The 3 Long Run Types You Need In Your Schedule
It’s pretty common knowledge that the long run is the most important run of the week if you’re a distance runner. It’s the one run that really gives you the boost to your endurance that you’ll need to be successful on race day.
But I think that most people don’t understand that you need to have different types of long runs.
You can’t just keep doing the same thing week in and week out — running the same pace, gradually getting longer and longer as you get closer to the race. That may prepare you for the distance of the race, but it’s not going to prepare you to race the distance and run your best time.
The main reason why you need to vary your long runs comes down to something called the “stress adaptation curve.” In a nutshell, what it says is that if you give your body a stimulus and then give it time to recover, it’s going to adapt to that stimulus. That’s how you improve and get better.
Key factors are the stress and the recovery time
If we do the same type of long run just getting longer each week, we’re not really mixing up the stimulus much (we are a little bit with the increasing distance), but we’re also not necessarily providing appropriate recovery. Once you get up to really long long runs, 6 days may not truly be enough time for the full adaptation to have taken place.
If you add another stress on top of that, you miss getting the full adaptation from the previous run, AND you increase the amount of recovery time that you need going forward. Keep that up week by week and you can see a pretty vicious cycle starting.
With that as background, let’s look at the three types of long runs you need to include in your training:
TYPE #1: ENDURANCE LONG RUNS
This is probably what you think of when you think of long runs. These are key for improving your endurance and building the aerobic energy systems. The key trait of an “endurance long run” is that it tests the endurance that you’ve built thus far in your training.
Long enough to challenge the endurance you've developed so far
To do that, it’s going to be near (or over) the longest distance that you’ve run to that point in your training cycle.
Because these are so important, you tend to do a lot of them. You can expect to do two or even three of these endurance long runs every 4 weeks during your training.
But you want to make sure that you build up the distance gradually and that you keep the pace fairly relaxed. These are challenging because of the distance (remember it may the farthest you’ve EVER run!) rather than because of the pace.
If you’re going to be doing a half marathon or a marathon, I think it’s helpful to do the majority of these long runs on a course that mimics what you’ll face on race day — elevation, terrain, footing, etc. That way you can be building the endurance that you’ll need on race day as well as building some of the specific physical and mental strength that you’ll need to be successful on race day, too.
TYPE #2: LONG RUN WORKOUTS
Because we don’t want every long run to be the same, there are going to be times where we want to ramp up the intensity a bit. Most often this is going to take the form of long runs that include some segment run at goal marathon pace (see this post for more details).
But you can benefit from increasing the intensity of your long runs occasionally even if you’re not training for a marathon. Adding some speed work component to your long run is a great way to get mental and physical practice of running hard when you’re tired and also helps to train different muscles fibers than when you’re doing speed work fresh.
Speed work elements in your long run are beneficial no matter what distance you're training for
You want to use these efforts sparingly since you’re combining two things that are difficult on their own: speed work and a long run. I would recommend only doing one of these types of long runs once every three to four weeks.
You can find several examples of different workouts you can include here. But a couple of my all-time favorites are:
Fast Finish Long Run:
This is simple, you pick up the pace over the course of the final 10-20 minutes of the run. It’s not an all-out race and there are no set paces, but getting in the habit of finishing the last couple miles hard is a great way to condition yourself mentally to pick things up at the end of a race. This is a long run that should be in rotation for anyone who wants to race well, no matter what distance they’re training for.
3/3 Long Run:
This one is a longer variation on the Fast Finish Long Run. Here you run X number of miles at an easy, relaxed pace, then you run “moderate” for 3 miles and “hard for 3 miles” to finish the run. Forcing yourself to hold a reasonably hard effort for a long period and then still increasing from there is a great mental and physical test. It’s especially good for half marathon and marathon training, but can be used for any distance 5k and up.
TYPE #3: RECOVERY LONG RUN
This one may sound like a bit of an oxymoron and I think that’s why it gets missed for a lot of people.
The truth is that for most adult runners, you don’t need to do a really challenging long run (either one that’s a challenging distance or one that has speed work in it) every single week. You need to include weeks where you back off and let your body recover a bit.
You shouldn't be challenging yourself every week
This is important because it allows your body an opportunity to absorb all the training that you’ve been doing and actually adapt. And it’s important mentally because it gives you the chance to relax a bit, have a little fun, and go out the night before a long run or after a long run and not worry about it. In a 16 or 20 week training cycle, it’s important to have those weeks!
You probably want to include one of these every three to four weeks. How you schedule them can depend on how hard your other long runs are, or you can use them strategically based on what’s going on in the rest of your life. If you know that you’re going to be traveling some weekends or you’re busy with your kids’ soccer games, you can schedule a recovery long run and not feel guilty that you didn’t go long that weekend.
The distance of these will vary depending on how long your endurance long runs are, but it should be a pretty sizable step back. It should still be the longest run of your week, but it can be something that’s just a couple of miles longer than your runs during the week.
If you incorporate all three of these long run types in your training, not only will you find yourself improving your endurance more and getting in better racing shape, I think that you’ll also find that you’re enjoying the training more and feeling less physical and mental strain.
About Coach Carl
Coach Carl is a USA Track & Field Level 2 endurance coach who works with runners of all ability levels to reach their goals. He has been featured in Runner’s World, Women’s Health, Men’s Fitness, and Competitor. For information on his coaching services, click here.