Whether we run road or trail, 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, please, don’t sacrifice the long run!
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.
Here’s a sneak peek at which variations we’ll be discussing in this article:
- Why and when you may want to try out different Long Run variations,
- How To Perform Regular Long Slow Distance Runs,
- 5 Faster Long Run Variations,
- 3 Trail-based Long Run Variations.
Ready to jazz up your training plan?
Why Should You Try Different Long Run Variations?
Here’s the truth:
The majority of the time, runners should 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 you, makes it harder to finish the run, takes longer to recover, and increases the risk of a running injury.
That said, most runners can benefit from mixing up their long runs now and again.
And if you’re a more seasoned distance runner, mixing up your long runs is a good way to push yourself in training.
So here are 7 different variations on the classic long run, along with notes on how to perform them and when you should consider incorporating them!
#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 in running is that faster is better.
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.
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 feel as though you could carry on a conversation without any problem at all times throughout your run. If at any time you begin to feel uncomfortable, slow down until you reach a comfortable pace again.
These runs shouldn’t leave you depleted or overly fatigued. When you finish, you should feel as though you could have kept going if you wanted to.
Back-to-backs are two consecutive long runs, usually placed on weekends to ensure enough time.
Both runs are done at an easy, conversation pace, as the focus is improving endurance and gaining confidence.
Back-to-backs are most commonly used by ultra marathoners to increase mileage with a lower risk of injury.
Suppose you are training for a 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 become more efficient in its recovery. This will come in handy during the last leg of any race and is especially helpful when training for stage races.
How to do it:
Divide up your peak weekend mileage in two, and run one part on Saturday and the second part on Sunday, or any two consecutive days. You should 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
#3: Fast Finish Long Run
This long-run variation can be used on the road or on the trails.
Many of us 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 you want to be able to overcome your overtired body and mind to push 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 even a few seconds faster if you can.
#4: Negative Split Long Runs
Running a perfect negative split race is every runner’s dream.
It’s a challenging goal to set but quite an accomplishment if you can make it happen.
If it’s your goal, try out this 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.
#5: Interval Long Runs
This long-run variation is very effective for practicing your goal race pace.
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, instead of pace-based training, effort-based training will need to be used. 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 Zone 1-2 / 1 kilometer Zone 3
Week 2: 3 kilometers Zone 1-2 / 1 kilometer Zone 3
and so on.
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, improving strength, and ultimately endurance.
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.
#7: Hard Downhills, Easy Uphills
The opposite of our previous variation has a whole other objective.
Many trail runners fear the downhills because they are worried about taking a spill 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.
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.
#8: Power Hiking
There are plenty of trail races out there with endless steep hills that are simply not runnable, such as a vertical kilometer or 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.
Working race pace is beneficial to train both your body and mind for race day, whether trail or road.
I hope these long-run variations will help keep your training interesting while working on different skills simultaneously.
Give them a try!
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