The Weekly Long Run By Chaim Wizman
Nothing defines the long distance runner more than the weekly long run. Y'all are in for a treat. Tomorrow morning, you do your first official long run of the season (a long run is technically defined as any run of half marathon distance or more, less than this is considered medium long). The long run is the bread and butter of a marathoner and it is incredibly rewarding when it goes well and it can also be devastating when you crash and burn. Therefore, I am going to explain how and why we do long runs.
First of all, why do we do it?
The answers are both physiological and pyschological.
1) Glycogen Depletion: The primary form of fuel used by the body when running a marathon is glycogen, a form of carbohydrate stored in the liver. Most people can store only about 2000 calories worth of glycogen and that is only enough for about 25-32 kilometers depending on your weight and metabolic rate. When you hear the expression "hitting the wall" that is simply a colorful way of saying that one became glycogen depleted and lacked the fuel to continue. As you all know, however, the marathon is 42.2 kilometers, not 25 or 30 km, so the question is, where do you get the rest of the energy you will need on January 10th. The answer is from fat. Everyone, even the most emaciated runner, has abunndant fat stores in his body. The problem is that the body is not very good at using fat for energy because it requires more oxygen to metabolize fat. Therefore, less oxygen is available to the muscles. What long runs do in this regard is twofold. First, they train your body to store more glycogen than the average person which means you push the wall further away. Second, they teach your body to metabolize fats more efficiently. Even if you run 15 kilometers every day, you will not get the same physiological adaptations that are necessary for the unique requirements of the marathon unless you run long. You can also replenish your glycogen stores mid-run with calorie based snacks such as gels and energy replacement drinks but you need to experiment with what your stomach can handle since everyone is different in this regard.
2) Psychology: Everyone who has been training with this group regularly can easily run 10 or 15 km at a pace that is comfortable to that runner. You may be exhausted by the end of that run but you will likely recover within 36 hours because your excellent fitness level means that you have not pushed your body to its limit. But herein, my friends, lies the rub. Marathoning is an extreme sport and I assure you that you will be pushing your body to the limits on the second Thursday in January (it's actually a lot more fun than it sounds.). By running long, you simulate what your body will go through in the marathon. If your legs feel dead at kilometer 37 or your hamstrings tighten and your general exhaustion makes you want to do anything but run another step, it helps to know that you have been there before and that you can shorten your stride, stretch a bit and tough it out. The psychological component of marathoning cannot be overestimated. The long runs will build your mind as much as your body. I am a big believer in doing a lot of long runs (as you can see from the schedule) because aside from the physiological adaptations these runs provide, they make you mentally tough. The goal is to leave as little uncharted territory as possible on race day. Naturally,of course, this has to be balanced against training too hard and risking injury.
OK, now you know WHY we do it. But HOW do we do it properly? During base training, pace is not important at all. There is plenty of time to sharpen our pacing once you have the endurance under your belt. I suggest the following progression for long runs during base training. Start out SLOW. For the first five Kilometers take it very easy, allowing your body warm up properly. Once you are warm, you can quicken the pace by about 15 or 20 seconds per kilometer but make sure that you settle into a comfortable rythm and are not pushing too hard. You should be able to carry on a conversation during this stage of the run. If you can't you are running too fast. Unless you are training for a hilly marathon, forget about your pace completely on a steep hill. Just shorten your stride, pump your arms and survive the hill. Resist the temptation to walk, however, because pyschologically, walking will kill the run for you. Over the final quarter of the run, although you may be exhausted, try to actually quicken the pace to about 10% slower than goal marathon pace. Once your run is concluded, do a five minute warmdown consisting either of slow jogging or brisk walking. Stretch very gently but never to the point of pain.
It is very important to eat a large meal of complex carbohydrates on the night before a long morning run to ensurethat your glycogen stores are topped out. Although pasta is the traditional favorite, rice, potatoes, high grain cereal and bagels will do just fine also. Drink a lot throughout the previous day to ensure that you are well-hydrated. If you can stomach ice tea or sportsdrink early in the morning and some crackers or rice cakes, you will be better off having some calories in your system to replace the ones you burned overnight. Make sure that there are drinks along the course. Water is OK, but flavored water or ice tea or non-acidic juice is better as it provides calories and hence, glycogen. Some people like to eat raisins on the run. If this works for you, terrific. Make sure that you drink at least 1.5 liters during the run, more if it warm and/or humid. Your thirst mechanism does not keep up with the actual process of dehydration and therefore, if you suddenly feel very thirsty, you are probably already dehydrated and the rest of your run will suffer.
A final word of encouragement. Don't be discouraged if you are exhausted during or after the run. I have always found the early season long runs the most difficult. Paradoxically, even though your long runs will get progressively longer, they will actually get easier and you will ultimately agree that there is nothing that feels as sweet as a good long run. Course selection is important. Long runs are precious and the body cannot tolerate too many of them so you will definitely want to treat each one with the proper respect and maximize the experience. The specificity of training principle also dictates that you train on a similar type of course as your goal marathon. For example, if your goal marathon is on a flat course, there is no reason for you to train on a hilly course. Personally, I prefer point to point courses over out and back courses because it is much more fun and motivating to actually get somewhere (like Rechovot, which is my all time favorite long run and which we will do several times in our training). Still, sometimes time restrictions will force you to finish your long runs at the same place you start them so you will just have to make the best of it. Eat a high carb meal within 1-2 hours after the run because you will be severely glycogen depleted and the body absorbs glycogen very efficiently within 2 hours after a long run.