For distance running, the long run is the most important run in training.

Is it?

As a stand alone statement I no longer think it's accurate. Yes, the so-called long run is important, but it may not be the most important run. I am including race distances from 10km through to 100km. I'll also add that I don't believe one type of run session repeated each week can ever truly have the tag most important. Improving running performance comes down to creating a training environment where the sum is greater than the total of all parts. This is harder to do than most think. Many create a training situation where the sum is less than the total of all parts.

Back to the long run. If you want to race well in long distance, then of course long training runs will feature to some degree. But how much? How long should your long run be? Should be longer than your race, or shorter? How fast should it be run? These are the typical questions I have considered over the years and that also make the rounds of the internet forums. Of course the answers to these questions depend on the race you are training for, your training background, injury susceptibility, time available and how else you plan on training.

Looking back over my years of racing, long course and ironman triathlon, marathons, and now a couple of 100km trail races, mixed with successes and failures I've developed my current philosophy on long run training. I have moved away from being very prescriptive on distance and speed in every long run, although there is a time and place for that. This is how I am approaching my long runs.

Looking for improvement.

I want to get faster for my upcoming races. That is the overriding principle in my long runs and the rest of my training. Current fitness and what those upcoming races are, dictate the variables of the long run. Will heading out for a very easy 30km lead to improvement? Maybe. I could be better off cutting back to 25km and holding a faster pace, or should I go longer? What will lead to the greatest improvement?


It often seems easier just to suffer through the back end of a long run in whatever form the body naturally falls into. We are all familiar with the long run shuffle. I see this as a significant mistake. How many steps do you take during a long run? Each one of those reinforces your technique, whether it be good or bad. Best to reinforce great form, especially when fatigued. Make great technique second nature and it will be easier to sustain during those hard times in races. My ability to work on technique plays a big role in deciding how long my runs are.

The fit.

How does it fit into the rest of the plan? No good doing an extra long or hard run if it means the rest of the week of training suffers. Getting the most out of a long run has to take the recovery cost into account. I may be able to hold a solid tempo for 40km for a single run, but may not be able to run a good quality fast session for another eight days a result. It is likely I can get more out of 30km with backing up some fast tempo or kilometre repeats 2-3 days later. Over the last two years I have come to appreciate the importance of this concept when training for 100km.

Last year I put in a few 5-6+ (45-60km) hour runs that really sucked a lot out of me, and I was happy with the result. This year, I didn't run anything longer than 40km, and rarely went over 30km and absolutely smashed my time from the previous year. Getting more out of less kilometres can work better.

What now?

My upcoming main race is the 56km, Two Bays Trail Run, in about 8 weeks. My current fitness has me being able to run extra slow for what seems like forever (a hangover from the 100km). However, that speed is a long way off 56km race pace, so training at this slow speed, may add to generalised fitness, but is quite unlikely to add a lot to my race speed. On the other side, I could really hammer some short long runs and force my body to handle faster speeds. This is unlikely to serve me well. The risk is I will bury myself with these runs and not be able to perform my other sessions at the required levels, or that I will crash and burn during the long run, being forced into a survival shuffle to get back home. That tends to lead to decreased performance for me.

Leading to the Two Bays Trail Run there is a plan for the long runs. In terms of intensity I will be aiming at something just a little below what I expect to be working at on race day. In terms of heart rate I can use the profile taken from the first 45km of the Surfcoast Century as a rough guide. This should be at the right level to develop technique applicable to race speed. Terrain will be a mixture of surfaces, but will include a good dose of hills, and should provide a stimulus to developing fatigue resistance so I can maintain form throughout the race. The distance of these runs, will initially be based on time frame and be long enough to somewhat challenge my ability to hold form and pace without completely draining me. The exact speeds I don't care about initially, that will take care of itself. Over the last couple of long runs I've hit 2hr30m and 2hr45m. From 3 hours onward I will take any progression as feels right depending on how I am responding. It is likely I'll get a couple of runs up towards 4 hours.

In these runs the pace isn't exactly fast. I am reminded of Gordo Byrn's comments that athletes often fail to appreciate the "slowness of the event" in long races. The difficulty of the long runs, can come from holding back through the early stages so that you are capable of holding the same speed towards the end. This style of training isn't exactly glamorous, no frightening splits to brag about, no excessive distances to put in the training log. It can be especially hard in nailing the consistency within an individual run combined with across the weeks of training that is required to get the most out of myself for race day.

And then...

Beyond Two Bays, I will probably be looking towards the Australasian Emergency Services Games, where I will likely be competing in the 5000m, 10km cross country and half marathon events. This will take a different approach. I foresee the long run as just sitting at 30km, without increasing the distance. The pace will be based more on my half marathon predictions, where 20-25km will be at a steady tempo. Here the long run plays a more supportive role and progression appears in the other training runs.


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