Whether you are training for your first race or you want to run faster, improving your endurance is necessary for achieving your goal. The long run is a tried-and-true way to improve endurance – especially if you run beyond your race distance. Overdistance long runs improve your race-specific endurance, whether you are training for a 5K, 10K, or half marathon.
The long run is, by definition, the longest run of the week. It is a staple in training plans for all distances and all abilities of runners. Your plan or coach may call for running longer than your goal race distance for at least one of those long runs in training – an overdistance long run. Why should you run further than the race distance in training?
Many runners are held back by a lack of endurance, especially if they are relatively new (5 years or less of running) to the sport. No matter how many years you have been running, a good base of endurance is necessary for developing speed. Even if you do speed work, you won’t realize your full potential without optimizing your endurance.
Overdistance long runs improve your race-specific endurance. Yes, increasing your overall weekly mileage will improve your endurance as well, but extending your long run in particular provides several benefits. The unique challenge of running further than you are used to elicits various physiological adaptations, including recruitment of fast twitch muscle fibers and better efficiency when tired. The more efficient you are when tired, the stronger of a runner you will become at any distance.
In distances from the 5K to the half marathon, overdistance long runs provide a psychological boost. Long runs present a cognitive stress as much as a physical stress. Your mind works to monitor pace and withstand physical discomfort on a run; by running for longer, you train your brain how to endure for longer. Psychological fatigue is often the reason many runners slow down in distances from the 5K to half marathon; overdistance long runs improve your ability to resist that fatigue during the race.
The confidence boost of overdistance long runs is also important. If you have gone further than race distance, you will feel more comfortable with the race distance and more confident about pushing your pace.
5K to 10K:
Even the shorter distances like the 5K and 10K are predominantly aerobic. (Only 400m and shorter races are truly anaerobic.) Running further than the race distance in training will improve your endurance and, in turn, your speed-endurance – how long you can sustain a faster pace for a given distance.
For beginners, a long run of a 7-8 miles for the 5K and 10K provides just enough stress to produce growth without too high of injury risk or too much of a challenge for their fitness level. The more experience you gain as a runner, the longer your long run should be. Experienced runners can aim for 10-12 miles during 5K and 10K training.
Typically, long runs will be done at an easy to moderate effort during 5K to 10K training. Interval training, tempo runs, and race-pace workouts are a priority in training for the 5K to 10K; ideally, most runners want to stick to one to two hard workouts per week plus one long run. More experienced runners can combine one of their hard workouts and long run together (leaving only one other hard workout for the week), with a progression long run or fartlek long run.
For novice runners, you will probably only run up to 13 miles as your longest long run over race day. Some plans may only build your mileage up to 10-12 miles before the race, depending on your fitness level.
Once you have completed your first half marathon, overdistance runs can help you train effectively for faster finish times. Even if you can comfortably run 13 miles, running 14-16 miles in training will improve your endurance and provide enough of a new stimulus to avoid plateauing. For me, a long run of 14-15 miles helped me take 12 minutes (as of spring 2018) off of my half marathon time. As a coach, I regularly prescribe at least 14 mile long runs to runners looking to PR in the half marathon.
When you first incorporate overdistance long runs into your half marathon training, run them at an easy, conversational effort. The volume alone will make these a harder workout. After a few training cycles, as your body adapts, you can incorporate fast finishes, progressions, and even workouts into these long runs.
On race day, that endurance will translate to sustaining your pace with more ease through the end of the race. You may be even to pick up the pace in the final couple miles of the race, since the half marathon distance feels more comfortable to you.
What about the Marathon?
The law of diminishing returns factors in with the marathon. Most runners stick to 20-22 miles for a good reason – these long runs provide a beneficial stress without requiring long recovery or skyrocketing the risk of injury. You can run 20 miles and continue on with the next week of training. Even marathon distance itself would require so much recovery and risk so much injury that the endurance benefits would not be worth it in training – and those risks and diminishing returns only increase beyond the marathon distance.
If your endurance feels limited in the marathon, you can try extending your long run from past training segments. For example, if you previously ran 20 miles as your longest long run, you could aim for 21 or 22 miles in your next marathon training cycle. However, I do find it more beneficial to increase the number of 20 mile long runs and/or increase the quality of those 20 mile long runs.
As with all long runs, overdistance long runs should be done every 7-10 days, with adequate recovery afterward. You should gradually build up your long run distance to them if you are coming off of an off-season, since too quickly increasing mileage heightens the risk of injury.
Do you include overdistance long runs in your training?
How far have you ever run when training for a race?