. So why should you?
A proper running training program should cover all necessary elements, such as speed work, tempo runs, a sensible diet, etc. No matter how hard you train but no balanced diet, it’s a waste.
And keep in mind that maintaining a consistent running routine throughout the week will provide more significant endurance and fitness gains than a big long run with several days off on whichever side of it.