Dave Scott during the 1994 Ironman Triathlon in Kona, Hawaii.Photo: Gary Newkirk/Allsport
Did you fade over the final eight miles of your Ironman race? Were you able to develop your speed for your Olympic- and sprint-distance races? You did your track workouts, but what went wrong?
To answer these questions you need to take a look at the consistency and progression of your endurance-building long run during the off-season and pre-season.
But the long run, a regular over-distance training session that varies in length depending upon the event you plan to race, can be either the cure or the culprit in the success or demise of your season.
Nonetheless, the advantages of the long run tend to outweigh any potential downside, particularly when an athlete schedules long runs as part of a logical and systematic progression of overload and recovery.
Advantages of the Long Run:
- Establishes a fitness base upon which an athlete can build cardiovascular and cardio-respiratory fitness through higher-intensity workouts later in the year
- Boosts the physiological variables that are the core of an athlete's aerobic system:
- Capillary density. Increased density allows a greater flow and potential volume of oxygen and nutrients to fuel the muscles
- Number of mitochondria (the cellular power plants that produce energy)
- Increases aerobic enzymes, which aid in the breakdown of glucose, glycogen and fats for energy metabolism. The activity of the aerobic enzymes is elevated as a result of aerobic exercise
- Elevates oxygen transport
- Increases muscular endurance and sustained muscular strength
- Improves running economy at all speeds
- Develops specific quadriceps and lower-leg endurance/strength through concentric and eccentric loading
- Allows a slow but steady structural development of the connective tissue
- Prepares the body physically and mentally to go the distance in your races
However, if you increase your training volume too quickly, run entirely on hard surfaces or take inadequate recovery, the accumulated effect could lead to injury. Thus, before I outline the parameters of a progressive program for your long run over the next several weeks, it's important to recognize the potential negative side of going too far too fast.
Disadvantages of the Long Run:
- Increases connective tissue and joint vulnerability through repetitive pounding
- Elevates muscle sensitivity and tendon soreness
- Prolongs recovery for two to four days depending upon volume, intensity and fitness level
- Key workouts on bike and swim may suffer due to the excessive fatigue and need for recovery produced by long runs
- Dependence on a long run throughout the year may develop a psychological crutch or need to simply to cover the miles, which can ultimately cause accumulated fatigue
Getting the Long Run Right
As you ease into your training, here are a few parameters to help define your 12-week early-season run progression, which is described in greater detail below.
If you're focusing on sprint-distance races this season, build up to six to eight runs of 75 minutes. Don't push beyond your fitness or ability in an effort to get to 75 minutes.
Instead, begin your long run at 45 minutes and continue the progression of the long run into the pre-competitive phase of your training cycle, which will follow this early-season developmental period.
If your focus is the Olympic distance, you should include eight long runs of between 80 and 100 minutes during the initial 12-week program.
For half- and Ironman-distance athletes who are training for multiple races at these distances, consider implementing two distance cycles for your long run, split between an early-season and a late-summer build.
According to Plan
The long-run training formula I have listed below follows a systematic progression for short- and long-course racing for the next 12 weeks; however, when you've reached 100 minutes on your long run, you may want to consider splitting this into two daily runs of approximately 70 and 30 percent of the distance. This will potentially curtail injuries and will still achieve the goal distance or time.
For example, if the long run progression is up to 120 minutes, the split could be: 84 minutes for the first run and 36 minutes for the second run.
The seasonal objective for a half-Ironman athlete should be six to eight long runs of 1:40 to two hours. Ironman athletes should have eight runs of 1:55 to 2:30, depending upon athlete history and ability to recover.
Long Run Weeks 1-8
- Include two long runs per week on nonconsecutive days. Increase volume by five percent per week. Sprint-distance athletes should schedule one long run per week, progressing by seven to 10 percent per week.
- Split the sessions with three days of lighter and shorter run sessions combined with your bike and swim workouts.
- The longer long run should be 15 to 30 percent longer than the second long run.
- The total time or distance of the two long runs should not exceed 70 percent of your weekly run volume. For example, if your total run volume per week is 200 minutes, then the sum of the two long runs should be no greater than 140 minutes.
- One long run should be over variable terrain (rolling course), and both long runs could be on trails during this block.
- Maintain an aerobic pace. Broken conversation at 18 to 30 beats below lactate-threshold heart rate.
- If a recovery week is necessary, the long runs in weeks four and eight could be reduced in volume to equal the volume of weeks two and six.
Long Run Weeks 9-12
After the initial eight-week buildup, the focus of the long run should shift to a single day. The second weekly long run can be maintained at the same distance or slightly reduced as the single long run increases in duration.
- Long run increases seven to 10 percent per week
- Include off-road or trail running for 75 percent of the workout time; 25 percent should be on a hard surface. This hard-surface segment can be interjected at anytime during the course of the long run.
- The long run can be split into two runs (both on the same day) if recovery or biomechanics limit your progression. The split session should be divided with 70 percent of the total time in first run and 30 percent in second run. Allow at least three hours between runs.
- During this four-week block, consider increasing the time on weeks nine, 10 and 12 with a 30-percent drop in time on week 11. Allowing a reduction in time on week 11 will enable you to rebound for the final week.
- Maintain aerobic effort with gentle running while going down hills.
As you complete this 12-week cycle, there should be a subtle shift in your effort and recovery as you move into the next phase of your training. The long run can be maintained and integrated throughout the entire year; however, adequate rest and pacing are vital ingredients for optimal racing.