Why the Long Run (or Walk)? Or a distance athlete walks into a bar…

For as long as I have been a distance athlete, I’ve done a long run once a week. My first long runs were six grueling miles on the country roads of Bloomington, Indiana as a high school cross country athlete. Nowadays, I can log up to 30 miles during a long run if I’m training for an ultra event. And although it’s practically a distance running cliche, I believe the long run is the most important run of the week.

What is a long run? Why is it so important? What’s going on under the hood, so to speak? And what is up with this bar and where is the bartender? I will try to shed some light on the former three questions, but you’re on your own with the last one. What exactly is a long run and what you are getting out of it?

Author’s note: While I am using the term “long run” throughout this post, please note that the same training guidelines and physiological concepts apply if you are a distance walker and not a runner! Get after it!

What is a “long run”?

The short answer: it’s the longest run of the week. Shocking, I know. The distance and duration will vary depending on the race you’re training for. If you are training for a half marathon, your long run will be less than someone’s who is training for a marathon. In order to facilitate the necessary physiological changes for performing well at longer distances (i.e. full- and half-marathons), the total time of a long run should be more than 90-105 minutes regardless of pace.

Why are “long runs” important? And what’s going on under the hood?

  • Energy Efficiency: Running long distances improves your body’s ability to store glycogen (energy in the form of stored carbohydrates), handle glycogen depletion (when your body starts to run low on fuel), manage muscle fatigue, and use fat in conjunction with glycogen as energy.
  • Muscle Adaptation: During your long run, the cells that make up your muscles increase in size by adding more fibers (the parts that contract) and mitochondria (the parts of the cells that use oxygen to generate energy). There is also an increase in enzymes–which ultimately increases the rate at which delivered oxygen can be used to create energy. And finally, more capillaries become active within exercising muscles, delivering oxygen to and removing waste from them more efficiently.
  • Running Economy: Simply put, running long increases your body’s ability to utilize oxygen more efficiently.
  • Aerobic Capacity: Most runners, especially new runners, are greatly held back by their lack of aerobic capacity (a measure of efficiency, as described above). The biggest gains you can make in overall performance come with increasing aerobic capacity, and running long is one of the best ways to do that.
  • Mental Toughness: News Flash — When running long distances, there is likely some amount of discomfort that you have to manage. If this hasn’t been your experience, I would suggest maybe running farther or faster. Anyway, the more you run long the better you will be at handling the discomfort–emotionally and physically.
  • Specificity of Training: This means that the system you stress is the system that improves. So basically, if you are training for a long distance race, you are going to get the most benefit from running long distances. Micheal Jordan didn’t become a great basketball player by riding a bike!

Final Thoughts and A Word of Warning

So now that I’ve unlocked all the mysteries behind the long run (or walk), you’re ready to get out there and go for as long as you can the next chance you get, right? Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work like that. To minimize your risk of injury, you need to build up your long run over time and in a responsible manner. That means that if the longest you’ve ever run is 6 miles, it’s probably not a good idea to go out for 16 miles tomorrow. A good training program (especially for newer runners) will increase your long run duration over the course of a training cycle (e.g. 12-16 weeks for a half- or full-marathon) and typically have 1 recovery week per month where the distance of your long run is decreased.

I hope that this information has helped you better understand why it is beneficial to incorporate a long run or walk into your training and what you are getting out of it. If you think I got something wrong or left something out, be sure to let me know in the comments. Also, if you liked this blog post, next time you see me out in the real world shout “Mitochondria!” so I know you read the whole thing!

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