Updated 05 March 2015

What long distance running can do for you

With the Two Oceans Marathon coming up, long distance training is an important building block of your training. Here's all you need to know about training to run long distance.


The distance of a long run varies from person to person according to the longest distance you are currently able to run as well as what distance you are training for.

As 10km runners, even 12km is initially “a long” run. Every second weekend in the OptiFit 8 weeks to 21.1km programme, we will add a few kilometres onto that “long run distance” – until your body is able to manage at least a 19km run. This will stand you in very good stead for race day – when you need to cover 21.1km.

A question frequently asked is – "do you not have to cover the distance of the race in your training before you do that event?"

Whilst in some cases that might be advisable, for example, when you are more experienced half-marathoners – taking part in regular half-marathons and perhaps wanting to do a PB (personal best). But for someone running a marathon or an ultra marathon such as the Old Mutual Two Oceans (56km) or Comrades (89km), the answer is no.

What benefits do you derive from doing a “long run”?

- It strengthens the heart- which is in fact a muscle - therefore it is able to pump the  blood to the muscles (and all the other systems used in running), more effectively.

- It strengthens the leg muscles; therefore you develop more endurance and don’t get injured easily.

- It strengthens your bones, ligaments and tendons- which again – make you less injury- prone.

- Your VO2 max will increase - i.e. this is your ability to extract oxygen from the oxygen-rich blood taken to your muscles and all over your body. This in turn will make running feel a bit easier.

- More capillaries (mini blood vessels) will grow, enhancing the blood supply to the muscle fibres, which provide energy and oxygen to the muscles and take away waste products. I like the way Jeff Galloway (famous American Olympic runner and coach) puts it – “long runs build a better plumbing system”.

- It will increase the number and size of mitochondria, which are like the little aerobic powerhouses of the cell (mini-Eskoms- but hopefully not ones that engage in load-shedding!)

- The concentration of a variety of key aerobic enzymes will also increase- these are enzymes that help to breakdown fuel into usable forms of energy as you run.

- More myoglobin will be formed in the skeletal muscle fibres. This also facilitates oxygen transfer into the muscles, which again aids your running.

- It develops your fat-burning capacity- particularly useful if you are trying to lose weight or keep off lost weight; since your body learns to tap into your fat supplies optimally.

- It trains your MIND and helps you to develop MENTAL TOUGHNESS and coping skills - all important as you run longer distances. They boost your confidence as you discover that your body CAN INDEED go the distance with proper training.

- It helps with long runs can even make you run faster!

The Sports Science Institute offers these tips for long runs

Fuel and fluid: Whilst you can get away with having nothing on your week day runs – you will, in most cases, need some water and energy source for your long runs. Your manager will try to ensure your long runs go past a garage/tap or another source of water. I would recommend you carry some form of glucose (jelly babies to snack on, or even a gel rich in carbohydrates, such as GU, Hammer or PowerBar gel).

A Gu gel sachet has 25g carbohydrate (CHO), and a PowerBar gel sachet has 27g CHO. It is advisable to have your first gel after about 45 minutes of running and then another, every hour of running. This should be fine for a slow training run. When you are running a race – you can get additional carbohydrates from Coke or Powerade/Energade served on the route - since ideally you should take in about 50 – 60g CHO every hour. Needless to say – how much CHO you need depends on your body size, your speed and your gender- so this is just a rough guide. When you take a gel, have it with water not an energy drink – otherwise your stomach might battle with all the carbohydrate you are giving it- and this can in fact slow down the process of it being absorbed. Alternatively, you could carry a bottle of Energade/Powerade and sip on that.

Rest: Either do an easy light jog or short gym session the day before your scheduled long run.

Meals the day before: Avoid high fibre and fatty foods and ensure you are eating enough carbohydrate rich foods. You don’t need to overdo it all – but you just need to ensure you have enough carbohydrates stored as glycogen (in the muscles and liver), so your muscles can draw on this during the run. Lack of carbohydrates (an empty fuel-tank) – are likely to make you feel fatigued and keen to stop running, unless you are fat-adapted and are used to a low carbohydrate diet!

Fluid intake: “Drink to thirst” as you run is what Prof Tim Noakes suggests. Don’t worry about becoming dehydrated – in most cases you aren’t running for long enough for this to happen. That said – I’m sure you’ll feel thirsty – so just “obey your thirst”, don’t drink excessive volumes of fluid and you will be fine.

Pace: It should be run at a comfortable pace. You need to be able to “go the distance” – so don’t worry about speed – that is not our concern on this programme. Rather start out slowly and finish strong and as if you could add another kilometre or two.

Post-long run procedure
- Stretch while your muscles are still warm.
- Put on some dry warm clothing if it is cold.
- Have a snack which ideally consists of about 80% carbohydrates, 20% protein within at least two hours after your long-run (within 30 minutes is ideal).

Research shows that combining protein with carbohydrate within thirty minutes of exercise nearly doubles the insulin response, which results in more stored glycogen (a very important energy supply).

One study found that athletes who refuelled with carbohydrate and protein had 100 percent greater muscle glycogen stores than those who only ate carbohydrate. So what else does the protein do? Protein also provides the amino acids necessary to rebuild muscle tissue that is damaged during intense, prolonged exercise. It can also increase the absorption of water from the intestines and improve muscle hydration.

The amino acids in protein can also stimulate the immune system, making you more resistant to colds and other infections.

So what is the bottom line re post-exercise nutrition?
If you are looking for the best way to refuel your body after long, endurance exercise, a 4:1 combo of carbohydrate and protein seems to be your best choice. Some examples include a low-fat yoghurt (a drinking variety is easily portable), a low-fat chocolate milk, a whole-wheat roll with low-fat cheese, cereal with low-fat milk, even biltong (ostrich is lowest in fat) and a sports drink.

The carbohydrate replenishes your used up supplies and the protein helps the carbohydrate to be absorbed and also helps your muscles to recover more quickly. This will facilitate future training.

- Drink up! You are probably pretty thirsty now – so have some water or cold drink on hand.
- Apply ice to any areas that are sore- (you can always bring ice-packs in a small cooler bag – left in your car).
- Enjoy a refreshing shower/bath – you will soon learn to appreciate these!  It’s amazing how running teaches one to appreciate the simple pleasures of life -  I love that about it!
- Pat yourself on the back! You are one long run closer to your goal and your confidence should be steadily increasing!

Read more:

Useful tips for first time runners

Why running is good for you

Hill training doesn't have to be dreadful




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