The long run is the cornerstone of distance-running. It is a single workout that comprises around 30% of a runner’s total weekly mileage, is done at an easy pace (or slightly faster) and normally happens on early mornings on the weekend. It is not uncommon for those of us with busy lives to wake up at 3am to ensure we have the time available to run 15-25 miles before the family wakes up. If training for an upcoming race, the long run is critical for many reasons, here are a few reasons to love the long run. Pardon the alliteration, it actually wasn’t intended.
- Me-time. Long runs are a time to escape reality and connect. If you are not comfortable in your own skin or enjoy the confines of your own mind, then long runs may be challenging. These runs are long enough to have some deep conversations with your inner-self and ask yourself many times
- Meditation. Yes it is possible to meditate while you are running. Speaking of meditation, it is common to picture someone sitting serenely in the full lotus position with their eyes closed, but it happens many other ways. Meditation is mindfulness, being fully aware in the present moment and being in tune with your surrounding environment. This involves close awareness to the way the ground feels beneath your feet on each step, the different smells that enter your nose, the symphony of sounds of the wild, the way things appear visually, and most importantly, your breath. Paying close attention to how you are breathing is a great way to become more mindful as you run. Get into a steady rhythm, feeling the air rush into your mouth or nose and into your lungs, then feel your muscles gently push the air back out. Counting each breath cycle, up to ten, over and over again, can become quite satisfying and meditative. Before you know it, you’ve run several miles.
- Mitochondria. Remember that from high school biology class? Mitochondria are the “powerhouses of muscle cells” where core metabolic processes to convert food into energy for muscle contractions happen. The prolonged and steady low-intensity aerobic nature of long runs are great for stimulating growth and development of mitochondria and capillary density. As a result, our body can use oxygen more efficiently as we run, we don’t expend as much energy for a given pace or effort during a run.
- Mental Toughness. Aside from the physiological adaptations that happen as a direct result of long runs, there are significant psychological benefits. It is not easy to get out of a comfortable bed at 3am and run for 2-3 hours, it takes some serious discipline and initiative. But as with most things in life, you have the freedom to choose which path you will travel, and your actions will have consequences. I do some serious weighting of consequences at 3am on Sunday morning as my alarm goes off. Mental toughness also involves conditioning yourself to quell negative thoughts. At some point, you will question if you are good enough, fast enough, or if you are even a runner. It is normal for these thoughts to arise, but do not attach to them, let them arise, observe them, then watch them drift off into the darkness. There are two mindsets to take during running, you can either associate or dissociate with what is happening. Associating means that you are mindful of the stress and demands of the run, being in the moment as discussed previously. Dissociating means that you let your mind wander onto topics unrelated to the run. You might “go to your happy place” to escape the physical discomfort of running or think about the project that is due next week. Listening to music is another form of dissociative thinking during a long run, as it takes your mind away from the present moment as it enters the enjoyment of listening to music. Neither approach is right or wrong, better or worse, just different. And if used smartly, both can improve your success rate, in the long run.
- Miles. The long runs are important for physiological and psychological reasons, and they make up about 30% of a distance runner’s total weekly mileage. That 30% is a loose rule of thumb, as even top coaches will have slightly different opinions. But a common trend, even among elites is for a long run up to four times per month to bolster weekly volume. These miles translate to the benefits listed above and many other benefits for the distance runner.
- Mood. I am in a good mood after the long run. The feeling of satisfaction is irreplaceable, knowing I ran more miles in a morning than most people do their entire life.
- Morning Moments. When you wake up at 3am for a long run, you see, hear, feel, smell, and experience special moments that the rest of the world will never know. The few cars that pass must think we are crazy, or perhaps they wish they could motivate themselves to leave a comfy bed for an early run. And that’s if they even see us, many times I believe I ran with a deer for about a quarter mile one morning. She froze as I approached, spooked, then pranced off in the same direction I was running. Back and forth across the road she went, noting my presence behind her, but never leaving our direction of travel. Many times I have been startled by a small varmint scurrying off beside me because I startled him; good thing about these moments is the immediate adrenaline rush that you receive. Perhaps the best morning moments are the gradual and gentle awakening of the world as the sun begins to appear. First light and sunrise provide some of most phenomenal scenes you will ever see.
The long run has become one of my most cherished times of the week. As hard as it is to push myself out the door some days, I never regret doing it. The “runners high” is real and the after-effects last the rest of the day and sometimes even into the week.
For more information about running and training to become a better runner, visit the Windhorse Running homepage. Happy running!