The Importance of the Long Run

It’s that time in marathon training – the mileage of the long run is increasing, and runners seem to be divided like marmite. Some love and embrace the increasing distance, others see it as a chore to be ticked off each week. Which camp do you fall into? And do you really need to run long every week?


It actually doesn’t really matter what you’re training for, from 5k to marathon, if you’re a distance runner, you would most likely benefit from a regular long run. The long run is about getting you ready to perform – Robert Wallace, a 2.13 marathoner, says “They’re the mainstay of any training programme. You don’t get results immediately. It’s like saving pennies….  Over a year [the benefits] really accumulate.”


Why run long? 
Long runs improve running efficiency (teaching you to conserve energy and run as effortlessly as possible), and offer both psychological and physical benefits – cardiovascular improvements include increased mitochondria and capillaries, and recruitment of different muscle fibres. Long runs also strengthen your muscles, tendons and ligaments – all of these are beneficial for racing any distance, not just the marathon. But for the longer distances, it also provides a dress rehearsal for the race (breakfast, clothing, fuelling etc.), and a chance to build mental strength and confidence.


Run easy or run hard?
There are two main types of long run that you will come across.

Easy long runs – Hard long runs can be too taxing on a weekly basis. Running 60-90 mins slower than your marathon pace for a few hours reduces stress, makes the run more enjoyable and brings lots of aerobic endurance benefits. Running easy also gives you a chance to work on mental strategies such as dealing with boredom and building patience. It teaches you to make wise decisions and run more efficiently.


Long runs with pace segments – these are great for practicing race pace, improving your speed endurance and working on mental toughness but can really take it out of you so these shouldn’t be done every week. Varieties include progressive long runs, long runs containing intervals, long runs with a certain number of miles at marathon pace, or even a long run with a faster parkrun on the end!


The one type of run you don’t want to do is a full distance long run (over 14 miles) at marathon pace or faster. You may think this will build confidence and help you prepare, but actually you accumulate all the tiredness and fatigue of a paced long run, but without some of the key benefits. You will quickly find yourself over-trained and struggling to recover.


Do you need to do a long run every week? And how far?

Firstly, you shouldn’t do a long run every week. Once you get over a comfortable distance, often about 12-16 miles, you should include a drop-back week every 3-4 weeks where you drop your distance by 25-50% to give your body a chance to recover (remember, adaptations happen when you stress your body, but then allow it to recover). If you are particularly injury prone, you may want to consider running long every 10 days or every 2 weeks.


Distance depends on a number of factors, including your level of your experience and your goals. If you’re fairly new to a marathon for example you may benefit most from building up to one 20 miler, but my more experienced runners often do as many as six 20+ milers, going up to 23-24 miles (with the longer runs usually at an easy pace).

If you’re not marathon training, distance of the long run can be more flexible. Greg McMillan, well known running coach, suggests 90-120 minutes. Other coaches go by percentage of weekly mileage – where the long run doesn’t account for more than 25% of total mileage. Most coaches suggest including some pace in long runs for non-marathoners, e.g., a faster finish, depending on what distance you are doing.


How to get it right: 
1. Preparation is key. This includes fuelling well, before, during and after the run. Remember, anything over 90 minutes and you should be eating on the run.  According to Runners World columnist Joe Henderson “You need to keep your glycogen stores continuously high if you want to maintain training effectiveness”. i.e., you can run fasted, but you won’t get the same training benefits. Hydration is another one to consider – do you need water with you? Can you stash water along the route? Clothing (and Vaseline if you’re prone to chafing!) and safety also need some thought.
2. Don’t give headspace to negative thoughts. If you’re not enjoying your long runs, work out why. Bored? Find something you enjoy (new route, meet a friend half way, new playlist, audiobook or podcast etc. Sign up to a race or group run for added distraction.
3. Chunk it. Don’t think about the run as a whole thing…break it down and focus on one segment at a time, especially if you find the distance you are doing overwhelming. Consider having little rewards on route – walk break or jelly baby every mile, gels every few miles, ring a friend at half way etc. Try crossroads e.g. for 20 miles go 4 miles out and back, 3 miles out and back, 2 miles out and back and 1 mile out and back. This gives you a chance to focus on each segment as it happens rather than the whole distance.


There are downsides to running long. It is of course time consuming and running too long too often and you raise the risk of overtraining or injury. It’s also easy not to recover properly – you need to refuel and hydrate properly (regardless of appetite), rest and definitely no hard run for a couple of days after.

But, if you can, stay positive, embrace the long run and enjoy it. It’s a privilege to be able to complete these runs, whatever your pace. It puts you into a minority of the population and your achievements should be celebrated.


Do you love or hate the long run? How do you stay entertained on the run? What are your favourite routes, distances or types of long run? How do you prepare for your long runs? Please share any experiences or tips below!


Other useful resources:

MH Runners Club webinars on marathon training and nutrition

Runner’s World article giving a table of possible long run distances for non-marathoners:

My blogs on carb loading

And how to recover from a marathon

MH Runners Coaching Tip on Post Run / Race fuelling



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Martin Hulbert

Running Coach & Personal Trainer Leicestershire

MH Health and Fitness Online Community