Thursday, 3 April 2008

How fast should our long runs be?

Posted by speedygeoff on Thursday, April 03, 2008 with 3 comments
In this blog I have recently written several reflective posts on "how fast should our long runs be?" And on 15 March I posted "The key to getting fitter is to run regular long distances at a good pace, supplemented by interval training and speed work. The main training to focus on is the long running, which should be run just about as fast as you can go without compromising the on-going training plan." Now the research is sufficiently advanced to give you a final version, as published this month in Vetrunner magazine.

How fast should our long runs be?
The foundation of fitness is general endurance; and general endurance is best developed by running long distances; but what is the best pace for these long runs? Very slow? Moderate? Challenging?

I promote a training pattern which mixes a variety of training sessions within each weekly cycle. A winter pattern I have found works quite well is - Day 1 fast; Day 2 longest; Day 3 recovery; Day 4 recovery; Day 5 fastest; Day 6 long; Day 7 recovery. Fast days are when we do interval training, time trials, racing, or fast tempo runs etc; long days are where we adapt to spending time running, and where we extend the time on our feet as we improve; and recovery days are where we run moderate distances at a slow pace, finishing as fresh as we start. But when our training is a mix of fast, long, and recovery sessions, just how fast should we be running on our very long days?

After a suggestion by Bruce Graham, I have been reviewing the work of Marius Bakken (I won’t quote much of it, you can visit and read it for yourself) who has documented the training programs of many of the world’s best athletes. Wanting to see how fast the very best run in training, my guess was that very slow longer distance training, as many of my peers across Australia seem to be doing, is good for base general endurance and maintenance, up to a point; but that real improvement is unlikely without a high proportion of long runs at a solid pace.

Sure enough – the theme repeated over and over again in Bakken’s reports, is. “a high overall volume of continuous runs at relatively high intensities.” Supplemented by “regular short and long repetition sessions.” And it’s worse than that! Easy days are steady runs at a very fast pace still! I think if “people of our age” were to try that, we would need to be stretching twice a day every day, and be arranging to have a massage every second day as well!

Bakken’s research applies to 1500m runners as much as to runners specialising in longer distances!!

The Kenyans he discusses are good examples of this kind of training – huge volumes, many sessions a week, typical training: “They start out slow, on maybe an hour run. Then they go faster and faster as they go along, until they have reached the zone right below their Lactic Threshold. This is where they will continue for the rest of the run.” And they start these training runs from a very early age.

Some of this we can borrow – we can regularly plan some very fast long runs, particularly if time does not permit a lot of training opportunities and we need to get the best out of what we do. It is better to sacrifice racing and speed sessions than risk losing the specific endurance these longer runs provide. Also, because long runs are the building blocks of fitness, this is the kind of running newer people should start on, rather than starting by racing then adding in a speed session or two and getting into longer runs later. But for newer people or those coming back from serious injury, especially when they haven’t run long before, I suggest doing the distances slowly, so that you can as the weeks and months progress, gradually adapt to longer running, and focus more on increasing the distance from time to time. Don’t try to set personal best times for every run, as some seem to need to do! After a certain amount of adaption has taken place, and when you are starting to get faster over long distances without any subjective increase in effort, then you can start setting time goals for these runs. Lest we get carried away and turn into ultra runners and lose our innate speed!

But in general I think we should have as an aim not to run our long runs slowly, instead we should try and run them as fast as it is sensible to, the main consideration being the need to recover and train another day!

Thank goodness running is an art not a science! There is no one formula or training pattern; it is up to each of us to experiment and see how we can develop the various aspects of fitness, with the body, mind and heart that we have been given!

One more thing I would suggest. If your training has been pretty routine for a long time, put your mind to how you might vary it, in order to stimulate some improvement in what you do. And it may be several factors that you can develop far beyond your current stage of fitness, as well as simply running long. Flexibility and strength (which go together) come to mind; from which comes better adaptability and the ability to trial different running styles and to work on form, and the ability to resist and survive injury. More on that another day.


  1. For a brief moment when you had day 1 as 'fast' I thought you meant don't eat :-)

  2. That's why I am not "fastGeoff".

    I did try a fast once and the first 24 hours is the hardest. It was a 40 hour fast. The only other times the possiblity of fasting has come up, I had an important race scheduled, and one should never restrict ones diet before or after races!

  3. Hey, you copied that article from Vetrunner!

    I've put my mind to how I might vary my routine training, in order to stimulate some improvement:
    I'm going to cut back from seven runs per week to one :)