Marathon and ultra-distance runners can regularly be found out on the roads at the crack of dawn on weekends, diligently putting in their “time on your feet” as they log the weekly LSD (Long Slow Distance). For them there are no two questions that the weekend long run is a good idea. It is a simple equation, to get fit for running far, you should, run far.
So what about the runner wanting to improve their times over short distances?
Let’s first take a look at 5 benefits of the long run:
When running a 5k, not matter how good you are, you will never be running at your maximum speed (about what you would run over a 40m sprint), even when sprinting for the finish line you are still way below this speed. What you will be running at is the maximum speed that you are able to maintain for the 5k without your legs turning to jelly (also known incurring “Oxygen debt”).
When running at our 5k pace, the main metabolic process used by the body to release energy for the muscles to work, is the are aerobic process, which simply means, the main ingredient is good old Oxygen which we breath in. The greater the oxygen supply, the more energy that can be produced. Oxygen to breath in is in no short supply, however each individual runner, depending on their physical condition, is limited in how much oxygen can be taken up and used by the muscles per minute. The faster the pace, the higher the demand. When demand is higher than supply, “Oxygen debt” is incurred with the accompanying build up of lactic acid resulting in the famous jelly legs.
The key then to running faster, is to increase the oxygen supply and uptake in the muscles. This is done through long steady state running. The following adaptations take place, the capillary beds (which transport oxygen) in the muscles are expanded and new ones are created, the heart muscle becomes bigger and stronger so it is able to pump more oxygen rich blood with each stroke, your lungs become more efficient and blood circulation in general improves throughout the body.
How much and how often?
The long run should be scheduled into your training schedule once a week. Usually a Saturday or Sunday works best as you are not as rushed. Think of these runs as “Time on your feet”. Start with the amount of time you currently can run and still feel you could run another 10-20 minutes if you had to for some reason. Then increase the time by 5-10 minutes a week. Every 3rd week cut back and go short to give your body a chance to recover.
Always do these runs at a pace where you can have a conversation without getting out of breath. Remember it is not about record times but “time on your feet”, which is why I prefer to schedule these in minutes rather than kilometres.
Over all my years of running, this is the one session that has remained a regular in my week and I believe is the reason I am still strong and have great endurance even though I train a lot less now and don’t do the crazy intervals of the racing years.