Training forum: How to get more out of your long run

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Training forum: How to get more out of your long run

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Beacon Hill Striders guru, Alan Maddocks, offers coaches and athletes some ideas to help refresh the approach to three key cornerstones of most running training programmes. In the first of these articles, he looks at the weekly long run

Contemporary training practice for middle and long distance running has its roots firmly set in the 1960s, when the methods of New Zealand’s famed coach Arthur Lydiard were adopted across the globe.

Lydiard’s teachings saw a switch away from a culture of low volume, anaerobic-based training towards a training culture that emphasised a higher volume of lower intensity aerobic training. Central to this culture was the inclusion of a long run in the weekly training schedule.

Traditional view

For most runners, the long run has meant a run well in excess of an hour’s duration, run at a comfortable, conversational pace, and often run off-road.

The benefits of the long run include:

  • Increased endurance (through expanding the network of mitochondrial capillaries within the muscles)
  • Added strength
  • Greater efficiency in terms of using the body’s fuel stores (glycogen and fat).

Little thinking usually goes into the design of the long run. It’s just seen as ‘time on feet’, and a satisfying way of reaching the runner’s weekly mileage goal.

Over time, however, the effectiveness of the long run, done in this fashion, becomes diminished. For experienced runners, it ceases to build new benefits but merely maintains existing capabilities, as important as that may be.

Modern perspectives

Some coaches, however, have taken the next step in developing the benefits of the long run by building in added challenge by increasing the pace of the run.

Foremost amongst these is the Italian master-coach Renato Canova, who has advised a number of the leading Kenyan runners over the past two decades. His athletes have included world record holders, such as Saif Saaeed Shaheen (3000m steeplechase), and Albert Kiri (two-time marathon world champion in 2009 and 2011).

For Canova, the benefits of the long run for experienced runners are enhanced by giving it added significance and running it at a faster pace, not too divorced from the runner’s race pace.

Different approaches

For marathon runners, this might involve – during the marathon preparation phase – doing a 40K (25 miles) run at target marathon pace plus 15-20 seconds per mile. So, a runner targeting a 2:06 marathon would run the near equivalent at around 2:12 to 2:15 pace. For his track athletes, this might involve runs of up to 30K (18 miles) run at paces not far removed from their potential marathon bests.

This approach is clearly radically different from the marathon long run done at marathon pace plus 60-90 seconds per mile that those using the traditional approach might employ.

The faster paced long runs have a far greater degree of (race-pace) specificity, and are considerably more demanding, both physiologically and psychologically. As such, they should be viewed as specific sessions, with adequate recovery
built in before and after.

So, how might you apply this approach to your own training programme?

Below are some ideas that I have used with success, either when I was competing or more recently with adult runners that I currently advise online.

Track and cross country runners

For runners preparing for track and cross country races, two options could be incorporated on an occasional (every 6-8 weeks) basis:

  • For those accustomed to a weekly long run of 90 minutes+, a shorter long run of just over the hour run at a pace close to potential marathon race pace could re-energise the aerobic system
  • Alternatively, instead of a weekly long run, enjoy a ‘long run weekend’ involving back-to-back long runs e.g. an 80-minute run on Saturday followed by a 100-minute run on the Sunday.

Another approach involves turning the long run into a specific workout. This is of particular benefit to those preparing for marathon or half marathon races, who can benefit from combining their general endurance work with specific marathon (or half-marathon) paced training, every 2-3 weeks.

Marathon runners

For runners preparing for the marathon, two options arise:

  • A long run (of 70-80% anticipated marathon duration) could be done in a progressive manner, where the pace is increased gradually throughout, with the final proportion of the running time run at target race pace or marginally quicker
  • Alternatively, a continuous long run (of 2 hours+ duration) could include two segments (of 5-6 miles each), run at the target marathon pace.

For runners preparing for the half marathon, a continuous long run of 90 minutes (or further) could include mid-run:

  • 20-minute segment run at a pace marginally slower than target race pace, followed by a 15 to 20-minute segment run at target race pace, and a final 10-minute segment run at a pace marginally quicker than target race pace.

Health warning

A final caveat before you rush out of the door in your enthusiasm to try any of the above options: the examples given above impose demands and challenges over and beyond those of the traditional long run. Consequently, to derive full benefit from these runs, it is advised that 2-3 days of easier running should both precede and follow any of these long run options.

Alan Maddocks is a former international runner over road and cross country. Alan set up Beacon Hill Striders in 2006 to support his three sons and their friends who took part in local school cross country races. Since then, the group has expanded and evolved, with individual members achieving success at local, regional, national and international or Olympic level.
Image from Alan Maddocks