When you picture a runner training for a marathon, you might picture them running down a road or logging miles on the treadmill. However, there's much more to long-distance running training than lacing up your shoes and hitting the pavement.
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Understanding Long-Distance Running Training
There's no set definition for "long-distance running." For some, it could mean a half-marathon. For others, it could mean an ultra-marathon that totals 50 kilometers or more.
Whatever it means to you, long-distance running training takes time and effort. The runs are long, and that's just the beginning of the training.
Adding other elements to your training, such as weight lifting or short sprints, can help boost your performance. A January 2018 meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance found that strength training made long-distance runners faster.
The researchers found that strength training, in particular, was associated with faster running times. This means that you don't need to focus on building muscle as much as you should focus on lifting heavier weights. Another important finding was that resistance training helped regardless of experience level, so both beginner and advanced runners can reap the benefits.
Sprint training, such as running up hills or running sprint distances on a track, is also associated with faster long-distance times. A small study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in April 2019 reviewed the training regime of 85 elite male runners and compared their results.
Researchers have found that the most important factors separating the top runners from those who lagged behind were total distance, easy runs, tempo runs and short-interval training. That means you need to focus on the total amount of miles you are running, how much easy recovery running you do, how you mix up fast and slow runs and how you train with explosive sprint workouts.
With that being said, long-distance runs are still an integral part of your training. You'll just have to balance them with strength training and shorter runs, or sprints, when you put together your training plan.
Designing a proper training program isn't just about running as fast as possible. The other goal of your training program should be injury prevention. According to the Australian Sports Commission, about 70 percent of runners sustain an injury during any 12-month period. Of that 70 percent, 42 percent of the injuries affect the knee.
Most of the injuries a runner sustains are caused by overuse. A properly-designed training program can help you avoid overuse by slowly building up distance. As long as you don't procrastinate before your big race, you should be able to decrease your risk of injury by balancing your long-distance runs with strength training and short runs.
Marathon Running Training Tips
Running a marathon is a common goal for long-distance runners, which makes it a good example of training program design. An article from the Boston Athletics Association outlines a 20-week marathon training program that requires you to train four days per week.
The program is laid out with four different training blocks. It starts with a three-week preparation phase that gets you ready for the intense training to come. Then you move into a six-week half-marathon phase that gets you ready to run 13 miles.
After that, you'll go through a nine-week marathon phase where you gradually increase your mileage. That's followed by a two-week tapering phase that lets you recover before the race. During the tapering phase, you'll dramatically reduce the number of miles you're running, which can actually boost your marathon performance and decrease the risk of injuries.
With more time to train, you can more-gradually increase the intensity of your workouts. However, if you're short on time, your training has to be condensed. A 16-week long-distance running plan for beginners from the National Strength and Conditioning Association involves four to five days of running training per week, which doesn't include strength training workouts.
Each week includes a rest day on Monday because Sunday is the longest training day. The plan is set up this way because marathons often take place on Sunday, and you'll need the rest day on Monday to recover from your long run.
On the National Strength and Conditioning Association training plan, you'll start the first seven weeks with two shorter runs early in the week, one day with a short run and hill sprints, and a long run that totals 5 miles.
In weeks eight through 11, you'll do three days of shorter runs, one day with a short run and hill sprints and 12 miles on your Sunday run. Weeks 12 to 15 have three shorter runs, one day with mile-run repeats and a 20-mile run on Sunday.
The final week before the marathon includes 4- and 3-mile runs on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively. This is a shorter tapering phase than the Boston Athletics Association program, which is likely due to the shorter allotted training time.
Strength Training for Runners
Strength training is the missing piece of the puzzle for many runners. By the end of the week, you might be exhausted by all the running you're doing. It can be difficult to motivate yourself to return to the gym for more exercise. If you're willing to put the work in, strength training can help your long-distance running.
You don't need to go overboard when you start a strength training routine. Two to three days of weight lifting should be plenty, especially if you're new to this type of exercise. Each session can be a total-body workout with lower-body, upper-body and core exercises. An article from The American Council on Exercise includes five exercises that can help runners.
Fitness experts recommend the plank for core stability, the single-leg deadlift for hamstring strength, the goblet squat for leg strength, the lateral lunge for inner thigh and outer-hip strength and the TRX row for upper back strength.
An August 2016 review published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research has found that combining strength training with plyometrics helped long-distance runners. The study looked at training protocols that used 40 to 70 percent of users' one-rep max for weight training exercises. That's considered low to medium intensity.
In each strength training workout, there were two to four lower-body exercises performed. There were also about 200 jumps as part of a plyometric workout, and five to 10 short sprints. The workouts were performed two to three times per week.
It's important to note that these runners were experienced and participated in running competitions. If you're a beginner, you might want to start with only one day per week of strength and plyometric training. From there, you can gradually build up as you get more accustomed to this type of training.
Read More: Training for a Race? Here's Exactly Where to Start
Hydration and Nutrition During Runs
Long-distance running is draining and demanding on your body, which means that you have to consider recovery and nutrition in addition to workouts. Hydration is an important aspect of this sport.
If you're dehydrated during your run, it can decrease your performance and put you at greater risk for heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Throughout the day, even when you're not running, you should be drinking fluids in preparation for your training. Water works well, but you may also have a sports drink.
During your run, you can sip on a sports drink to replenish carbohydrates and electrolytes like sodium and potassium. To see if you're drinking enough during training, weigh yourself before and after. If you lose more than two percent of your body weight through sweat, you're likely not drinking enough fluids.
To fight dehydration, consume 10 to 15 ounces of fluids every 20 to 30 minutes during your run. For every pound of body weight lost, drink one pint of fluid when you're done training.
Snacks can also be helpful if you're running for more than one hour. For one to two hours of exercise, 30 grams of carbohydrates are recommended to replenish your body's energy stores. For runs lasting two to three hours, aim for about 60 grams of carbs. During runs lasting more than two hours and a half, you can consume 90 grams of carbohydrates.
These carbs can come from sources like sports gels, sports drinks or snack bars. Try a few options to see what works best for your stomach during training.
For long-distance running training, footwear can play a big role. This type of activity requires adequate footwear. Otherwise, it may lead to injuries.
When you buy a new pair of running shoes, buy them at the end of the day. That's when your feet are at their largest.
Proper Footwear for Runners
Running wears your shoes out faster than you may expect. If you run up to 10 total miles per week, you should replace your shoes every nine to 12 months. Replacing your shoes ensures you have enough cushioning to absorb the impact forces of running.
Minimalist footwear is a relatively new trend in running shoes that may or may not help you. These types of shoes provide less cushioning than normal running shoes. Many of them have a smaller heel, which makes your foot more flat as you land on the ground.
If you're considering minimalist shoes, make sure you scale back your training. There will be more stress on your muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones. According to a small study published in January 2017 in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, athletes with minimalist shoes are more likely to experience pain while running.
Researchers have noticed that there was significantly more incidence of injury among subjects who ran over 35 kilometers per week. Another factor was body weight. Runners who weighed over 71.4 kilograms were more likely to sustain an injury while wearing minimalist shoes compared to their lighter counterparts.
- The American Journal of Sports Medicine: "Body Mass and Weekly Training Distance Influence the Pain and Injuries Experienced by Runners Using Minimalist Shoes: A Randomized Controlled Trial"
- Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine: "Role of Nutrition in Performance Enhancement and Postexercise Recovery"
- OrthoInfo: "Tips for a Safe Running Program"
- University of California San Francisco: "Running a Marathon: Training Tips"
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: "Effects of Strength Training on Running Economy in Highly Trained Runners: "A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis of Controlled Trials"
- ACE Fitness: "5 Exercises Every Runner Should Be Doing"
- National Strength and Conditioning Association: "Training Program Considerations for Endurance Runners"
- Hospital for Special Surgery: "The Importance of Tapering Before a Marathon"
- Boston Athletics Association: "BOSTON MARATHON TRAINING PLAN"
- Sports Medicine Australia: "Running Fact Sheet"
- Research Gate: "World-Class Long-Distance Running Performances Are Best Predicted by Volume of Easy Runs and Deliberate Practice of Short-Interval and Tempo Runs"
- Human Kinetics Journals: "Strength Training for Middle- and Long-Distance Performance: A Meta-Analysis"