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Weaving the threads: The long run

  • Ultra Marathon
  • Half Marathon
  • Training

When you reduce it down to its purest and most logical definition, training is really nothing more than a systematic method of lifting your “physical ceiling”.  When you line up on the start line on April 7, the name of the game will be “body management” – you’re tackling either 21km or 56km, and you can conquer the distance comfortably if you manage your physiology below your own ‘ceiling’. 

For example, 6 min/km might be manageable for you, but 5:50/km may be too fast – your “threshold” lies between those values, and your ceiling is at 5:50/km.  For elite athletes, the margin for error is absolutely tiny – literally 1 second per kilometer is the difference between blowing up and running a world record – whereas for most of us, we have a larger range, but the same principle applies:  too fast for the distance means that at some point, above your threshold, your body will throw up the white flag! 

So the speeds you run, and the distances for which you can sustain them, are the key factors that you a) need to understand, and b) need to improve through training. What you’re doing between now and race day (53 days) is raising self-awareness and training to improve those thresholds.

Now, a training programme needs to resemble a rope, made up of many smaller, interwoven threads.  The more threads you have, and the stronger each is, the heavier the weight your rope can lift, if you follow my analogy.  There are numerous threads that we can (and will, in coming weeks) talk about – the long run, recovery sessions, rest days, speed work, hill work, flexibility, strength, core stability, mental abilities (psychology), nutrition, equipment and technique.  Today we’ll focus on the long run.

The non-negotiable

Given that most of us are not professional athletes, we have to plan our training around our lives (and not vice-versa), and the result is that we often compromise training, doing what we CAN rather than what we WANT to or SHOULD do.  In this scenario, the long run, that session that we usually do on a weekend when we have the time available, takes on crucial importance.  It’s perhaps the non-negotiable element of training.  Given an athlete who is really short of time, I’d base the entire programme around that weekend long run, with two or three shorter sessions in the week to establish consistency (see last week’s article).  But it’s the long run that ‘anchors’ the training.

Physiologically, endurance training with long sessions improves cardiovascular function, the body’s capacity to burn fat as a fuel source (rather than carbohydrates), and it loads the muscle and skeletal system to prepare it for the loads expected on race day.  It also serves a significant psychological role by preparing your mind for the long effort.

How long?

Your longest run, as mentioned previously, needs to be at least in the range of 80% of the goal distance – a marathon for a 56km runner, or a 2-hour run for an aspirant 2:30 half-marathoner, for example.  The more lofty your goal, however, the longer this may go, and so those who are shooting for silver medals in the half-marathon will need a longer run than 21km before race day.  Knowing this, what you need to do now is work backwards and figure out how long you need to be running now.  

For example, if the target is to do a 2-hour run on March 24th (two weeks before the race), then you have six weekends before that.  So if you’re running 80 minutes now, then a five to ten minute increase per week gets you there.  If you’re doing much less right now, then obviously you have to ramp it up faster – a 10 to 15 min increase per week, which means more injury risk, so you have to find the balance.  Rather go into the race underdone and healthy than overtrained, injured but having forced your long run! (if your target is a marathon to qualify, then time is unfortunately not on your side.  But once qualified the same principle applies).

Once you hit that peak a few weeks before the race, you’ll then reduce volume.  This is because those long runs take a considerable physical toll, and what you want to avoid is fatiguing yourself in the final two weeks before the race by going out and pushing yourself to almost race durations or distances.  There is always a balance between training load and recovery, and when you spend say 2 hours (for the 21km runners) or 4 to 5 hours on your feet, it does take time to recover.  This is why, in all the training programmes you’ll see, the long run peaks two to three weeks before the race, and then you do what’s called a taper, where you bring the volume down to allow that full recovery for the race.

Pace management – don’t run the race in training

The really crucial thing about the long run, however, is the pace at which it is done.  The most common mistake that I see is that the long run is viewed as a “dress-rehearsal” for the race, and so what runners, particularly novices do, is hit these training days as though they are the race.  The result is forcing yourself to do too much, too soon.  The idea is NOT to run the race five times in training before race day!  But this happens – the session, for example, may be a two hour easy session, but it’s done at race pace and you end up covering almost 21km in training.  Next week, the same happens, maybe you do even more time.  And the week after, and the week after.  Next thing you know, you’re effectively running your race every week. 

The problem now is that you may also want to weave a little bit of hill work, some gym work, maybe a speed work session or two in, and the body management concept I spoke of earlier is out the window!  You’re well over your threshold, and you end up burned out or injured.

To use another analogy, every session should be viewed as if it is an ingredient in a Masterchef meal (what I know of cooking is dangerous, by the way, so forgive me for any bad analogies here.  I make a mean reservation though!).  The idea is that when that meal comes out of the oven, each ingredient, in the right amounts, adds up to a delicious meal.  But you don’t eat as you cook, you don’t expect each ingredient to be a stand-alone meal. 

And the same should be true of training – the long run is vital, but it’s an element, and that means you must understand it’s purpose (remember back to blog post 1!)  The purpose of the long run is to get time on your feet, and to optimize how your body uses its fuels for energy.  It is NOT there to help you get used to race speeds or to push yourself like you do in a race.  And that means that you can do it SLOWER than race pace.  You should not finish a long run feeling as though you are hanging on for dear life, legs aching, lungs burning, joints tender.  The idea is that if I ask you to do another 30 minutes, you’d have no problem, and could do it with a smile, not a grimace!  It’s a difficult balance, because too easy fails to achieve the desired result, but if there’s one thing you remember from this article, it’s that you should rather err on the slow side – if you are in doubt, slow down on the long run! 

Just get the time in, and save yourself for the other sessions, where you can teach your body to run at your target race pace.  That weekend long run is not the time!

Ross

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