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The benefits of the long run and how to do it right

SuuntoRun — 1 July 2019

XTERRA World Champion and science-driven endurance coach Josiah Middaugh breaks down the long run and how to get the full benefits of this essential component of endurance training.

With a stellar cross-tri career, including being the 2015 XTERRA World Champion, Josiah Middaugh combines his elite competition experience with his university education in sports science to provide cutting-edge coaching to his clients.

Endurance coach and XTERRA champion Josiah Middaugh tells benefits of long distance running
Josiah Middaugh is both an endurance coach and a pro athlete.


For endurance athletes, a central component of their training programme is the long run. “Running aerobically past the hour mark, the magic starts to happen at the cellular level, primarily increased capillary density and an increase in the size and number of mitochondria, the aerobic powerhouse of the cell,” Josiah explains. “This lays the foundation so you can achieve better adaptation from your specific race pace training and interval training.”

Long run benefits

Josiah says the list of benefits and adaptations coming from regular long runs is long. Here are his top three.

Efficiency improves as your body more efficiently burns fat at low to moderate intensity

Running economy improves so you are running faster at sub max heart rates.

The strength of your heart also improves resulting in a larger stroke volume and lower resting heart rate.

Common mistake

Athletes commonly believe unless they’re pushing hard, there are no benefits. It’s the “no pain, no gain” mentality. With the long run, slowing down is key. “Most people start too fast and fade,” Josiah says. “Most of your long runs should be easy and it might feel painfully slow if you are new to them.”


Suunto 7 – Sports and life, combined


7 tips to help you do them right

Long run tips

Keep it aerobic

Aerobic refers to light exercise you can sustain over a long time. “Keep your long runs at least two minutes per mile slower than your current 10k race pace,” Josiah says.

Set a heart rate

“Set a heart rate ceiling for your run,” Josiah says. “Start with a low heart rate and watch it gradually tick up one beat at a time until you are in your target range.” Keep it there.

However, and this is important, don’t base your heart rate on the common age based calculation: heart rate zone minus age. “Age predicted equations will only work for about 20 percent of the population and the margin of error is plus or minus 20 beats,” Josiah says. “That's a 40 beat range!”

Instead, perform a four mile field test to find your functional threshold (FT) heart rate. Find your average heart rate for your best four mile (6.5 km) effort or use a 10k race pace. Check out Josiah’s spreadsheet to help determine heart rate and pace zones.

Consistency over frequency

Many athletes believe they need to do multiple long runs per week. This isn’t the case, Josiah says. Once a week is enough. “It's the consistency over time that makes the difference,” he says. “Results from incorporating a consistent long run can be noticed after about four weeks.”

Increase gradually

The duration and distance of your long run depends on what you are training for. “Progress your long run gradually adding only 10-15 percent per week until you approach your target long run distance,” Josiah says. “If you are training for a marathon or beyond, it might be necessary to undulate the distance of your long run if you are approaching 20 miles and/or three hours.”

5k/10k runners: there is no need to run for more than two hours.
Half marathon runners: keep it race distance or less.
Marathon runners: gradually build long run distance to just over two-thirds of the race distance, no more than 18-20 miles (29-32 km).

“For most athletes I have a rule of the longest run being no more than around three hours or 20 miles, whichever comes first,” Josiah says. “You have to weigh up the increased risk of injury and length of recovery needed when one runs over about 20 miles.”

Stay fuelled

For the best recovery and adaptations, fuelling before, during and after is important. Start fuelling early into your long run and ensure you’re also getting enough fluids. Fuelling during is especially important for runs 90 min or longer. “Fueling during a workout can improve the performance of that workout, help you recover faster from it, and boost your immunity,” Josiah says. “Shoot for about 200 calories per hour, or about one energy gel every 30 minutes with adequate water – roughly one 20 ounce water bottle (600 ml) per hour.”

Fuel well post run

“Your post-run nutrition is equally important,” Josiah continues. “Attempt to take in a quick 300 calories within 30 minutes of completing your long run with a focus on carbohydrates along with some protein and of course water. The primary goal of recovery nutrition is to restore your muscle and liver glycogen so you can recover faster. Do more with more, not more with less.”

Run in the morning

Morning is almost always a better time of day for your long run. “Elite running coach Joe Vigil advocates a long run early in the morning because you have more fluid in your intervertebral discs,” Josiah says. “Also, you are not yet fatigued from the days activities or from a long day at work. Most races are contested in the morning so it is ideal to set your biorhythms to the time of your next event.”

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