In the long run: Four tips to boost the benefits of going long

The long distance run is a key component in a triathlete's quest for success
While training methods in endurance athletics have steadily evolved, one constant in a triathlete's preparation has been the long run. Whether designed for training effect or as recovery from a tough race, the long run offers rich rewards to those with the motivation and stamina to see its challenges through.

A long distance run may serve many purposes: it can be a rhythmic meditation for those seeking release from the stress of daily living or a rigorous means to challenge the aerobic energy system. Whatever its purpose, few would dispute that the long distance run is a key component in a triathlete's quest for success. Here are four ways to ensure that you maximize the benefits of this training tool.

Set your goals

Goal setting is a proven means of motivating athletes to ever-higher standards of performance. If your purpose is simply to have fun on this run, then you should consider setting a goal of finding an easy, relaxed rhythm. Make the course up as you go along; don't focus on the effort, but just enjoy the surroundings and the sense of freedom that running can bring.

The desire for a specific training effect from this workout will likely solicit a more structured approach. Perhaps you want to practice accelerating for sustained periods with the purpose of breaking away from a rival. Maybe you want to enhance your mental toughness.

You might consider incorporating affirmations (statements that help mentally reinforce certain qualities of your running) to help you through your run. I have used phrases such as: "Push to hurt, then hold," and "Strength in every step," when working through the challenges of a hard run over 15 to 20 miles. I knew that if I could sustain such effort and mental discipline for long distances, race situations would pale in comparison.

Choose your focus

Is this workout going to build you up or is it likely to break you down? If it is a recovery run, then you are acknowledging that either mental or physical fatigue (or both) is within your system. Make sure that you are not stressing your body any further; sometimes these runs can finish us off, so err on the side of caution. Finish the run feeling that you could have done a lot more and thinking that it was both purposeful and re-invigorating.

If the purpose of the run is to enhance your fitness and strength, then in your preparation you should consider what challenges to incorporate throughout the run. Are you going to charge up the hills or run on tough surfaces for strength (i.e. soft sand, pebble beaches, dusty trails)? Will you work to hold a strong pace throughout or surge over varying distances?

Plan your pace

Correct pacing is one of the keys to success in endurance sports. Hitting the right pace, one that is sustainable and flexible enough to cover the varying tactical circumstances of a triathlon, can be practiced in a long run by building in race-pace efforts, particularly toward the end of a workout.

Monitoring your pace requires an explicit acknowledgement of the feedback your body is giving you in relation to the effort you are expending. Be aware of some of the distractions that can unhinge your sense of pace judgment:

  • Working out frustrations on a long run has its psychological benefits but carries the risk of poor pace distribution.
  • Getting angry -- with its accompanying adrenaline surges -- or being distracted can cause the athlete to lose focus.
  • Poor self discipline, especially with pace judgment, can ruin the best-laid plans. For example, this can occur when an athlete responds to changing race tactics with an exuberant but unsustainable burst of energy. Be responsive to what occurs around you, but don't allow a training partner or race-day rival to dictate your pace. Instead, exercise self-discipline and race smart.
  • Master the basics

    Watch out for skin chafing. The combination of sweat and friction can produce distracting skin soreness; however, this is easily avoided by spreading Vaseline on suspect areas.

    Plan for your fluid intake. I knew one triathlete who would drive along his long-run route the day before, stashing fluid and nutrition in strategic locations along the way. You needn't be quite so diligent, but be sure to plan how you will meet your nutritional needs, either by carrying what you need or following a looped course that winds you past your food and fluids several times.

    Re-fuel quickly. Nutritional research suggests that muscle glycogen can be replenished at a faster rate if the athlete eats some carbohydrate within 30 minutes of the run rather than delaying it for several hours.

    Soft vs. hard. The choice of running surface should depend upon the purpose of the run. I tend to go with a soft surface for recovery, hard surfaces for performance; ultimately, however, the only rule is that of personal choice.

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