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Mastering the Long Run image
(Image © Cait Chock)

It’s early Saturday morning, and you’re staring down at your shoes. The house is quiet and you’ve had coffee, some bread and peanut butter, maybe half a banana. There is a fuel belt or vest sitting by the door with some “food” that sometimes tastes just like the scent of fuel you put in your car.

Gazing at your laces, images of bridges spanning blue waters cross your mind’s eye. Then you are imagining a smooth trail, shaded by ancient oaks and maybe a deer crossing ahead.

This is your long run day, and you are psyching yourself up to open the door and run for a long, long time. For HOURS.

As you step out into the morning, you are reminded of the fact you live in a suburb and there are no long bridges over mystic rivers or creekside trails lush with trees along your route.

But, you’ve made a promise to yourself to count your blessings and to be grateful for the ability to run. Embracing the challenge, off you go.

The benefits of running 16, 18, 20 miles or more in a single day are enormous, with our heart and lungs becoming conditioned to do the work necessary with less effort. Endurance improves; capillaries grow and carry more oxygen to your muscles.

The mental benefits of the long run can be tough to find, but at mile 11 or mile 23 of your race the benefits make themselves clear: you’ve been uncomfortable before, and you lived to tell the tale. As author Matt Fitzgerald points out in How Bad Do You Want It?, strong mental fitness is key to achieving our physical limit. After many weeks of long runs, our mind and body are better prepared to accept the strain of performance needed to meet our goal.

Here are seven ways to make the long run more “user friendly” and even something to look forward to, as well as how to use the long run to physically prepare for the Big Day.

Break it up

Being on your feet for long periods of time may be the biggest mental benefit of the long run. Sure, you are conditioning your heart, lungs and muscles, but the ability to keep going when your brain is telling your body this is completely unnecessary takes practice!

Trick your brain into submission by creating routes that distract from the distance ahead. Breaking up a long run into “parts” makes it seem like a series of shorter runs, much less daunting.

To start my long run, I run about six miles on a long, lightly used parkway near LAX. It is three miles out and back, with the bonus of watching jumbo jets land. Once I’m back to the start I run down to the beach, where I may run north along the coast for a few miles and then turn back to finish up. It seems like two separate runs with the major change of scenery.

If you are not near such disparate locations, try thinking of the long run as a series of shorter runs. Have a 4-mile loop nearby? That 16-mile run is simply four times your 4-mile loop. Completing each 4-mile section is motivating in a way that thinking “8 more miles to go” isn’t.

One sure way to end up dreading the long run is taking the same route week after week. Granted, it can be tough to find a convenient and safe place to run 20 miles, and knowing the course can alleviate the stress of having to figure out new routes. One solution for a long loop is to try going only halfway out, then return to the start and go halfway in the other direction and back. Yes, you’re covering the same ground, but a different perspective can be beneficial by getting your brain off auto-pilot and can help with more mindful running.

The one-way run

I have found no greater way to make my long run more enjoyable than knowing I don’t have to run back home. Running in one direction, for some reason, feels freeing and almost like I am cheating. Since I don’t want to ask my guy to drive 20 miles to pick me up, I run 4-6 miles near home first.  When I stop at my SUV “refueling station” parked at home, I text him with the time I’ll be at our pickup spot. I do that because I may feel like I can go an extra mile, or I may decide a slower pace is better that day.

As I near our meeting spot, I can determine whether I have time to cool down a bit or maybe run a little more, or that I need to get my butt in gear and finish fast.

He often meets me with chocolate milk and a towel, and why not stop for breakfast on the way home? Bonus!

The long run buffet

Taking plenty of fuel on your long runs can be a challenge, especially as you reach 18 miles or longer. Unlike the race with its conveniently placed aid stations, you have to take everything with you. A bonus of breaking up the long run by going back to the start midway is that you only have to take what you need in the first miles before returning to your [insert car, porch, or whatever here].

Put fresh fuel bottles and gels where you can grab them, and leave your empties. Perhaps you use a hand-held in the first leg and switch to a fuel belt in the second leg, and there it is, ready to go.

I am lucky to have a car with a keypad lock, so I head back to it and replace the bottles in my belt and put my empty gel packs in my trash bag. Maybe I didn’t finish my pre-run banana and that is in the car too, in case I am feeling like I need something more. I lock up and am off again, usually less than a one-minute stop.

Don’t have the option of looping back? Scope out water fountains or public restrooms on your route, where you can refill water and off-load sticky gel empties.

The long run test lab

You’ve heard the adage: don’t do anything new on race day.

Long training runs are your opportunity to try all the new gear, fuel and routines so that on race day, it is all “old hat” to you. This can also add some fun (okay, maybe just anticipation) to the run as well as taking your mind off the miles ahead.

When in new shoes, you’ve probably tried them on shorter runs, increasing the mileage each time to make sure they are right for you. The first time you take them on a long run should not be the first time you wear them, unless you have a love of blisters or a midway point where you could keep a tried-and-true pair to switch to.

Determining which gels, chews or bars work for you during your long runs seems straightforward, but one caveat: only test one brand per run. If you use multiple brands of fuel during a run and your stomach rebels, you can’t determine which one is the culprit. Even if you use something you have taken before and add in only one new item, any potential distress might be from mixing the two. By only using one brand, you’ve isolated the issue or hopefully found a new go-to fuel.

I suffered severe calf cramps at Boston in 2016 even though I was using my half-water/half-Gatorade drink as I had many times before. Later I tested salt replacement tabs with some skepticism, easing into their usage over several long runs. Whether it was due to hydrating better or the salt tabs working, I’m not taking chances on any future warm-weather races since I had no adverse effects. 

If you have a fuel you like but which you’ve been struggling with late in your races, try diluting it more during the second half. The added water may make it easier to digest when your body is working harder to send oxygen-filled blood to your muscles and not to your digestive system. This is the time to figure out what works for you.

Runners wearing headphones

The entertainment

I don’t often run with music during weekly easy runs, speed work or hill repeats.

The reason is two-fold: during these shorter training runs I want to concentrate when I am doing a “technical” run that involves timed intervals or intense bursts of speed. And by saving the music for my long run I have a treat to look forward to, as I enjoy hearing music that I only play when running.

Since I am easily swayed by the beat of the music, my long run play list includes mostly slower tempo songs to remind me that I’m supposed to be taking it easy. I also have a fast-finish play list for those medium-long runs that ask for the last few miles to be at race pace.

I’ve found podcasts and audio books to be too hard to concentrate on while running, but they may work for you. One surprise for me was how much I enjoy listening to the weekend edition of NPR on my long runs. The extended stories are interesting enough to distract me from any negative self-talk about how hard my long run feels, but are short enough that I don’t lose the thread of the narrative. There is even a word-puzzle segment that forces me to use my left-side brain, more enjoyable distraction.

Of course, the best entertainment comes from your running partners. If you have company during your long run, you know it seems to go by quickly as you catch up with each other. And who else can you talk running with for 2-3 hours and not lose their attention?

Hill practice: up and down

If your upcoming race has hills in the mix, you are probably doing some hill workouts during the building phase of your training. Some of your long runs, too, should mimic your race profile so you are both physically and mentally prepared to face hills in the later miles. (For example, Heartbreak Hill is at mile 20 of the Boston Marathon, but there are plenty of hills to tackle after that!)

Finding a long run route that includes a few hills will give you opportunities to become familiar with the level of exertion needed to run them without depleting your energy for the remaining miles (and hills). You may discover it is worth slowing down more than planned if it means having more energy during the downhill and flat portions. And you may discover that taking shorter strides uphill feels easier or that power-hiking up a steep hill isn’t for sissies.

Just as important (or in some cases, more so) is the need to practice long-distance downhill running to build the quads and avoid bonking in the last miles of the race. With the increased popularity of downhill races to earn a Boston qualifying time, there is no shortage of stories from runners who assumed they could just run downhill fast and easy, only to find the beating to their quads and knees in the final miles left them with disappointing finish times.

Check out this article on downhill training from Trail Runner magazine: “Training for Downhills When You Don’t Live Near Mountains”.

Trail trials

If your upcoming race is a trail run, you’ll learn soon enough that trails and roads don’t have a lot in common, what with trails providing you with rocks, tree roots, and sometimes deep sand or heavy soil as well as spectacular views and a newfound respect for your fuel vest.

The long run training for trails benefits more than just stamina for long distance, particularly if you are new to trail races. You’ll learn to constantly keep watch for what may trip you (hopefully not the hard way), to share a possibly narrow trail with others, the importance of carrying your own fuel, the reason there are different shoes for trails, the fact that power-hiking is not for wimps, and the reality that all of this is constant.

Summary: the big picture

Consider your long run a dress rehearsal for race day.

The weekday training and recovery runs are important tools for speed, practicing good form, breaking in shoes, and putting in the miles that aid your stamina and resilience.

But, the long run is the closest you can get to true mental and physical preparation, making the distance “easier” throughout the process.

Good luck, and long may you run!

Have tips on how you not only complete, but ENJOY your long runs? Share them with us below!

Want to receive Coach Bette’s monthly column in your Inbox? Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter or sign up as a RaceRaves member (it’s free)! And read her most recent column here.

About our columnist:

Betty Hagerty columnist photoBette Hagerty decided to run a 5K in 1992 after a few months of running around her neighborhood, using her car’s odometer to measure distances. When she found herself among a few hundred people talking about running, she knew she had found her community. Since then she has run several hundred races, from 5K to marathon distance and helped form two running groups.

Bette is an RRCA Certified Running Coach and posts weekly Tuesday workouts on instagram as @BetteRunning. Her passions for running and writing have finally run into each other, and she looks forward to sharing her experiences and knowledge. She welcomes your glowing compliments at [email protected].

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One thought on “Coach Bette: Mastering the Long Run

  1. Coach Bette,

    Another beautifully-written and informative column. I have no desire to do long (e.g., 30+ min.) runs, but anyone who does would be unwise not to heed your sagacious advice. 🙂


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