2011-05-27

The Marathon: Part VII - The Long Run

Perhaps the most universally recognizable aspect of training for a marathon is the long run. As the furthest distance run in the course of the week, it is often a runner's go-to point when answering the first question asked of all runners by all non-runners, "How far do you run?" It is simultaneously the most common "group run," and the classic solitary trek. It is the run that takes you out into nature with your dog, or the run that weaves you through every familiar city street. It is the greatest source of pride and accomplishment for a runner. It is the sport's archetypical workout.

My long runs have taken me out into the desert without water, or deep into the forest without a map. I used carefully plan my long run courses and stash emergency food and water along the way. I have run through portions of protected North American forests that few if any other human beings had traversed in years. I have discovered hidden waterfalls and met lonely and dangerous animals along the way. Every runner has a great story about an epic long run. (Those of you who know me have probably heard my bull-charging story a few times.)

No blog out there does a better job of capturing the essence of a long run better than that of my old friend Anton Kleparek. Do check it out when you have the chance.

Where a Long Run Takes You
Whether you're training for a marathon or a shorter race - or even just running recreationally - the long run is an integral part of any approach to conditioning. It's not sufficient to simply run every day, lift some weights, do a little speed work, and hit the races. Every runner has to teach themselves to run much further than the maximum-encountered-racing-distance.

For marathon runners, long runs are a unique challenge, since it is extremely impractical for most people to frequently run ultra-marathon distances as part of their marathon training. The goal for us, then, is to acquaint our bodies with extreme distances gradually, so that the final marathon offers no surprises.

Long runs serve a variety of purposes in the training regimen.

First Purpose - Tolerating Distance
It goes without saying that long-distance running is something you have to learn to do. "Long distance" itself is entirely subjective. When I started running at age seven or eight, a mile was a long way to run. I learned to do it, and proclaimed myself to be a distance runner. Even in high school, the 1600m run was considered a race for distance runners. By the time I went to college, though, the 1500m was middle-distance. By age 21, I had long since concluded that the 5K was virtually a middle distance race, too. Top-tier marathoners can run every 10-kilometer split of their marathons faster than my fastest one-off 10K.

As you can see, what constitutes a long distance depends on ability and experience. The only way to acquire that is to go on long runs.

Second Purpose - Muscle Tissue Development
One of the surprising things about the human body is that it contains two kinds of muscle tissue analogous to the "light meat" and "dark meat" of poultry. Among runners, this renders itself as follows:

Sprinters, on one end of the spectrum, mostly possess muscle tissue that is optimized for anaerobic cellular respiration. Marathoners, on the other end of the continuum, predominantly possess muscle tissue that is optimized for aerobic cellular respiration. Everyone else has varying degrees of each.

For any athlete, ideal training optimizes the balance between light and dark meat. In our case, we'd like to train our bodies to excel at aerobic respiration. A major benefit of this is that we will become experts and burning fat tissue and blasting carbohydrates. What most people try to accomplish via "boot camps" and P90X programs we will accomplish by going for consistent weekly long runs. You will shed pounds and inches and, the more you do it, the more efficient your body will be. Have you ever dreamed of being able to eat whatever you want and not gain a single pound? This is how you do it.

But more practically speaking, we want to get to the point where we can go for a two-hour run every week without feeling tight, sore, and shaky the next day. By the time our 18 weeks are over, you'll be there.

Third Purpose - Training Variety
Many people underestimate the need to have lots of variety in any training regimen. There are physiological benefits to this, but perhaps more important than all of that is the fact that people who aren't bored continue working hard.

After a week of waking up early for strength training and hurrying home after work to get in a "basic run" or a do some speed work, it is nice to be able to sleep in one day of the week, relax, take the day as it comes, and then head out for a nice, relaxing long run during which your only responsibility is to enjoy yourself.

Fourth Purpose - Rest
Yes, believe it or not, long runs are an opportunity to give your body a much-needed rest from all the strength training and speed work we encounter during the rest of the week.

During strength and speed training, your body uses up a lot of stored glycogen. Just as water vapor, CO, and CO2 are the natural byproducts of burning fossil fuels, CO2 and acid are the byproducts of human exertion. That acid remains in your muscles until you drive it out with water and, counter-intuitively, additional physical motion.

Long runs are lengthy periods of extended - but easy - physical motion, and they give your body a chance to work out some of that acid build-up. (Of course, proper hydration goes without saying.)

How to Properly Execute a Long Run
Now we know why; what about how?

There are competing theories on the correct way to go on a long run. For you Level 1s out there, I suggest simply relaxing and taking it easy. Don't worry if you have to stop a while. Take a snack, take some water. If you're going somewhere interesting, take a camera and snap a few photos when you get there. Enjoy yourself.

If you're more serious about your long runs (i.e. Level 2s), your focus should be on maintaining a consistent pace. It's easy to have a widely varying pace over the course of two hours, but you'll need to fight that if you want to run a solid marathon. To that end, think about pacing yourself right from the start. Exercise a little restraint and consider whether your initial pace can be sustained for two whole hours.

But there's a catch: By starting out too slowly, many runners shoot themselves in the foot. If you run too slowly, you compromise your running form. Two hours of inefficient running will exhaust you as much or more as two hours at a very high running pace. This is why you may find that by starting out slowly, your pace slows down even further than it would have had you started out faster. Therefore, remember to strike a balance with your long run pace. (Don't worry - it takes practice to get it right!)

If you consider yourself a Level 3 runner, my recommendation is to start out briskly and challenge yourself not to lose speed. You may increase over the course of the run, but never decrease. Fight hard against pace decay. Plan a well-known route that will allow you to gauge your success. If such a course is unavailable to you, you can try an out-and-back run in which you commit to running the 2nd half faster than the first half. This simple approach can provide a lot of success.

So that's it! Good luck tomorrow!