How to run longer distances

Author: Anna Harding

Read Time:   |  August 3, 2022

Whether it's 10K or 40K, upping your mileage can seem daunting. We get expert advice on how to run longer distances...

Running longer distances is something that can be daunting to any runner, whether it’s 10K or 40K. We tend to get quite comfortable in the distance we’ve already mastered. We also forget that we ever struggled to run that distance when we began.

Of course, running further is something that we can all do with a little bit of time and effort. For bigger jumps, like 5K to 10K, we’ll follow a training plan to increase our running distance. The plan will carefully and slowly increase our mileage, so that we barely notice the difference in distance.

But if you’re following a half marathon or marathon training plan, you might be faced with longer distances than you’re used to right from the get-go. These long runs can seem daunting, but there are some things you can do help you go the distance without getting overwhelmed. We talk to running expert Anna Harding to get her advice on how to run longer distances…

Don’t skip your warm-up

Yes, a simple warm-up can make all the difference to how far you can run. Why? A good running warm-up can improve running form and efficiency. This can help you carry on running for longer. Your heart rate will speed up slightly during a warm-up, and this will increase blood flow to the muscles. Your internal core temperature will also go up a bit. That slight raise of core temperature means that more oxygen is able to get to your muscles, because it is more easily released by the haemoglobin molecules that carry it. All of these set you up for a great run.

Finesse your form

When you get tired, it’s easy to let your running form slip into a kind of hunched shuffle. This not only slows you down, but can also contribute towards injury.

Instead, try and focus on staying tall, with your shoulders back and your chest out. Imagine that there’s a piece of string coming out of the top of your head that is gently being pulled upwards.

Another cue that’s really useful when it comes to checking in on your running form is ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes’. Perform a check on each area of your body from head to toes every mile of your long run. This will ensure that you’re running in the most efficient way. Keep your head up, your shoulders relaxed and back. Lift your knees as you run and focus on maintaining a quick cadence, keeping your feet light and fast, with your toes pointed forwards.

You can also support your running posture by doing regular strength training to help you stay strong. Core work is key here.

Pace yourself at the start

Many of us are guilty of starting our long runs too fast, and we then have to slow down. By starting off slowly, we’ll save energy for that extra effort at the end.

If you are marathon training, the rule of thumb for the pace of your long run should be anywhere from 30 seconds to 60 seconds slower per mile. So, if you’re aiming for a four-hour marathon, your marathon pace would be 9 minutes 9 seconds per mile. You should aim to run your long runs at around 9 minutes 53 seconds per mile.

If you have a running watch which gives you heart rate data, or you’ve invested in a heart rate monitoring chest strap, you can use that as a gauge for what pace you should be aiming to run your long runs at. A really simple method to calculate your ideal long run heart rate is to take your age of 220, and keep your heart rate at or below 60-65 percent of that.

It’s also easy to base your long run on effort if you don’t have the means to measure your heart rate or pace. Run at around a 3-out-of-10 effort and at a conversational pace. In fact, having company on your long run will not only keep you on track with your pace, but will also keep your mind occupied.

Train on trails

Unless your long run features some specific goal-pace miles, you shouldn’t need to get too hung up on the actual pace you’re running at. Why not take your long run to the trails so you’re not tempted to push the pace of your long run too hard?

Not only can running on trails be more inspiring in beautiful surroundings, it’s also a great way to start running a bit further because it slows you down naturally. There might be obstacles like tree roots and rocks that you have to slow down for. They’ll also help you to naturally improve your core strength, balance and proprioception (your awareness of your body’s movements), in particular the way your ankles and feet deal with the uneven surfaces.

The softer surface of trails can be more forgiving on your body too, which is beneficial if you’re starting to really clock up the miles.

Increase your distance slowly

If you’re not following a training plan for a specific distance, make sure that you’re not going too far, too fast.

A common piece of advice is to increase your weekly mileage by no more then 10-15% each week. So, if you’re running 10 miles per week, then your total mileage for the next week should increase by no more than 1-1.5 miles.

This rule helps to avoid overuse injuries by gradually conditioning your body to withstand the extra impact of the longer distances. You can apply this to your long run too, making sure that you increase the distance by no more than 15% each week.

Measure minutes rather than miles

Lots of training plans will talk about the miles you’ll be running. But if that’s becoming daunting or off-putting, try measuring your runs in time, rather than distance.

Running for a set amount of minutes or hours allows you to take a step back from fretting about the pace of your run.

Instead, just switch your watch face to the clock and go and run for a set amount of time. A good way to give yourself a target is to see how long it took to run your last long run, and add on a few minutes. The 10% rule also works well here.

‘Time on feet’ is a really common phrase used among runners and it’s a useful one to remember. When you’re training for a marathon, or even an ultra marathon, spending a good chunk of time out on your feet will help to train your body to prepare for what’s to come.

Depending on your pace and ability, those long runs will have you out on your feet for up to several hours. By reframing that 20-miler to a four-hour run, you might find it easier to break it down, especially when it comes to planning how you’ll take on fuel.

Fuel throughout your run

It’s important to understand how to keep your body fuelled properly so that it has enough energy to go the distance.

When you run, your body burns a mixture of carbohydrate and fat. Your body stores carbohydrate as glycogen in your muscles and liver and the harder you run, the more carbohydrate you use. During intense exercise, muscle glycogen particles are broken down, freeing glucose molecules that muscle cells then oxidise through anaerobic and aerobic processes to produce the adenosine triphosphate (ATP) molecules required for muscle contraction.

Glycogen depletion is a key limiting factor in races lasting longer than about 90 minutes. You can increase the amount of glycogen you have stored by tapering your training in the lead up to your race and eating a high carbohydrate diet during the last three days before a race, otherwise known as carb loading.

Now, although that all sounds incredibly scientific, and possibly a little confusing, you can keep it simple. You should aim to take on roughly 40-60g of carbohydrate per hour of running. A regular energy gel contains around 20 grams of carbohydrate, so if your long run is two hours long, you’ll want to take on four energy gels.

This amount is for optimum performance, so you probably won’t do this every single time you go on a long run, but it’s important that you practise your fuelling strategy a few times before the race, so you know what does and doesn’t work for you. Some people are fine with using gels but others prefer real food or sports drinks as an alternative.

Stay hydrated

Training for for longer distances requires a little more planning when it comes to hydration. This is especially true if the weather is warm. Hotter days mean you’ll lose more water through sweat than usual.

Make sure you are sufficiently hydrated in the 24 hours before your run. For runs over an hour in duration, especially on warmer days, it’s likely that you’ll want to have some water on hand. A sip of water can also help gels to go down better. You can run looped runs around your house or a shop, so you can access water every time you pass, or wear a hydration pack.

Watch out for dehydration. If you don’t have enough fluid in your body, it can lead to your blood becoming thicker and more viscous, and reducing the amount that’s pumped around the body. This can put a strain on your cardiovascular system, especially during exercise.

On the flip-side, being over-hydrated is very rare but potentially very serious. Hyponatremia, as it’s known, is when the concentration of sodium in your blood is abnormally low. This can happen when you drink too much water which dilutes the normal levels of sodium to a dangerous level. To avoid this, add electrolytes to some of the water you drink before, during and after your run.

Remember to prioritise recovery

Recovery is just as important as the run itself. Long runs put stress on the body, and you need to give yourself time to recover before you next go out running.

In order to help your body with the recovery process, try to eat something protein-rich within 30 minutes of finishing your long run.

If you’re following a training plan, you will probably have a rest day or very easy run the day after a long run. Make sure you stick to it. The rest day means you should try and sleep in longer in the morning and focus on replenishing your glycogen stores.

Anna Harding

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