Stupid, $#@&ing long run!

withwendyelaineI wrote the following thing, or piece, or article or whatever it is almost exactly a year ago and submitted it for publication on the blog I used to write…um…for.  It was never published.  I think it was overlooked.  Or in the midst of a busy week, forgot perhaps.  I think there is also the possibility that  it was passed over because the topic was antithetical to the house gospel.  It didn’t follow the party line.  So here it is.

It’s nothing new.  There are other things posted online, written in magazines (which I guess is the same thing) and found in public forums on running websites that suggest the same or similar thing.  I’ve read a lot of them, and for the most part, they all say the same thing.  Initially, I starting thinking about how the weekly long run is overrated when it dawned on me (after a great many years of reading, you know, stuff; because I have the tendency to be, you know, dense) that when I looked at all the training logs and schedules of the super elite, the long run appeared not to weigh as heavily in the weekly program as it does in the training programs presented and sold online and in your local training groups.

There was a time when I thought that the long run was the most important run of the week.  I probably even said so, out loud, in public.  And I probably believed it.  But I don’t believe it any longer.  There have been too many runners, too many training blocks, too much glaringly obvious practical evidence that tells me that a more balanced, consistent application of mileage is infinitely more important than a single run or workout, whatever it may be.

What is the most important workout?  I don’t know.  I don’t think there is one, really.  I don’t think there is a most important anything.  Maybe it is the one you’re about to do.  Maybe it is the one you haven’t done, I don’t know.  Each one is connected to all the others, and if one is removed, the value of the others decreases.  But, but, but what if you could only do one workout and only one workout and you could never, ever do any other workouts?  I’m gonna hafta go with the daily run.  Seriously.  30 minutes or 60 minutes or whatever, the daily run is the one I’d do, ifn I could only do one.  Easy, breezy, slow riding explorations of the roads and trails in front of you.  That’s your foundation right there.  You don’t have that and you don’t have a training program at all.  You just don’t.  I’ve heard people say things like, “The long run is our bread and butter.”  Well, our bread and butter is daily, consistent running.  The long run is maybe some fresh preserves, or Nutella, or organic free range almond butter or some shit.  But it ain’t bread and butter.

Blaspheme!                       

“Ladies and gentlemen, can I please have your attention? I’ve just been handed an urgent and horrifying news story. And I need all of you to stop what you’re doing and listen…”

The long run is overrated.

(crickets)

(followed by)

(hysterical laughter)

I’m very, very serious.  This topic has been occupying my perpetual internal debate for much of the last several months.  I can’t tell you the number of times I have this conversation with myself.  Sometimes out loud.  In public.

And I’m generally not one to fly off the handle and make random statements about that kind of thing.  About anything else, oh hell yeah, I’m flying off all kinds of handles.  But I worry that this not only rocks the boat, it gets all Titanic up in here, so I’m reluctant to even bring it up.  But I have to, if only because my therapist said so.  And, really, there’s nothing wrong with a little Platonic discussion, is there?

For nearly all distance runners, the long run is sacrosanct, sacred, even holy.  Nearly all running literature—from instructional manuals to fiction—regard the long run as something worthy of mythology.  I mean, it is a part of our mythology, that whole Pheidippides thing and all.  And to bash the long run is to open oneself up for ridicule much like one might if one were to, I don’t know, stand in the middle of Sixth Street on a Saturday night and scream, “Oklahoma!”

Without getting all epistemological on you, this is something that I came to believe after years of observation, discussion and practice.  It is something that I now know to be true.  And before you get your panties in a bunch, lemme splain.

There was a time when the long run was defined as any run of 90 minutes or longer.  That’s what I remember being told when I was a wee tot and asked.  When other kids were asking where babies came from, I was asking about long runs..  This was back in the 70’s and early 80’s, when men were men and sheep backed up to the fence.  And now, in these Runner’s World and Gallowalking days, the long run is, by conventional wisdom, any run of 20 miles or longer, particularly in marathon training.  (Unless you’re in Europe, where the long run is often 30 Euros.  I mean, 30K.  Hint:  It’s a nice round number.)

I know why we—runners in general, that is—stand so protectively behind our beloved long run.  I know all the reasons.  Capillaries, mitochondria, Lydiard, fatty acids, all that shit.  Still, the long run is overrated.   For every reason I offer as to why the long run is overrated, I’m sure you can find a thousand million reasons why the long run is so important.  And you’d be absolutely right.  But notice I didn’t say the long run isn’t important; I simply stated that it is overrated.  See what I did there?

And here’s why:  Experience tells me that the long run is but one piece of the puzzle.  One piece.  No one piece is any more important than the other.  Leave off one piece and your puzzle is incomplete.   But how many of us would forgo your long run, or even just curtail it, so we could get in one more easy run?  Or cut short the long run so we could do 6x 1K well and in control the following week.  We just don’t.  (Perhaps it is because the long run has the social aspect to it, I don’t know.  You’re not going to have philosophical or cathartic discussions with your teammates while doing reps up Wilke, are you?  No.  You can’t, because you can’t talk.)

The benefits of the long run are manifest, that much can be said.  I’m not going to argue against them.  And I’m not going to debate the level of specificity or necessity either.  But I will argue that the risks are often equal to or greater than the rewards.  And I’ll argue that to focus on the long run is to create an imbalance in your training program that will ultimately keep you from reaching your full potential.  If you are running 40 miles per week, and 15, or 16 or 18 or 20 miles is your long run, you’re doing it wrong.  Ultimately, you’re neglecting the other 3 or 4 or 5 or 6 days of week so that you can focus on a single day’s effort.  My belief is that frequency of and consistency in your training ultimately trumps this long run or that tempo run.

True, there is the psychological component to consider.  I mention this because that is the thing I hear the most from my athletes who feel they need to go long, or at least longer than I’ve suggested:  That mythological 20 mile barrier, the Wall.  You get in a couple of those bad girls in your training and you are good.  to.  go.  Right?  You do have a point there, but I believe that if people better understood the basic principles of training—and I’m not talking VO2 and all that other lab coat bullshit—they would better understand, and then perhaps have more confidence in, what their bodies are capable of with a proper training program.   Am I saying you don’t need to do long runs?  Um, no.  But I am saying that they aren’t as important as you think they are, and if you’re doing them, likely you’re doing them wrong, or too frequently, or too long.

What do I think is the proper time or distance for a long run?  I don’t know, exactly, because it isn’t formulaic.  It’s not 25%.  It’s not 20%.  It’s not any percent.  It is the proper time or distance that is appropriate to the individual, to the distance and fits within the context of the weekly, monthly and global training block volume.  Too often, too many people are doing long runs too long and too frequent for the benefit to outweigh the risk.  We must remember that the longer you go beyond, say, two hours, the less the return on investment.  The recovery time alone is exponential.  There aren’t numbers for that, but for most of you, if you do a 20 miler on Saturday, your body is going to be in recovery mode for the better part of two weeks, whether you think so or not.  But, but, but…the long run is the cornerstone of a proper marathon training program, you say.  No, no it is not.  Consistency is the cornerstone of a proper marathon training program, and your precious long run is but a single component.  A very specific component, yes, but your specific long runs aren’t going to mean shit if you haven’t built up to them over a period of months and years, and if you haven’t already placed all the other pieces of the puzzle on the table first.  But, but, but…so and so who is really famous and fast says that the long run is the most important part of her training, you say.  Yes, she did.  Aaaand she has also built up to it.  And I can almost bet you that her regular long run is not 25%, or even 20% of her weekly mileage.  If she’s running 120 miles per week, she might do a 25 mile run once or twice, but she ain’t doing them every week, that’s fo sho.  And the long run is still overrated.

I guess my point is that we should look at conventional wisdom and ask ourselves how something got to become conventional wisdom.  I’m a big old geek and love to think about that kind of stuff.  And in the last few years, as I’ve begun to really observe the athletes I advise and then compare all that to what is , I see that a great deal of the things that I once believed to be true are really not very true at all.  The programs that I’ve suggested to them over those last few years have begun to reflect that, and the results are very positive, very cool.  People are running faster, with fewer injuries, more confidently, and enjoying it more.  That is all the proof I need.

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3 responses to “Stupid, $#@&ing long run!

  1. Interesting! In reading this, I thought if Yuki (Kawayachi?)’s training — as conveyed to me via Running Times — that he prioritized single runs that go to 80 minutes. I wonder if daily runs (or a few weekly runs past the 80 minute mark, but not by too much) mightbe a good alternative to the weekly long run. Of course, long runs are still good, but it may be possible to maximize their physiological benefits via more medium long runs with less risk than frequent long runs.

  2. Right! Kawauchi is fascinating in that he does things his own way, and with great success. I’ve read where he’ll go maybe 30 miles on trails in the mountains on occasion, and certainly many of his longer races should be considered specific long runs, so I don’t know that he entirely forgoes the long run.

    But I do think that the long run is overrated. It just is. That is not to say that it isn’t important, or even necessary, but in general, it is given entirely too much weight.

    Thanks for your feeback. Much appreciated!

  3. Yes, I especially think long runs need to be re-thought for slower runners too. If a 5 or 6-hour marathoner is doing a string of 18,20,22, even 26 mile training runs, they are really taxing the body and risking injury!

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