8 Long Run Variations To Build Endurance

Spice up your training plan with these long run workouts.

Whether we run road or trail, weekly long runs are crucial for our training as they prepare our bodies and minds for our goal race mileage.

If you ever need to skip a training session, as a running coach I beg you, please don’t sacrifice the long run! 

During long runs, you simulate your race by practicing your well-thought-out nutrition, hydration, and gear strategies. This way, you can fine-tune details for the big day. 

Today, we will look at long run variations for road and trail so you can spice up your training plan, work on a variety of skills, and have fun while doing it. 

These long run variations are suitable for runners who are training for a half marathon, marathon, or ultramarathon or just want to mix up their regular running!

Long Run Variations for Trail and Road Runners

Why Should You Try Different Long Run Variations?

Here’s the truth:

Runners should generally do their long runs at a nice, easy pace (see #1: Long Slow Distance Run below).

The primary purpose of your long run is to build endurance.

For that reason, pace should usually be ignored – especially if you’re not a seasoned distance runner.

Long runs take their toll on the body, and doing them at a harder rate of exertion puts unnecessary stress on your body, makes it harder to finish the run, takes longer to recover, and increases the risk of running injuries.

That said, most runners can benefit from mixing up their long runs now and again.

If you’re in marathon training, for example, doing a fast finish long run (see #3) can get your legs used to running at race pace while they’re fatigued.

And if you’re a more seasoned distance runner, mixing up your long runs is a good way to push yourself in training instead of just focusing on easy running.

Here are seven different variations on the classic long run that I use with my athletes, along with notes on how to perform them and when you should consider incorporating them!

Related: How Long Should Your Longest Long Run Be?

Long Run Variations for Trail and Road Runners

What Are The Best Marathon Long Run Variations?

#1: Long Slow Distance Run

When people think of long runs, the first thing that usually pops into their heads is an easy, leisurely run. 

Long slow distance runs (LSD), are the most typical, yet often neglected long run as a common misconception that running faster is better.

They are an essential part of our overall development, as they build up aerobic endurance, improve efficiency, and provide the opportunity to gain confidence with distance.

In addition to being a training program staple for experienced runners, LSD runs are especially important for beginners who are just starting to build a base and experiencing adaptations to running long distances.

They are also helpful for those coming off an injury who do not want to risk a relapse by throwing in any intensity.

How to do it:

This is a simple one.

For LSD runs, you run your specified long run time or distance at a comfortable pace.

You should be able to carry on a conversation without any trouble at all times throughout your run. If you begin to feel uncomfortable at any time, slow down until you feel comfortable again. 

These runs shouldn’t leave you feeling completely depleted or overly fatigued. When you finish, you should feel as though you could have kept going for a bit longer if you wanted to.

Long Run Variations for Trail and Road Runners

#2: Back-to-Backs

Back-to-backs are two consecutive long runs.

Both long runs are done at an easy, conversation pace, as the focus is improving endurance and gaining confidence. 

These types of long runs are most commonly used by ultra-marathoners to increase mileage with a lower risk of injury.

Suppose you are training for an 80K ultra (50-miler) and are gearing up for your peak weekend. It is much less risky to run 30 kilometers one day and 25 the next instead of trying to push out 55K consecutively. 

Another benefit of back-to-backs is that you can practice running on tired legs.

Your body will need to deal with more stress and, in turn, learn to recover more efficiently. This will come in handy during the last leg of any race and is especially helpful when training for stage races.

The body’s ability to continue pushing on for hours (or days!) on end requires an immense amount of aerobic capacity and mental grit, both acquired by running back-to-backs.

See also: 11 Tips To Nail Your Long Run On A Treadmill

How to do it:

Divide your peak weekend mileage in two, and run one part on Saturday and the second part on Sunday, or any two consecutive days. Rest on the third day to allow your body to recover properly. 

Back-to-backs can be split up in a variety of ways and will depend on your level and specific goal, but here are some examples: 

Day 1              Day 2

50% 50%

60% 40%

70% 30%

Long Run Variations for Trail and Road Runners

#3: Fast Finish Long Run

This long-run variation can be used on the road or the trails. 

Many runners tend to burn out at the end of a race, so it’s helpful to practice a strong finish to have some oomph at the end.

When you know the finish line is approaching, it’s great to know you still have some gas in the take to push through when the going gets tough.

How to do it:

Choose a terrain similar to that of your upcoming race.

Run 80% of your time or mileage at your easy, conversation pace, and the last 20% at your goal race pace or a faster pace if you can.

If you are training for a marathon, end with your goal marathon pace or even a tempo run pace or half marathon pace if you can. These long run workouts are great practice for a strong finish.

#4: Progression Long Run

Running a perfect negative split race is every marathon runner’s dream.

It’s a challenging goal but quite an accomplishment if you can make it happen.

If it’s your goal, try out this marathon long run variation.

How to do it:

Choose a route similar to your race setting and run the first third at easy pace, the second third at race pace, and the last third at a few seconds faster than your race pace.

Long Run Variations for Trail and Road Runners

#5: Interval Long Runs

This long-run variation is very effective for practicing your goal race pace and incorporates speed work into steady-state long runs.

After taking a test and establishing your race pace, you want to gradually work it into your long runs. 

In these workouts, you will alternate easy pace and race pace, incrementing race pace and decreasing easy pace as you progress. In this example we will look at marathon-specific training.

How to do it:

Choose a route similar to the conditions you will encounter in your marathon. 

Use this progression when you are in your race-specific training cycle.

Whether you are training time-based or mileage-based, you simply repeat the intervals for the entirety of your established long run. 

Week 1: 4 kilometers Easy Pace / 1 kilometer Marathon Pace
Week 2: 3 kilometers Easy Pace / 1 kilometer Marathon Pace 
Week 3: 3 kilometers Easy Pace / 2 kilometers Marathon Pace 
Week 4: 2 Kilometers Easy Pace / 2 Kilometers Marathon Pace
Week 5: 2 Kilometers Easy Pace / 3 Kilometers Marathon Pace

These intervals can also be used in trail running. However, effort-based training will need to be used instead of pace-based training. The constant terrain and elevation changes are often too great to sustain specific paces.

Effort-based training would look like this: 

Week 1: 4 kilometers RPE 2-4 / 1 kilometer RPE 5-6
Week 2: 3 kilometers RPE 2-4 / 1 kilometer RPE 5-6

and so on.

Long Run Variations for Trail and Road Runners

Trail-Specific Long Runs

Trail running incorporates a lot of extra factors that road running does not, such as challenging and constantly changing terrain and accumulated meters gained and lost.

There are a lot of trail ultramarathons where you will need to climb steep slopes and then have your legs ready to speed back down them.

There are a variety of long run variations to train those specifics.

#6: Hard Uphills, Easy Downhills

With this variation, you will improve your uphill running by building up your leg muscles and improving strength and endurance.

Each time, you’ll be able to tackle a hill with more consistency and confidence.

How to do it:

Choose a route with moderate elevation change. It could be rolling hills or steeper, more challenging inclines.

The objective is to run all of the uphills hard and then relax and recover on the flats and downhills. Be sure to give yourself enough recovery time in between each surge.

Long Run Variations for Trail and Road Runners

#7: Hard Downhills, Easy Uphills

The opposite of our previous variation has a whole other objective.

Many trail runners fear the downhills because they worry about falling on rough terrain or burning out their quads.

Practicing our downhill running is a great way to improve and cut down race times. The downhills are where you can really advance in a race setting.

How to do it:

Find a technical trail with plenty of long downhills. Here, you want to take it easy on the uphills; if that means hiking for you, then hike.

You want to feel comfortable and at conversation pace while going uphill and save your energy and brainpower for the downhills. 

When you hit each downhill, switch gears and go for it, no pounding though!

Using your knowledge of good downhill technique, plan your route accordingly, always looking 2-3 meters ahead, and move those feet quickly. The quicker you move your feet, the more control you will have over your downhill footing. 

This will also get your legs used to downhills, so you won’t feel so burnt out at the race. You will see significant improvement in your downhill running skills after incorporating this variation into your training.

This variation should not be repeated often, as you don’t want to extra pounding on your legs and joints.

Long Run Variations for Trail and Road Runners

#8: Power Hiking

There are plenty of trail races out there with endless steep hills that are simply unrunnable, such as vertical kilometer races or longer, technical ultras in general.

If you try and run those impossible hills, you risk a very probable burnout early on. 

Trail runners often overlook the importance of having a strong, efficient hike. Adding this variation into your training will benefit you greatly in these types of races.

How to do it:

Choose terrain that has numerous steep hills that are difficult or impossible to run.

Practice power hiking as you climb each hill, focusing on technique and posture, and then relax and recuperate as you jog the downhills and flats.

This is an excellent opportunity to practice using hiking poles

Long Run Variations for Trail and Road Runners

Working at a race pace is beneficial for training your body and mind for race day, whether on the trail or the road.

I hope these long-run variations will help keep your training interesting while working on different skills simultaneously. 

Give them a try!

Long runs are just one piece of the puzzle in our training plans. Whether you are training for a marathon race, an ultra, a half marathon, or a 10K, a good warm up and cool down are also essential pieces to the puzzle.

Check out our guides here to spiff up your routine:

Photo of author
Katelyn is an experienced ultra-marathoner and outdoor enthusiast with a passion for the trails. In the running community, she is known for her ear-to-ear smile, even under the toughest racing conditions. She is a UESCA-certified running coach and loves sharing her knowledge and experience to help people reach their goals and become the best runners they can be. Her biggest passion is to motivate others to hit the trails or road alongside her, have a blast, and run for fun!

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