The Long Run

Now that the weather is warming up and April race dates are approaching, it seems that everyone is starting to rotate a long run back into their exercise schedules, and I would please like to talk about them, why I think they’re great, and share what I’ve learned about prepping for, running, and recovering from long runs.  If you’re not one who runs (yet?), there is still stuff to be learned about fitness within the words of this post – pinky swear. This is long, but it’s full of good stuff. As with most of my knowledge, the following is the compilation of months of googling combined with experience. Lovely. Let’s go.

Until about 10 months ago, I thought that running was running and all running was the same (and also that all running was boring and stupid and horrible, but that’s another story and another Sarah)—it is only recently that I have really begun to appreciate the varieties of running workouts (sprint, hills, endurance, indoor, on a track, outdoor, in wind, in sun, in cold, in rain, etc, etc, etc) – there are about a million different kinds of running workouts, and that is one of the many things which makes running an exciting sport, I think.

There are numerous formulas to figure out what a long run “should” be – my favorite one just says that it should be between 1 and 3 hours of running. Your body has enough fuel stored in the muscles to fuel one hour of intense exercise, so after an hour, it becomes a different kind of workout. Anything more than 3 hours is kind of absurd. Also it requires a lot of serious re-fueling throughout the workout. Also it’s absurd. My standard run is 5-6 miles (1 hour), and my long run is 10ish miles (2 hours).

What’s the point of the “Long Run”?

The Long Run is a totally different workout than the standard run and it requires a completely different kind of mental and physical approach. Long runs are when I most enjoy the act of running – I’m running to become a stronger runner and enjoy the act of running, rather than running to get a workout in or try for a faster time on a certain route. The way I run 5 miles and the way I run 10 miles are completely different.

Endurance runs strengthens both your heart and your muscles in a way that regular length runs cannot. I’ve been trying to paraphrase some Science from a Runners World article that I like, but I give up, so here is the link. It’s good stuff. Re-reading that makes me want to go on another long run right now.

Prepping for a Long Run

You can’t just go out and run for a few hours without first making some preparations. Or I suppose you could. But. Don’t. It would be uncomfortable.

We spend a lot of time working to squeeze workouts into our busy days, but with a long run, II find that it’s best when the day is sort of planned around the long run. I think that’s a totally refreshing way to view a workout.

If a long run seems intimidating to you, run your standard run, whatever length that might be, as slow as you can stand to. When you finish that distance, see if you feel like you could run a little bit more. You probably could. That’s what the long run is about. Sort of.

Anyway, allow me to document my pre-run routine. You’ll notice that there is a lot to think about.

Fueling your body for a long run is really important. When you’re running, your body is focused on powering your muscles, so gives less focus to powering the digestive system. This means that the food you use to power yourself for a run needs to either be mostly digested by the time you start running, or needs to be easy to digest. Hard to digest foods include things with a lot of fat or fiber in them. You want to fuel with mostly carbohydrates, but also some protein. It’s a good idea to also make sure that you have some electrolytes/sodium in your body before setting out on a long run — electrolytes help with hydration and reduce the likelihood of cramping.

3-4 hours before I plan to leave (which is usually breakfast time), I’ll eat something carbohydrate-dense, that also has some protein (I like oatmeal.  A lot of people swear by bagels with peanut butter. Oatmeal works for me). Then I’ll get hungry again about 10-30 minutes before I plan to leave and I’ll eat a powerbar and a banana. Yes, I could eat real food and not a powerbar, but you know what?–powerbars work for me. They’re designed to be easily digested and provide all of the stuff your body needs for endurance performance (mostly carbohydrates for energy and sodium to limit dehydration and cramping). Science, man. Bananas are like nature’s sports bar. I probably don’t need to eat both of these things (and could do with half the powerbar), but running out of fuel mid-long-run stinks, and I’d rather just have both of these easily digestible energy-providing foods in my system.

It takes a while to figure out the best pre-long-run food routine, but once you’ve figured out what works, you’ll hesitate to stray from it.

You want to be well hydrated before leaving for a long run. Aim to drink at least a liter of water between 3 hours before the run and 1 hour before the run—you want to be well hydrated, but not so much so that you have to stop mid-run to go to the bathroom. 10-20 minutes before you leave, drink 8ish ounces of water so that you’re definitely well hydrated.

You probably want to have an idea of where you’re going. I like to map out runs on – you can search for running routes in your area there, too, if you’d rather adapt a route that someone else made up.

This is my standard 10ish miler. I love it.

Make sure you’ll be comfortable for your run. Run in clothes you’ve run in before. Sweat-wicking socks will keep your feet dry and blister-free. Check the weather, and make sure you’ll be warm or cool enough, too.

Duh. I recently made an official Long Run playlist. It’s stuff with good beats, of course, but not the Super Pump You Up stuff – it’s music that keeps me going, but doesn’t make me run fast like some of my other playlists do.

Packing Fuel and Water
The general rule (or one version of it) is that for 75 or more minutes of exercise, you want to be able to rehydrate and refuel mid-run—as I wrote earlier, your muscles have enough stored carbohydrates (glycogen) to power through 60 to 90 minutes of exercise, so if you intend to exercise for longer than that, you’ll need to start replacing that glycogen (which is essentially sugar) with quickly processed carbohydrates.  Pretty much the only time that I don’t enjoy eating is when I am running, so I bring Gatorade along. I’m impressed by people who bring dates for mid-run fuel. Some people like Gu. Different things work for different people.

I have to admit, it took me a while to be able to fluidly (I'm full of puns) be able to remove a bottle, drink it, and replace it while running... Oh, and that little pouch is where I stash keys and toilet paper. And where I sometimes stash a cell phone.

The idea is that you want something that has carbohydrates which are easily digested and also some electrolytes (read: sodium) to replace the salt lost through sweat. Carbs are important because they’re instant energy — apparently it’s 25g of carbs for every 30 minutes of exercise after 60 minutes, which means that I’m definitely not taking in enough carbs mid-run with my Gatorade plan…must work on that. Sodium is important because it helps with hydration and also reduces the possibility of cramping. Click around on these and Runners World articles for more information on this – there’s a lot out there. And I think it’s totally cool.

The hydration rule is that you want to drink 4-6oz of water (or sports drink) for every 20 minutes of running. So you’ll need to bring water, too. But you probably figured that out.

On my long runs, I wear my fuel belt to carry water and, well, fuel along with me. Some people happily run with camel backs or hand-held water bottles – the fuel belt works well for me. Plus, it’s super cute.

These card-items fit perfectly into my iPod arm band.

Other Stuff to Bring
I also bring my ID, credit card, public transportation pass, toilet paper (just in case–this makes peeing in the woods a lot less horrible), iPod, heart rate monitor, mile-tracking device, keys, aaand, yes – I think that’s it. I should bring my cell phone, I guess, but I figure that between the ID, credit card, MBTA pass, and toilet paper, I can get myself out of any jam into which I might run. Pun intended. I’m a dork.

During the Run

The Running Bit
The pace of a long run should be slow and steady. I aim to maintain my heart rate between 145 and 157 beats per minute – this is a range that I know I can maintain for a long time, and it is also low enough that my body has time to get energy from both carbohydrate stores and from fat. You should feel like you can easily have a conversation at the long run pace. It’s relaxing, and ideal for deep thoughts and brain exploring. Or singing along to music.

The Fueling Bit
Depending on how long your run is, in terms of time, and how much water/fuel you have, you’ll want to plan out my hydration/fuel schedule within the first few miles of a run so that you don’t find yourself out of water when you still have 5 miles to go. For a 2 hour run, I’ll drink my first 8oz of water at 30 minutes, then drink a 8oz of Gatorade at 60 mins, another 8oz of Gatorade at 90 mins, and then enjoy my last 8oz of water when I finish the run. This schedule works for me. As with everything I’ve written, it’s a process to figure out what works for you, but this is probably a good place to start. The mental part of breaking the run down by when I get to drink things helps me segment the run out.

The Other Bits
When other runners pass me during long runs, instead of being pissy that they’re faster than me, I decide that they are not running long runs and are not as awesome as I am.

Mid-run is also a good time to think about what you’re going to do after the run. Like eat things. Like bagels and chocolate milk. Mmm.

To reiterate, just remember to focus on being relaxed, keeping a steady, comfortable pace, and really not over exerting yourself. I like to keep an eye on my heart rate monitor so that I know I’m asking my body to work at a level that it can maintain. A lot of this is mental. Chances are, at some point during this run, you’ll feel an overwhelming urge to stop running and start walking. Ignore that urge. If you’ve run 7, 8, or 9 miles, what’s a few more miles of running? You’ve got this — take it one pace at a time. Ooh, something that I like to do if I’m feeling quite grumpy about the number of miles ahead of me is say, “okay, Sarah. Listen to this one song and keep running during it. If after the song is over you still want to walk, you can walk.” When the song ends, I either am perfectly content to keep running or don’t even remember that I made this deal with myself. Assuming you’re physically fueled for them, long runs are a mental game.

This is a screen shot from my mile/pace tracking instrument. The pace here is a LOT more consistent (and a bit slower) than my typical runs.

After the Run

Acknowledge Your Level of Awesomeness
First thing you need to do when you finish your long run is think, “WHOA! I am awesome—I just ran XX miles and that is freaking killer great amazing”. I like to even say (outloud), “whew, ten miles! nice!” within earshot of other people.  It’s okay to brag a little bit.

Then you have to get down to business.

After a long run, your body’s energy stores are virtually empty, so it’s very important to re-fill them almost immediately. This is not a time to think about weight loss stuff or that you want to create a huge calorie deficit for the day so that you lose more weight. That is stupid and not good for your body. At all. Re-fuel. Your muscles store glycogen which powers them. If these stores are empty, your muscles will be sad, and also won’t recover from the run as quickly as they could. The 15-30 minutes following a workout are when your muscles are most receptive to taking in the glycogen that powers them. Assuming you’re making smart food choices (cheesecake isn’t a good post-run food), the calories you eat when you’re re-fueling will go into your empty muscles and not into your butt or gut.  We clear? Good.

Chocolate milk is an awesome post-workout snack. Also it’s delicious. And when else do you drink chocolate milk? Also an excellent post-workout snack/meal? A toasted sesame bagel with peanut butter. Go for food which is easy to digest (i.e. plain bagel instead of a wheat one – white flour is broken down pretty quickly) and is mostly carbohydrates, but does have some protein. After my 10 miles on Saturday, I drank a thing of chocolate milk and ate a bagel with peanut butter on it, which, no one will argue, is a lot of calories. 2 hours later, I was hungry again. Clearly that fuel went into my muscles and did not fill up my stomach.  Click around in these pages to learn more, if you would like.

Of course, please also drink a lot of water when you finish running.  You’ll be thirsty, I assume, so this should be easy to remember.

My foam roller ♥

Do it. And do a solid job of it. If you have a foam roller, roll out. How you treat your muscles following a long run and start their healing process will dictate how your muscles will treat you the following day.

You smell.

For The Rest of the day…
Continue to eat carbohydrates and protein sensibly. You probably will be hungry for more food than you usually are, so listen to your body and give it the fuel it’s asking you for. If you didn’t do a solid job of refueling right after your run, you might get the ridiculous sugar cravings that I got when I was training for my half marathon and refused to eat a lot of food after long runs (because I was a little bit of a scale slave). Just be aware that that could happen.

The Next Day

The day following a long run is probably a good day to take it easy in terms of exercise. I recommend going for a walk or doing other light cardio, and then stretching out your muscles again. It’s not wise to stretch muscles that aren’t warmed up already – muscles are more receptive to stretching and foam rolling when they’re a bit warmed up.

The day following a long run is also a good day to start mapping out your next long run.

All right. I think that I covered the majority of what I know about The Long Run. Don’t hesitate to share any other tips you have for us long runners!


One Comment to “The Long Run”

  1. love it! i just working on trying to run solid for a mile, doing run/walk intervals atm, so not nearly up to long runs, but it was good info for the future:~)

    & i like the part about blocking your time w the hydration plan. one thing i like about doing the intervals is it breaks the time i spend down into more manageable pieces.

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