The Importance of the Long Run©
National Distance Coach - Education
Virtually every middle and long distance runner and triathlete does a weekly long run and those who do not do one do not convert their 400m speed to longer distances as well as those who do.
The greatest benefits come from a run of 1:30 to 2 hours at between 70% and 80% MHR or perceived effort- though marathon runners would need to run for 3 hours or 45 to 50 km (whichever comes first) occasionally and triathletes whose projected ironman pace exceeds 3 hours should occasionally run or run/walk for their projected race time.
The long run can also be viewed as a percentage of the athlete’s weekly volume. Taken this way it will be very individual because it is based on the number of training sessions and total kilometres run.
The shortest period that could be considered a long run is probably an hour. However as any fun runner or jogger can run for 1 hour so its hard to argue an elite middle or long distance runner or a triathlete gets much from a time like that.
Ben Jipcho, Kip Keino and Tony Benson in El Paso, Texas (1974)
On the other hand to run more quickly means a 1-hour run becomes a sub threshold or threshold run and impacts the body quite differently. However without the leg strength to run steadily for 1:30 to 2 hr a threshold run of 1 hour is going to put a lot of pressure on the muscular and skeletal system. I believe that developing athletes, 10,000m runners and marathoners and triathletes should achieve a full long run on 40 to 45 weeks per year. A full long run may be defined as a run that equals 20 to 24% of a middle distance runner’s weekly volume, 18 to 22% of a distance runner’s weekly volume and 24 to 30% of a triathlete’s weekly volume.
A major advantage of developing the capacity to do a long run is that it takes the pressure off achieving the weekly volume. For example a triathlete aiming to achieve 75 km per week (fairly common targets) might target 20 to 25 km. This means he/she only has to run 45 to 50km for the rest of the week. This is an average of 9 to 10k if running 6 days and 11 to 13k if running on 5 days. Anyone running less than 5 days would not be advised to target 75 km.
Some may say it does not matter if the athlete runs a little less per week. They are wrong of course because if the athlete runs less per week then he or she runs less per year. This means they take longer to reach their optimum volumes. For the elite or potentially elite athlete this means their career time at its peak is shorter! For the age grouper it means the advantages of accumulating volume may be offset by accumulating years!!
Others say “make it up at other times in the week”. This puts greater stress on the athlete to add mileage to his or her warm up or cool down or to add extra volume into their recovery runs which then destroys the delicate balance that exists between effort and recovery.
The athlete gets other benefits from long continuous running. These runs improve the ability to use fat as a fuel source and enhance all the following physiological adaptations:
- Capillarisation of the muscle fibres,
- The number of mitochondria in the cells,
- The enzyme activity within the mitochondria,
- Increase myoglobin in the muscle cells as well as
- The muscle’s ability to store glycogen.
The net effect of all this is that more fuel is available to the body and the fuel that is available can be used more effectively.
Endurance running also trains the fast twitch fibres so they have greater aerobic capacity the normal. The counter proposition that long running slows an athlete down is only valid if the athlete’s programme does not contain any work that recruits fast twitch fibres.
The 1960 Olympic 800m Gold Medalist and 1964 800m and 1500m Gold Medalist Peter Snell, for example, ran a marathon in 2 hours 40 minutes only 10 weeks prior to setting his world 800m record of 1:44.3 on a 350m grass track in 1963. More importantly Snell was running with the leaders up to 20 mile (32km) before he decided it might be prudent not to over extend himself.
The endurance of Australia’s Herb Elliott, the 1960 Olympic 1500m Champion was perhaps even more impressive. By 18 years of age he had run the 35 miles from Portsea to Frankston. Later due to the demands of his studies and work he often followed a weekly routine that comprised rest days on Monday and Friday, easy to steady 10 mile runs on Tuesday and Thursday, a very fast 2.5 to 5 mile run on Wednesday and a 60 mile (100 km) weekend at Portsea. The 60 mile weekend was composed of long steady to fast continuous runs, intense 30 metre sandhill repetitions, hard 800m and 1 mile repetitions around sandy trails adjacent to Cerutty’s camp plus weight lifting, swimming in the rugged Portsea surf (Elliott was a very strong open water swimmer and he once had to use his surf swimming ability to rescue his coach!) and, along with all the other athletes in residence, wood cutting whenever Percy needed more firewood!
Today’s best runners continue this combination of speed and endurance. The world leading 5k and 10k runners are probably capable of running 1k is 2:20 or better and are faster at 1500m than both Snell and Elliott ever were. Yet they run 160 to 230k per week at times throughout their preparation period.
Finally long relaxed running (with great stress on the word relaxed!) strengthens all the ligaments, tendons, muscles and bones of the body. This reduces the likely occurrence of muscular and skeletal injury during the harder periods of training.
It is good to remember that many endurance athletes, such as swimmers and cyclists, have great cardiovascular efficiency and strength. It does not help them ran at the same level as they swim or ride despite the fact many use running at various times to increase their stamina because they lack specific running economy- something that can only be developed gradually over years of running.
A final benefit of the “long” long run are a 1:30 to 2:15hr long means a 50 minute threshold, 35 minute aerobic power and 20 min MVO2 workout can be done. This compares with 35 minute LaT, 23 minute AP and 15 minute MVO2 for those doing 1 to 1:30hr and 20 min LaT, 15 minute AP and 10 to 15 minute MVO2 for those running less than a one hour long run.
This paper was originally presented to coaches at the IAAF Development course in Pyongyang, Peoples’ Republic of Korea in 1989.