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February 20, 2013

The Purpose of the Long Run

Written by Dena Evans


Everything on your runcoach schedule has a purpose, and the long run is no different.  In many half marathon and marathon training cycles, the long run seems like the tent pole of each week, the looming square on the calendar, by which the week is assessed as successful or otherwise.  When asked about how our goal race training is going, we as runners often respond with data on our long run progression.  Those numbers play a huge part in how prepared we feel for the big day, but what other purposes does the long run serve?


Increased Capillarization

Long runs increase mitochondrial production and the distribution of capillaries (small blood vessels) in your muscles.  Mitochondria take nutrients and convert them into fuel that can be used by each cell.  Increased capillarization means a growth in the surface area of a muscle assisted by the network of small blood vessels.  We all know what it feels like to wish we had more energy and oxygen delivered to our leg muscles.  Long runs help achieve that exact aim.


Efficient Storage and Burning of Energy

Long runs typically are done at a non-hurried, aerobic pace of approximately 65-80% of your maximum heart rate (note that your pace chart might list “easy” and “long” as the same pace).   Running for long periods of time at that effort level and approximate heart rate can both teach your body to store more energy (glycogen) because of depletion caused by previous long runs, and burn more fat as a percentage of energy used than shorter, harder runs.


Race Simulation

Long runs teach your body to prepare physiologically for the stresses it will undergo on the big day, but they also are an opportunity for increasingly realistic dress rehearsals for things like mid-run fueling (Which drinks or gels work with your stomach?), and race day clothing (Will these shorts chafe?).  Other than successfully receiving a chip time, there should be very few things you do on race day that you have not yet practiced on a long run along the way.


Mental Prep

When your longest lifetime run is 6 miles, beginning a marathon training cycle can seem daunting to say the least.  However, as the distances increase, so will the number of times you have tried something new, endeavored to complete a run longer than you ever have before, and have had to employ belief in the face of an undetermined result.  A race the length of a half or full marathon is guaranteed to include some high points and low points.  Long runs help equip you to weather these ups and downs on race day with the confidence of an experienced athlete even if your marathon bib is your first.


Undoubtedly, long runs are a crucial piece of the machinery in your preparation for your goal race.  While preparing your body to handle the physical rigors of race day, they also build confidence and help your mind develop strategies for convincing you to get to the finish line on time.  While the race is the goal, long runs are a fantastic way to measure our growth as runners along the journey, and remind us of the many joys and lessons running can provide on any given day.