Nail Your Longest Runs: Seven Key Points

longest runs
The longest runs of an endurance programme are probably the most important training sessions, but can also be the most daunting. We discuss seven key points to consider for nailing those high-mile efforts and taming the long-run-beast.

1. Look after yourself before the run

We tend to focus on recovery after long runs, but what you do beforehand is just as important. Your longest runs will feel better and (comparatively) easier if you have looked after yourself before you start. Think about the following:

  • Hydration: Drinking plenty the day before your long run is important. You might choose to avoid alcohol too, as embarking on these efforts with any level of hangover is not very appealing! Alcohol also means you’re more likely to be dehydrated.
  • Nutrition: What will you eat the day before your long run, and the morning of it? Think about food with high nutritional value and good sources of protein. This is also a good opportunity to test out the food you’ll eat before your race.
  • Sleep: Try to get plenty of sleep the night or two before your long run. Late nights won’t help you. Sleep also helps your body to repair the strains you’ve put through it during the shorter runs of the previous few days, leaving you in better shape for starting your long run.
  • Training the day before: It’s helpful to avoid long or intense sessions the day before your long run. Doing these sessions back-to-back is likely just to decrease the quality of the long run and leave you feeling tired and more injury-prone.

Feeling good before you start will help you to feel more positive, and help you to tick off those first few miles more comfortably.

2. Think about your route

Where will you run, and how carefully will you plan out your route? Consider the following…

  • Off road? Personally I try to run off-road as much as I can, and particularly on long runs. It puts much less strain through the body than pounding the pavements. I find it more interesting too. This isn’t necessarily practical for everyone, depending on where you live, but with some creativity you can probably seek out varied terrains.
  • Hills? If you live in a hilly area, you may need to put some thought into where you want the biggest hills to be within your route. You may want to avoid the bigger hills in the second half of the run, unless you’re deliberately looking to challenge yourself.
  • Get a bus? No I’m not joking! I have a couple of friends who always start their long runs with a bus or train ride to the required distance away from home, and then they have to run the distance back.
  • Planned or spontaneous? Some people like a very carefully planned route and others like to explore a little. Do whatever helps you to enjoy the run the most. But don’t get lost, or you could find yourself on a much longer run than expected!
longest runs

Heading off-road can be kinder to your body by reducing the impact, and can be more enjoyable too.

3. How long?

How long should your longest run be? Obviously, the answer varies depending on your race distance as well as on your running experience and goals. But there are also different views about it. Let’s take a look at different distances:

For marathons:
Many coaches and training programmes will suggest peaking at a long run of 20 miles. Some will go up to 22-23 miles for more experienced runners. Very few will go further than 23 miles. This is primarily to avoid unnecessary stress on the body and to reduce injury risk. Longer than this and the physical depletion is likely to weaken your immunity leaving you vulnerable to illness in the following two days, as well as reducing the quality of your training sessions in the proceeding days.

If you can run 18-22 miles, you can be confident you will make the full marathon distance in the race once you benefit from your taper, the adrenaline, and all the crowd support.

For half marathons:
If this is your first time over this distance, training up to 10-12 miles is fine for most people.

If you are more experienced and looking to improve on previous times, going beyond the 13.1 miles will be very helpful, anything up to a maximum of 15-16 miles. Going further than this will start to become less beneficial as you’ll reduce the race-specific adaptations and just deplete yourself for other training sessions during the week which could make more of a difference to your race, such as tempo runs.

For ultras:
Most ultra-runners seem to peak at 25-30 miles whatever their race distance. Going much further in one session is very tough. Ultra-runners often train using back-to-back long runs on consecutive days instead of attempting to increase the distance in a single run.

Generally:
A few rules of thumb to help you decide how far to go…

  • Injury niggles: What shape are you in? Have you been nursing an injury niggle? If so, you may want to cut back the longest run a little to avoid over-stressing the injury. The last few miles of the race itself may feel harder as a result, but at least you’ll get to the start line.
  • Your goal for your race: Are you aiming for “get me round” training – in other words is your main objective simply to finish? Or are you aiming to improve on previous races of this distance and run the fastest time you can manage? If so, you may want to push on a little further with more miles to increase your endurance and confidence.
  • Your level of experience: More seasoned runners are more likely to be able to tolerate longer training runs because of their endurance base and running economy.
  • Your pace: “Time on feet” is an important part of training. For marathon training, if you are pushing over four-and-a-half hours as a training run, this can start to become very draining, and at this point it’s helpful to focus on time rather than distance, and reduce the length of the run a little. Faster runners should be able to fit in more miles with a bit less of a physical toll.

4. How fast?

At what pace should you run these longest runs? A couple of thoughts…

Mainly steady pace:
For the most part, keeping them at a steady/conversational pace will help you to get through the run as comfortably as possible. Some runners prefer to do these as “long slow runs” (LSR), but doing them too slowly means you are not running as efficiently as possible and are increasing your time-on-feet unnecessarily. A good approach is to set off at what feels like a slow pace, and then slightly increase to comfortably steady after the first mile, which allows you to raise heart rate gradually. This also helps to simulate how you feel at the beginning of a race – starting pace always feels slow (if you get it right!).

Your pace may not be completely even throughout, and that’s fine. You need to allow for changes in terrain, head winds and hills, all of which will slow you down in pace. You’ll also find that your energy fluctuates through a long run, but don’t worry about this – it’s good to be in tune with your effort level and not to worry about periods of changing pace too much.

Race pace:
If you are looking to improve on a PB, including race pace sections within a long run is a great way to challenge yourself and find those training gains. These are really tough runs, particularly if you have a fast race pace. There are lots of different ways to do these race pace runs, but they can include:

  • Progressive runs: Gradually increase the pace after half-way, up to race pace, finishing with 2 miles faster than race pace.
  • Sections: Include sections at race pace (e.g. 2 x 4 miles at MP in an 18 mile marathon training run)

5. Train your brain

Long runs are important for psychology and confidence as well as for physical training. These are the runs to teach yourself how to develop mental strategies for long endurance efforts and to practise and refine what works best for you.

Sometimes long runs can seem really daunting. Thinking about the full distance can be overwhelming. But this is a great chance to find ways to train your brain to cope with this.

A few tips include:

a) Break it down
Mentally divide the overall distance into 3 or 4 shorter sections, which each seem less intimidating. If you can think of a 16 mile run as two lots of six miles plus a four miler, it seems a bit more manageable.

b) Count in low numbers
Try counting miles/km upwards to half way and then downwards to the end of the run, so you can keep the number in your head in single digits (or as low as possible). It’s less scary than thinking “I’ve still got 18 miles left!” or “I’ve run 16 miles and I’ve still not finished!”

c) Don’t let the negative thoughts in
Be really aware of when you are starting to have negative thoughts. At this point, do your best to refocus and think of something positive. Try to stay in the moment. If you need a distraction, try listening to podcasts, which can be a great way to occupy your brain without the disruption of music which may be a different beat from your movement. (My personal favourite is Marathon Talk.)

d) Find your flow through simple repetition
When you really need to dig in, try counting your foot-strikes. In a tough run, I personally find this really keeps me going and helps me to focus on the moment and on my rhythm with something simple and repetitive rather than letting my mind wander to the anxiety of how I’m going to get through the next few miles. Using repetition of mantras works well for some people too.

See our article Six Mental Strategies for Long Runs for more depth on this.

6. Recover well afterwards

Be proactive about recovering from your longest runs. Putting proper attention into your recovery will help you to deal with the physical impact of the effort and feel ready to continue with your training programme for the next few days. Think about the following:

    • Stretch well after your run: Make sure you loosen off those muscles to prevent them tightening up too much. Careful not to overstretch though, as that can do more damage than good!
    • Keep moving: Rather than sitting on the sofa, spending the rest of the day making sure you move regularly will help you to avoid stiffening up.
    • Eat protein: This is important for repairing damage to muscles and tissues. Recent evidence suggests that you should consume protein within 45 minutes of an intense exercise workout.
longest run

Healthy sources of protein and key nutrients will help your body to repair.

  • Drink plenty: Rehydrate throughout the day, and you may notice you are still thirsty the next day too. Check the colour of your urine – if it’s clear then you are rehydrating well, if yellow or orange you need to drink more.
  • Sleep well: This is vital for recovery, to repair physical damage. You’ll no doubt be noticeably tired the evening after your long run, but make sure you get to bed and give yourself the opportunity to sleep it off.
  • Follow with a rest day or more: Most people need to take at least a day off running afterwards, and some need more. Wait until you feel properly ready to run again. Don’t be too side-tracked by tales of bravado from running mates who threw in a 10k PB the day after a 20 mile training run. Some unusual people can do this, but there are plenty more who can’t, so don’t be tempted to overdo it. Just listen to your body and do what YOU need to do.

7. Reflect and draw confidence

Your longest runs should be a great resource for drawing confidence.

You did it. However much it hurt, you got through it. Even if you found it really tough, draw a positive reflection from this – if you had the resilience to stick out a tough training run, you certainly have the mental and physical ability to get through your race. Training runs are often much harder – you are tired from being in the middle of your training, you are on your own or with a small number of others, you don’t have all the crowds to cheer you on, and you don’t have the adrenaline of race day.

If you feel things didn’t go as you’d wanted, at least you have learned a valuable lesson during a training run. Use this information to learn and work out what you want to improve on. You still have the opportunity to get things right in your race.

Take the time to reflect on the run and to focus on the positives.

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