How to improve your long distance running - Women's Running

Improve your distance running

Author: Chris Macdonald

Read Time:   |  August 27, 2014

Improve your distance

When it comes to being able to run for longer, it all comes down to the power of ten, says coaching editor Phoebe Thomas

Running appeared to be simple, didn’t it? The first time those trainers went on, it may have seemed daunting, but the reality was you just needed to put one foot in front of the other a little quicker than walking. Simple, right? But as your running journey unfolds, many complications are thrown in your path and the once simple task of executing a week of running training seems like a complicated conundrum or equation needing to be solved. The most common problem women runners ask me about is how to build up the distance they run for safely and successfully.

This can be difficult for the new and more experienced runner alike. But be it stepping up from a 5K to a 10K, or deciding to take on the challenge of a marathon, there is one thing that applies to everyone – ‘the ten per cent rule’.

Avoid increasing the volume of you weekly running or long run by any more than ten per cent each week. This may mean five to ten minutes on the long run each week, but no more. Do this each week for three weeks, then drop back the volume on the fourth for an easier week. The body responds well to gradual progression, including an easier week, where it can repair and build new muscle fibres. Going from zero to hero is not smart and will ultimately leave you injured or demoralised, so make it easy for yourself and remember, ten per cent!

If you’re a new runner…

woman running

The long run

There needs to be one run in your week that increases in length. As we all know, this is called ‘the long run’ and – almost like the little black dress of running – is a necessity. The long run is designed to build aerobic fitness by laying down more red blood cells that eventually carry more oxygen around the body. There need only be one long run within your weekly mix – don’t confuse quantity with quality and assume that now you are working on distance, every single run must be longer.


Run at the speed of chat

At present, the long run is all about ‘time on your feet’ to build endurance. This is where common sense needs to be involved… if you are trying to run further than you have done before, then slow down! I have many runners telling me their long runs are a disaster and nine times out of ten it’s because they begin too quickly and inevitably run out of stamina. Aim to complete the distance without worrying about pace by ‘running to feel’. Ask yourself, ‘Will I be able to keep this pace going for the duration?’ If the answer is no, then back off!


It’s not all quantity

Now you know that every single run doesn’t have to get longer to improve distance, but what can you do mid-week to improve your ability to run for longer? Putting the correct things within your shorter runs will improve overall aerobic fitness and make the long run feel easier. This comes in the form of blocks of threshold work (running at three- to four-word answer pace, or effort level 8/10) for blocks of time, such as putting 4 x 5 mins at threshold with a 1-minute jog recovery into a normal mid-week run. The fitness benefits are immense – you build strength and the longer runs will begin to feel easier, ultimately helping duration.


If you’re an experienced runner…

Maybe you have run a number of half marathons or even marathons, but find the second half is a gradual demise to feeling like that novice you were some years ago.

A common misconception in this scenario is that you need to simply practise running longer more often. To a degree, this has an effect, butthe runner who runs long and slow all the time must resign themselves to being slow come race day. Instead, it’s time to build the ‘strength endurance’ and ‘speed endurance’ that will enable to you to run harder for longer and maintain pace.

Have you ever noticed it’s not the lungs that give up in longer races, but the legs? You can easily chat to or the person next to you, but the legs don’t want to go any faster? In which case, you need to make yourself stronger.

This work comes in the form of threshold blocks, as mentioned above and continuous threshold hills. These involve running up and down a ten per cent gradient hill for blocks of time. Run up for 45 to 60 seconds, turn and run down at the same effort, continuing this for the allocated block of time. So a session may be 4 x 6 mins of continuous hills with a two-minute jog recovery.


How to improve your distance


  • Are you fuelling your long run before and during? The body can cope with 30 minutes of running without sufficient fuelling, but asking it to go much longer having run out of glycogen will make the long run tough.


  • Are you choosing realistic routes? A hilly route may be fun and enjoyable for 45 minutes, but are you ready to run a hilly route while stepping up the distance? Be kind to yourself in the early stages of building distance and choose flatter routes.


  • Avoid running ‘out and back’ routes in windy conditions. It may feel great on the way out but gosh it’s demoralising on the way back!


  • Dress for your long runs – the weather can change dramatically over a two-hour period. Make sure the kit you’re wearing is appropriate.


  • Have an adventure – avoid just running around the same park as your mid-week run, only doing more laps. The mind hates this! Choose a new route – the new challenge will help the mile pass.


  • There’s nothing worse than a lonesome long run with your head telling you it is impossible. Meet up with friends and chat the miles away!


Chris Macdonald

Editor-at-Large, Women's Running

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