It’s early Saturday morning, and I’m getting ready to go on my long run and I’ve been looking forward to it for most of the week. In reality, I look forward to my long run so much each week it really helps me get through the challenges of daily life most weeks. There is nothing better to me than to lace up my shoes, warm up and get out there for a few hours of peaceful and relaxing running.
Why do I love my long runs so much? I’m sure part of it is I run these at an easy enough pace to be able to hold a conversation, which works out to be about 2 minutes slower than my marathon pace. It feels so ridiculously easy at this pace, I often wondered if I was really getting anything out of my long run.
So, I did what I normally do and researched the living heck out of it and came to realize my long run was the most important run of my training week which was a real bonus; now, I can look forward to it for both its pleasant simplicity as well as its amazing training benefits.
In a previous article about the 8 types of runs we went over most of the training runs but in this article, I’m going to list the top 6 reasons why your long run is also your most important run of the week.
Capillaries, Muscle Fibers and Mitochondria, oh my
When I first started researching about the benefits of the long run the science of it seemed confusing, contradictory and plain old “not fun”. But, after reading on this subject and looking at various studies it became clear that the long run will develop the necessary components of your body to build endurance.
First, when you run long you create enzymes in your muscle cells and grow capillaries (the small blood vessels surrounding your muscle cells); the more capillaries you have, the better your oxygen and fuel delivery, and the better your carbon dioxide removal.
Second, when you run long you recruit a greater percentage of your slow twitch muscles while still working your fast twitch muscles; thus, your long run strengthens both types of muscle fibers.
Third, it helps build mitochondria volume within your muscle fibers. Why is this important? Mitochondria are known as the powerhouses of the cell. They are organelles that act like a digestive system which takes in nutrients, breaks them down, and creates energy rich molecules for the cell. The greater mitochondria volume, the more energy you can create during your runs.
Combined, these help you get better oxygen and fuel delivery as well as more efficient energy creation and carbon dioxide removal and these will help you run longer and faster.
No More “Bonking”
We’ve all heard the term bonking, and we’ve seen the videos of endurance runners weaving like a drunk person on the track when it occurs; but what is it? Bonking, or “hitting the wall” occurs when your body runs out of sugar to burn and is typical for longer distances like the marathon or ultra-races.
Glycogen is the prime fuel for a distance runner; while your body can burn fat directly for energy, it tends to prefer glycogen, as it is easier to burn. Most athletes store 300 to 500 grams of glycogen when fully fueled, equating to about 90 to 120 minutes of intense exercise. Glycogen burns rapidly but is refilled at a drip, usually replenishing at a rate of two to five percent per hour after exercise.
Your long run will put you into a glycogen depleted state, and your body will be triggered to do two things; increase your stored glycogen and improve fat-burning efficiency. In essence, it will help you store more glycogen but use it less by training your body to burn fat instead.
Time on Your Feet
One of the best things about the long run, especially if you do it at a conversational pace, is it allows you to have more “time on your feet” which will aid you during your training and racing.
How exactly? The longer you are on your feet, the more you are strengthening your bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons and fascia which will help you during your harder workouts and races. You are more conditioned to handle the rigors of a marathon, an ultra-run or just a hard interval workout.
When you go out on a long run, your muscles are essentially going through an exercise in “trial and error” always looking for the most efficient running stride. The long run, if ran at a consistent conversational pace allows your body more time and feedback to determine the most efficient running stride for you.
In our blog about the Run/Walk method, I mentioned the advantage it plays in a long run by allowing you to focus on your running form for shorter periods of time; combine this with the consistent, repeated pattern of a long run and you’ll be running more efficiently.
Builds Mental Toughness
When you run a half marathon or more, in addition to being subjected to the potential of hitting the wall physically you can also hit the wall mentally through psychological fatigue. How often have you said to yourself during a run “I’m going to die if I have to run 7 more miles”?
Your long runs will allow you to know that you can handle the distance both mentally and physically and this mental preparation will allow you to overcome the doubts during the latter stages of a long race.
I would throw out one caveat about a lot of training plans I see, which never have the runner actually run the number of miles they will in the race; for example, if training for a marathon most training plans peak at 20 – 22 miles assuming adrenaline will keep you moving those last few miles. Me personally, I want to have run the 26.2 miles during training so I KNOW I can do it….just saying.
It’s the Most Fun Run of the Week
I look forward to the long run for many of the reasons above, but it is also the most fun run of the week for me; whether it allows me to socialize with a running group (which, I’m not doing during this pandemic), contemplate the mysteries of life, enjoy the beauty of nature or simply find that groove where I think I’m able to run forever.
As they said on Star Trek, “Run long and prosper” (or something like that).