Long runs are a rite of passage for most runners. Everyone from your weekend warrior to the world champions include this staple workout as part of their weekly training schedule. If everybody is doing it and it has stuck around this long, it obviously has a lot of merit. Are you getting the most out of your long runs, or just trudging through miles in need of new stimulus?
Long runs are no different than any other workout. In order to continually adapt, the stimulus has to be slightly altered. In a set of repeats on the track, we might decrease the rest or increase the pace/length of the repetitions. For a long run, we can obviously increase length and pace, but options are limited to an extent. The good news is that there are a few different ways we can squeeze out a little more adaptation. How do we accomplish that? Simply, by adding “stuff” to your long run.
“Stuff” refers to adding strides, surges, pickups, or progressions to the typical easy or steady long run. The goal in adding these components is to change the stimulus for adaptation ever so slightly. By adding in faster running toward the end of long runs, you force recruitment of muscle fibres that generally are never trained at an easy or steady pace. By slightly changing which muscle fibres are recruited, you now train those harder-to-recruit fibres under aerobic conditions. This increases their endurance.
Strides and surges are two ways to get more bang for your buck without adding much undue fatigue. They both work by changing the muscle fibre recruitment slightly. They can prevent the post-long run flatness that often occurs. This happens because the faster segments change the tension in the muscles and leave you with some “pop” in your legs instead of staleness. Strides should be done immediately after the completion of the long run and should include four to ten by 100-meter runs in length at about your 10K race pace.
This should be seen as an introductory session, which then progresses to surges over the following weeks. Surges should be done during the last 3-4 miles of the long run and should include segments where you pick it up to around 10K race pace and then back off to your easy pace for a short segment. I recommend starting with 5 x 30-second surges with two minutes of easy running between reps and work your way up progressively to where you’re doing 8-10 x 45 to 60-second surges with 2-3 minutes recovery in between. This should not be a taxing workout, but instead a comfortable surge that lets the legs loosen up a little bit.
Pickups and progressions are two slightly more challenging options for adding some spice to your long runs. The goal of these runs is to press the pace down so that the body gets used to increasing speed, increasing the aerobic demand, and recruiting muscle fibers when glycogen levels are getting progressively lower at the end of the long run. Once again, we are looking at training muscle fibers that aren’t normally trained aerobically and triggering the body to become more efficient with using up its glycogen stores. Pickups should be introduced in small doses. Start by picking up the pace to marathon race effort during the last 5 minutes of your long runs.
Every few weeks, increase the length of the pickup by 5 minutes until you get to the point where the last 20 minutes of your long run is done at a quicker pace. Progression long runs, on the other hand, should take a gradual approach. Instead of spending the last bit of your long run making a sudden change in speed, spread that speed increase out over a longer distance. Start with a gradual progression over the last quarter of your long runs (the last 4 miles of a 16 mile run, for example) and increase that until the last half of your long runs are spent gradually ratcheting down the speed. The goal is the same: get down to just faster than marathon race pace by the end of the run.
Anytime you add new workouts to your regime, it’s important to do so gradually. Keep your easy long runs in the rotation, but start adding some “stuff” to it every other week. By adding “stuff” such as progressions to long runs, you increase the amount of stimuli your body deals with. So stop slogging through the same old long runs–add some stuff to it!
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