The Long Run

Desert with the Ordinary Runner logo overlaid

How long is long?

In the film of the same name, friendly simpleton Forrest Gump ran for three years, two months and 14 days. He covered over 15,000 miles – twice around the UK. It was a long run, by any standards. In comparison, I’ve managed less than 2,000 miles over the last three years, two months and 14 days. The equivalent of Lands’ End to John O’Groats and back, plus a little trip up to Chippenham in Wiltshire. 

However, despite my distinctly un-Gumpish distance, I’ve done what I consider to be some pretty long runs in that time. Others may disagree, and that’s fine – a long run is relative to the runner. Few achieve the kind of mileage managed by Forrest. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t run long, by their own standards.

Winding road between hills, perfectly suited to a long run
Image by George Hiles on Unsplash

With this in mind, I’m going to talk about the long run. You have my caveats. If you don’t consider my efforts suitably long, so be it – I know I’m no record breaker. Besides, there’s a chance someone will cock a snook at your distance, too. After all, unless you’re the Gump-imitator, Rob Pope, there’s almost certainly someone else who’s run longer than you.

What is a long run?

It’s the longest run of the week – often found hanging around at the weekend. An extended effort. A run that’s intended to improve endurance rather than speed. As such, it should be slower than, say, your parkrun pace. Although, it doesn’t necessarily demand a continual, slow plod – but more on that later. If you’re training for a specific distance, your long run takes you gradually closer to it. Step by step. Week by week. One run to the next.

It’s typically a day for cushioned trainers, familiar gear and possibly a dab of Vaseline in those special spots. Proper fuelling and hydration are important. That’s not to say you should cram yourself full of overnight oats and porridge. It doesn’t necessarily demand gels, even if that is your thing. Really, depending on your preferred time of day, a decent breakfast, lunch or dinner is fine.

There are long runs and there are long runs

All long runs are equal, but some are more equal than others. By which I mean, they’re all hard, but you can make them even harder, if you wish.

Far from a definitive list, I’ve cobbled together some long runs, below. They suit different training regimes, with varying outcomes. As ever, there’s little science (other than some Googling) to back any of this. If you’re unsure, speak to a professional.

The Plod

Commonly known either as the easy long run, the conversational long run, or the curiously named long, slow distance (LSD) run. As each name suggests, this is the continual, slow plod I mentioned earlier. These runs test your endurance and build mental stamina. They also help develop musculoskeletal strength and teach the body to fuel using fat reserves rather than the glycogen stored in your muscles (so long as you keep your heart rate low enough). Pace should be such that you can hold a conversation – even if it is slightly breathy – but not so slow that you lose your normal stride pattern.

The Climber

A progression from the Plod, the Climber is slow-paced, with the added challenge of hills. Not hill repeats. No sprinting up and trundling back down.

Undulating hills through the Yorkshire Moors
Image by Illiya Vjestica on Unsplash

Consider it a Plod with undulations. Important here is to maintain an even speed, whether you’re on an upward or a downward section. Those climbs will do wonders for your strength, get the heart pounding and test your mental resilience.

The Quick Finish

Another variation on the Plod, this one provides important race day preparation. Aimed at anyone who has ever chased a negative split, these runs train you to delve into your reserves at the end of a long effort. There are options, of course. You can start slow and gradually increase the pace. You might target a faster second half. Or you could trundle through 90% of the run, then power through the finish, like an out-of-control toddler. Just be careful not to face plant at the end.

The Variator

You might be familiar with interval training – specific timed or measured distances run at a quick pace, interspersed with slower, recovery sections. This isn’t that. Instead, the Variator introduces Fartlek (“speed play”) into the long run. In other words, rather than the constant rambling pace of a Plod, the Variator varies between slow, conversational pace and faster, tempo or marathon pace. There are no rules. Quick bits needn’t cover any particular distance or time. You don’t even need to repeat them. It’s simply a way of building endurance and improving pace, while breaking up a long run. Give it a go some time. Do a “quick” bit. Then recover with a slow bit. Then try another “quick” bit. Et cetera.

The Dog Run

Props* here to Rob Deering and Paul Tonkinson from the perennially entertaining Running Commentary podcast. I’ll assume they coined the phrase – it’s quicker than searching. This is an aimless run. There’s no target. No objective. Time, effort, distance – none of them are important. Ideally, and this is anathema to many, you leave the GPS watch at home. If that’s too much, perhaps just pop a plaster (bandaid) over the screen. You see, the idea behind the Dog Run is to run for the joy of running. Go out the door and follow your feet. Explore. Ramble. If possible, take a friend. Then, once you start, keep going until you stop. And that’s it. The Dog Run.

*Apologies – I don’t know what came over me.

Recovery and form

Whichever long run you do, recovery is important. As ever, you know what your body can handle. But, if you’re in the process of increasing your distance, then your long runs will be increasingly longer. As you step up the miles, you must allow your body to recover, ready to go again next time.

Form is also important for the long run. The more tired you are, the more your form will suffer. Watch any “fun” run (particularly half or full marathon) and you’ll see a lot of slouching towards the end. While it’s inevitable, to an extent, it’s something to be aware of in your own running.

Sunrise on the Kalahari
Image by Hans-Jurgen Mager on Unsplash

In Born to Run, Christopher McDougall talks about persistence hunting in the Kalahari Desert. Although a very different type of long run, the hunters have a technique we can all use. You see, while covering the many miles in pursuit of their prey, they routinely scan their bodies for signs of fatigue, injury and dehydration. And not only that, but to maintain their form, especially as they tire.

Give it a go on your next run. As your legs grow heavy and your shoulders slump, scan your body. Start at the top and work your way down, correcting as you go. Head up, shoulders open, chest out, hips pushed forward, etc. The further you run, the more frequent the scans, and the more difficult the corrections become. Of course, a strong core will help, but that’s for another blog.

Over to you

Next time you set out on a long run, why not try one of these? Better still, why not suggest an alternative in the comments below? The more variety, the better. And if you need some musical inspiration, check out my playlists, here. I recommend the downtempo playlist as the ideal accompaniment to any type of long run. That’s why I made it, after all.

Header image by Silas Baisch on Unsplash (apologies for the crude crop)