Long runs, which are 90 minutes or more, are not your typical "head out the door and just run" activity. While the goal of a long run is to get your body, especially your legs, used to running for two to four hours consistently, it requires a certain amount of advance planning. You want to carefully consider the route, hydration and fueling, clothing choices, safety and transportation needs. Although the most important aspect of these training runs is plain and simple – time on your feet – there are a few key factors to take into account if you want to get the most out of it, especially if you're going for a personal best.
Here's how to maximize the benefits of your long runs beyond just time on your feet:
Course Simulation: I recommend running routes that have similar elevation changes as your race. If you have hills at the beginning or end of your course, practice starting or finishing your long runs with similar hills. This will prepare your legs and help you pace properly. If you're racing in the same city you live in, practice running portions of the course at least once or twice. Most race websites show the elevation chart. If it's not available, map it out yourself on www.mapmyfitness.com.
Pace Yourself Properly: Typically, you want to run 30 to 90 seconds per mile slower than your goal pace during your long runs. Within that context, I recommend focusing on a negative split, which is running the second half of the run faster than the first. To accomplish this, practice pacing the initial two miles 15 to 30 seconds slower per mile than the remainder of your route. Instilling these types of good habits will prevent you from starting way too fast, which could lead to hitting the wall earlier than anticipated.
Race Pace Practice: If you're training for a specific time, mentally and physically preparing yourself for your goal race pace is necessary. Insert two to four goal pace miles half to three quarters of the way through your long run. Word of caution: Don't be discouraged if the pace feels tough. Additional training, taper and adrenaline will help you on race day.
[Read: How to Identify a Running Injury.]
Hydration and Refueling Strategy: Every race needs a hydration plan, and it's prudent to practice yours. Too many people are sidelined with stomach cramps and bathroom issues as a result of too much or too little water on race day. Find out where the water stops are located along the race course (this information is usually available on the race website). Plan your hydration and nutrition at similar intervals during your long runs. We recommend drinking four to six ounces of water and eating 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates (150 to 250 calories) every 45 to 60 minutes. This may include sports drinks, gels or energy bars.
Dress Rehearsal: Run your long runs in the clothes and accessories that you plan on wearing during the race. Longer distances bring out chaffing in new – and often unforeseen – places, so it's best to get familiar ahead of time with what works and what doesn't.
Remember these key points, implement them throughout your training and you'll be smiling all the way from start to finish on the big day. For more tips on getting the most out of your long run, check out Hot Bird Running's blog.
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Meghan Reynolds, a USATF-Certified Running Coach, NASM-Certified Personal Trainer and Yoga Instructor, is a runner, yogi and fitness enthusiast. After working in the business world for years, she decided to make fitness a full time job and founded Hot Bird Running, a run coaching business, in May 2011. She has run 11 marathons, numerous half marathons and sprint triathlons. In addition to coaching runners, Meghan is a yoga instructor. She received her 200-hour level certification in 2004. Her yoga teachings focus on alignment and creating space in the body, which she finds vital for runners and athletes whose repetitive motions create blocks and stress in the body. Meghan credits her running accomplishments over the last 6 years to her dedication to cross-training, yoga and allowing herself and her body to recover properly after her rigorous running schedules. Find her on Twitter and Google+.