Going the Distance: How to Build into Long Runs


Until a few years ago, I had always thought of myself as a wanna-be sprinter. I loved the shorter distances, and if you had to pin me down I would probably say my favorite event was a road mile: Four minutes of sheer adrenaline and lactic acid! I thought I would be one of those people who runs one token marathon and calls it good. However, once I ran my first half marathon and started training for my first full marathon, I fell in love with long runs.

Now, 13.1 miles rarely feels long to me, and I run 22 to 24 miles every weekend when I’m marathon training—and I love it! If you want to push your limits and run farther, know it’s possible, and you may find yourself in love with long runs, too. Here’s how to get started:

Slowly Increase Distance

The first step in working toward a longer race is to slowly build one run (your longest) each week—to teach your body to conserve glycogen by burning fat as fuel. Moving into longer runs also helps build capillaries in your muscles, and both adaptations help improve your endurance.

Start by increasing the length of your run by no more than 20% each week, so if you are training for a half marathon, for example, and your longest run is five miles, don’t skip to eight the next week. Simply add one mile per week until you can comfortably build toward your race distance.  

It’s also a good idea to complete your long run on a day when you know you will be rested, which might be during the weekend. Pay attention to how you feel, and the rhythm of your week, and choose accordingly.

Slowly Increase Volume

Boost your overall volume of weekly running by 10%—an amount low enough to avoid injury. If you can’t add more exercise days to your week, gradually increase the length of all runs and workouts, so you can get used to spending more time “on your feet.” Doing so helps your muscles adapt to the impact that comes with running, and it can help strengthen joints and ligaments, to better handle a longer race.  

You can also add cross-training to your fitness routine, to build endurance with less risk of overuse injury. I enjoy taking my outdoor elliptical trainer for a spin as it mimics the running motion without impact, and I can be out in nature. I also sometimes take a spin class where I hammer away to loud music and the orders of an instructor. Mixing things up can be as good for your mind as it is for your muscles.

Increase Fuel

This tip is probably a no brainer: If you exercise more, you’re going to have to consume more calories to replace your energy stores (and also, to provide nutrients for muscles to recover and build). A big change I encountered when moving up from racing the 5k and shorter track races was that my fueling used to be low-maintenance. I would simply bring my protein shake to the event or training session, along with a snack for afterwards, and an energy drink to sip between reps at the track. However, any race over an hour in duration is going to cause your body to dip into your muscle glycogen stores, and the sooner those are depleted, the sooner you “hit the wall” or “bonk.” You’ll need to take in more carbohydrate before and during races, so you can spare your energy stores and finish strong.  

Get Race Ready

If your goal is a half marathon, you’ll know you’re ready when you can run nine to ten miles close to your race pace without stopping. (On race day, your adrenaline will help get you through the extra three miles, and as long as you can run ¾ of the distance, you can feel confident you’re good to go.)  

When it comes to racing a marathon, you don’t need to be able to run ¾ of the distance; even some elites run less than 20 miles in training. If you have been sustaining a heavy volume for several months (read: you’re not a beginner), and you can finish a 16-mile run at the pace you plan to run on race day, you can feel comfortable knowing you can make it the whole way. Once you run a full marathon (in a race), you will build on that confidence going into your next one! Who knows, maybe you’re like me: a marathoner at heart.


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