Every Sunday, millions of runners pound the miles in order to build endurance for their next marathon or ultra challenge, but what's the real benefits of the long run session?
We discussed the 3 key benefits last week:
1. Mental adaptation
This is a simple topic to explain. If you never run for more than 1 hour in training, then 3 hours on your feet just feels like a really long time. Fatigue is linked to your mood and your perception of how tired you are and essentially, you will decide when to walk. If you’re not accustomed to running for long periods of time, then during a marathon race you may well hit the point where you feel that ‘you’ve just had enough’. This negative mood will impact upon your running performance and you will choose to slow down or walk.
2. Resistance to impact damage
The term D.O.M.S. is used frequently within the world of endurance, it represents the ‘Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness’. The name refers to the fact that sometimes you don’t actually feel the effects of a training session or race until the following day when you step out of bed. Those who have ran a marathon will understand the sensation. You cross the line and undoubtedly you’re tired but there isn’t a great deal of physical pain. However, the next morning, or perhaps even the morning after that, your attempts to walk downstairs backwards provide the family with the highest level of entertainment they have experienced in their lifetime.
The inflammation process During a marathon running event the muscle tissue is damaged due to repeated stress and this triggers the inflammation process. The damage occurs ‘during’ the marathon but the inflammation process takes 24-48 hours to reach its peak, so the pain you feel the following morning was actually happening ‘real time’ during the second half of the race. An important note to make here is that when people slow down in the final 6 miles of the marathon, we generally assume it is caused by low carbohydrate stores, often termed ‘hitting the wall’. However, there is likely to be a significant amount of muscle tissue damage by this stage in the race which will undoubtedly have an impact upon performance. Due to the D.O.M.S. effect, we rarely discuss the significance of tissue damage during the event. It’s important to recognise that the pain you experience 24-48 hours after the race is caused by damage which is happening ‘real time’ in the second half of the marathon.
3. Metabolic Efficiency
We’ve already mentioned ‘hitting the wall’ as a consequence of low carbohydrate stores, but it is important to appreciate the impact of tissue damage as a ‘main contributor’ to fatigue during long runs. We often blame low carbohydrate stores, but there’s plenty of research to show that even after a marathon, carbohydrate stores are not as low as you’d suspect. There is however, a great deal of reliance upon carbohydrate for long distance races and running low on carbohydrate will impact upon performance. There are 2 ways to tackle this problem:
1.Keep topping up carbohydrate with gels, drinks and similar products
2. Learn to use less carbohydrate so the stores you have last much longer
Learn to love the fat Your body has a huge amount of calories / energy stored as fat and if you were able to ‘tap into it’, you would never have to worry about using a gel, energy drink or jelly baby ever again! A small runner weighing 65kg with a very lean body fat of 10% has nearly 60,000 calories of fat stored in their body. Consider that during a marathon, you’re likely to use only 3 - 4,000. Training at lower intensities such as long easy running uses greater amount of fat than training at higher intensities, such as interval training.
As we discussed last week, it's important to slow down during your long runs. Running at a a slower pace means that you can run for a longer period of time, it also means that you will utilise more fat due to the lower intensity. Running harder might feel as though it's of greater benefit, but you'll run for less time, use more carbohydrate and you probably won't be able to train properly for the next few days as you feel broken! The purpose of slowing down is that it allows you to run for longer, so make sure that you take the opportunity to increase your time and mileage. If you currently run hard for 90 minutes and make the change to a slower speed, you should be capable of running for 1:45 - 2:00hrs. Many people who train for marathon and ultra distances often struggle to get further than 15-16 miles in training. This is the most common reason why they struggle, the pace is too high and they have no basic foundation of 'time on feet'. They are in effect trying to run before they can walk (or run slowly).
How far and how soon?
The distance of your long run will depend upon you and your objective. If you're training for 10k then a long run of 10 miles means that you're running 4 miles further than race distance. If you're training for half marathon, a run of 17 miles means you are running 4 miles further than race distance. That is one of the key benefits of the long run, you are going further than race distance, to gain extra endurance for the race day itself.
This strategy starts to falter when you're training for the marathon. The recommended distance of your long run will tend to be somewhere between 18-22 miles maximum, and you should reach this figure 3-4 weeks prior to the marathon before tapering. This means that you may be running 8 miles less than the actual race distance and by all accounts, this could be considered as insufficient preparation.
Here's the thing. Doing a long run should be beneficial for your preparation, it should stress your body the correct amount to gain the physiological and psychological benefits we mentioned earlier. The long run should not be so far and so damaging that it becomes detrimental to your preparation. If you're training for 10k and half marathon, it's feasible to run further than race distance in training, but if you're training for marathon, that rule doesn't apply.
So if I don't run further than race distance, then how can I be fully ready?
Well... here's the thing, perhaps you can't and that's something we need to accept. If you train up to 20 miles in preparation for a marathon, you have to accept that it's only another 6 miles to the finish and you are going to have to dig deep and suffer to the finish. That's ok on race day, as you can then take 2 weeks off and enjoy your recovery. However, during your preparation, it's not ok to run so far and so hard that you need to take 2 weeks off. That would completely disrupt your training plan. The same would apply to Ironman triathlon and ultra running. You can't complete a full Ironman triathlon as part of a training day or a 100 mile run over a training weekend, it would leave you broken. Training will prepare you to tackle the challenge, but it will never FULLY prepare you. There's always going to be a bit of extra and a bit of unknown on the day of the event, but surely that's why you've entered?
If you'd like more help with your training, we offer coaching support and sports science testing for as little as £40 per month, email email@example.com for more information.