Ultrarunning: Why You Need the Long Run

August 29, 2011

This article is part of Endurance Planet’s ultrarunning article series. If you have questions, comments or feedback about “Why You Need the Long Run”, please leave it below in the comments section…

Ask any runner if the long run is the most important session of marathon training and they’ll all likely answer in the affirmative. Ask them about the details such as technique, frequency, venue, and other specific mechanics, and you’ll likely get as many different answers as respondents.

The foundational significance of the long run is undeniable.  And the ultramarathon more than any other type of footrace tests and establishes the validity of this fact. However it is also equally true that every runner is almost unique in terms of experience, fitness, and motivation. This explains the myriad and sometimes contradictory training programs, schedules and coaching advice about the long run you encounter online and in print.

Rather than presenting specific guidelines and possibly just add more confusion, the objective here instead is to simply outline the most common and basic aspect of the long run. Hopefully this serves as a jump off point to make more informed decisions about your own training.

Defining the long run

The long run cannot really be defined according to a set distance. You may have read various recommendations ranging from anything between 18 to 30 miles. But consider a complete beginner who has never run farther than 4 miles, 8 miles would probably be a long run for such a neophyte. Although distance doesn’t work as an objective basis; that does not mean it isn’t important. Obviously a complete beginner needs to build up and maintain a certain amount of mileage before he or she can even attempt a marathon and then acquire some more experience before moving on to ultras.

So simply put, a long run is just what the name implies – the longest continuous training run in your regimen. The actual distance is going to be relative. In fact some methodologies measure length of time spent running instead of distance. The benefit you’ll get out of achieving that ‘x’ number of miles or ‘x’ number of hours is what really counts.

Main objective

It can never be overstated how endurance is the key to accomplishing an ultramarathon. The perfect vehicle to help you enhance this important ability is the long run. Here’s what happens when you push yourself to go farther in terms of distance or time.

Your body basically burns up glycogen derived from the carbohydrates in food and then taps your stored fats for more fuel. By subjecting yourself to this kind of stress, you’re actually teaching your body to adapt and become more efficient in utilizing its fats and glycogen, and increase its storage capacity of the latter.

You’re naturally going to feel an increase in heart rate due to an increase in adrenalin as you get tired and enter stress mode. This triggers another adaptation, this time for your endocrine system. You are learning to run while coping with fatigue. Along with all these, improvements in your cardiovascular and aerobic efficiency also occur. The bottom line? You develop the facility to go the distance at a more consistent performance.

Tuning in to your body

This primary benefit of endurance is cumulative. Aside from monitoring factors such as your heart rate and pacing, there is no exact and direct way to really measure these adaptations. It will mostly fall on you to listen to what your body is telling you.

All questions of methodology will have to be answered by matching the long run’s main objective with an honest evaluation of your current status in terms of fitness. The long run is essentially a tool for probing your limits and elevating it one relatively small step at a time. Push too hard and you risk injury. Push too little and you miss out on maximizing your potential. Only your body can tell you where the exact level should be.


Do you have questions about long run benefits, or what you’ve read so far? Do you have any ultrarunning pointers of your own to add? Please leave your feedback, comments and questions below, and we promise we’ll respond.

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