The Anatomy of a Long Run

Dear Runners,

This is an exciting time in the training program.  Everyone has some training under their belts but there is still more to go.  If you remember our first week’s note, each part of the training program has a specific purpose.  Early on, the program focuses on basebuilding.  Then it moves to speedwork and more strengthening (hills) while continuing to add the miles.  We are getting to the point where we start to turn our attention to the races and next week’s note will talk about that.  The race phase allows us to continue to train our bodies for both speed and endurance while also getting some benchmarks for our current levels of performance.  For this current race phase we are still focused on basebuilding and are largely doing that through the long runs.  The weeks when we are not racing – as I’m sure you have noticed – the runs are getting a lot longer. 

As our basebuilding continues much of our attention turns to increasing the length of our long run.  As these distances increase there are several things you should know to help you and your body get the most benefit from the long run. 

Purpose of the Long Run

The long run (Long Slow Distance – LSD) has many purposes and is probably one of the most important components of the training program.  These runs acclimate your body to longer distances by building your endurance.  However, they also help you prepare for race day by allowing you to practice techniques such as what and when to eat, how to dress, and how to recover from the run.  Finally, they help you mentally prepare for the needs your body has when you do a long run. 

Just think if you are running 5 miles then you are gone for less than an hour (assuming 9:30 minutes/mile).  However that same runner doing a 12 mile training run will be gone for almost 2 hours.  This distance introduces new issues such as going to the bathroom, blisters, hydration, and more. 

Progressive Overload and Recovery

First, let’s go back to the basics.  As you know, the primary factor of training is progressively overloading the body (taking it beyond its current limits) and then letting it recover.  The long runs start with a fairly low mileage and then increase that mileage weekly until you are up to a distance that is very close to what you will cover in the race.  For this program we will get to a long run of about 12 miles for the half marathon group. 

It doesn’t matter if you are running or walking these distances.  If you do not normally cover this type of mileage in a single run then you are overloading your body.  This is a good thing because endurance is one of the most adaptable abilities of your body.  In fact, you can increase the endurance of your body by 10,000%.  Yes, that is the real number. 

So your body will adapt to the longer distances.  To help manage the stresses on your body the long runs need to be done at about 70% to 80% of your race pace.  Since most runners have trouble holding back to this pace you need to try to run at least 45 seconds to a minute slower per mile.  Right now it is a lot more important to cover the distance than to worry about the time.    So go slow…

Prepping for the Long Run

Many people think that the long run starts with prepping the night before but it actually starts earlier in the week as you have to rearrange your Friday night to accommodate a unique diet (carb heavy) and an early bedtime.  While these factors are not as important at 7 miles they become very important at 9, 10 or 11 miles.  Since one of the best mechanisms for preparedness and recovery is sleep, it is important to try to stay rested throughout your training but most importantly on Friday night before your long run.  Also, you need to be eating a more carb intensive dinner on Friday night.  This does not mean that you have to eat a 2,000 calories spaghetti dinner, but you do need a meal that consists of lean protein, a larger serving of carbs (pasta, potatoes, rice) and ideally some vegetables.  If you remember our earlier note on the energy systems , carbs are the fuel for the muscles. 

The Morning of the Long Run

Recently we talked about when to eat before a run and this is the perfect time to put that information into action.  When you are running, say 10 miles, it does funky things to your digestive system.  You need to use this time in your training to learn what foods your body will handle well and how long before the run you need to eat.  A general rule for eating before a long run or a morning race is to eat and drink 1 to 2 hours before the event.  Make sure you drink at least an hour before the run so your body can discharge the excess liquid before you head out. 

Special Considerations during the Long Run

As I mentioned above there are a lot of things that can happen when you are running for 2 or more hours.  Bathroom stops, getting thirsty, blisters, and more are all some of the things you need to be mindful of.  Part of why we do these long runs is to learn what our body will and won’t tolerate.  Some simple tips include, dressing lighter to accommodate the change in temperature during the run, dressing in layers so you can easily add or remove layers to adjust your temperature, double knotting your shoelaces so they don’t come untied.  You also need to be sure all of your clothing (including socks) is made of a moisture wicking fabric that will pull the sweat away from your skin.  Wet fabric is a sure way to get blisters.

As we get into runs lasting 9 or more miles it is also a good idea to carry a water bottle with you (or plan water stops on your route) and also some GU’s.  Obviously, a lot of these tips are weather dependent.  Dressing in layers is important in winter and water bottles are more important in the summer.  If you remember all of the tips, you can apply them as the weather changes. 

Just for the Guys

One unique problem for guys and long runs is nipple chafe.  This is where your shirt rides up and down as part of your natural stride and rubs the skin off your nipples.  As you can imagine this is a rather uncomfortable experience that begins to show up at 7 or more miles.  Some shirt materials are rougher or smoother and that is a big factor too.  To prevent this chafe you can put bandages over your nipples or use Body Glide or Two Toms (available at the store).  These things will prevent the friction and the bleeding.   Most every runner guy who has done a ½ has had experience with this issue.  And once is enough to convince you never to do it again. 

Recovery from a Long Run

There are a few different things to know about recovery from the long runs that do vary somewhat based on distance and time.

For long runs lasting up to an hour – These runs are encountered at the beginning of the training program. After these runs, you need to focus on rehydrating typically using water.  At less than an hour of activity the electrolyte loss is typically manageable with food so water should be your primary focus for hydration.  You also need to re-fuel with a carb-centric snack such as a bagel with PB, yogurt, etc.  You want to consume about 200 calories for every hour that you ran. 

For long runs over one hour – for these runs you need to replace the liquids, the electrolytes and the energy reserves.  Here a sports drink is a good choice for the liquid and electrolytes.  Nuun, Gatorade, etc will all give you the electrolytes your body needs. You also need to re-fuel with about 200 calories per hour exercised.  So a recovery drink with carbs is a good choice.  A lot of advertising really push the need for protein with recovery.  Protein is needed to repair your muscles but those muscles need carbs to re-fuel.  The combination of carbs and protein is good but make sure your drink or your meal has carbs.  By the way, chocolate milk is a great post run recovery drink.  Carbs, protein, simple sugars, it really is a good choice and cheaper than any packaged product.    Also, a good ratio to remember is 2 carbs to 1 protein.  So if you are having drink with 8 grams protein you should also be getting about 16 grams or carbs for fuel. 

Progressive Overload and Recovery – Part 2

The second part of a progressive overload and recovery – that is often neglected – is the recovery.  When the body is not allowed time to recover it can (and often does) result in injuries. 

The two hardest things you can do to the body are the long run and speedwork.  And during this time of training we are typically doing both in the same week.  To allow the body to recover you need to take the day following your long run as a rest day.  This means really rest – no running.  Also, get a full night’s sleep that night to allow your body time to repair. 

This is a fun time of the training as we start to approach the races so let me know if you have any questions. 

This week’s video is title “It’s your choice to be great”.  Pretty damn true.  Enjoy the video and continue to be great!

Run well…


Shawn Herbig is an RRCA Certified Running Coach.  In his day job he owns a market research and data analytics firm called IQS Research. 

© 2013 Shawn Herbig