One Dirty Magazine

Long Run Adaptations With Less Long-Run Distance

Adding shorter workout sections early in long runs can make them play longer, improving fitness with lower risk.

David Roche July 20th, 2020

Long Run Adaptations With Less Long-Run Distance

In 1999, Keith and Kevin Hanson started the Hansons’ Distance Project with a simple goal—to help post-collegiate runners reach their potential. In the process, they did something much greater. They helped reset what was considered possible in U.S. distance running.

They coached multiple Olympians like Des Linden and Brian Sell, but perhaps more significantly, they helped usher in a new golden age of U.S. marathoning. The two decades since the Hansons’ Distance Project began saw a resurgence of the U.S. on the international stage after years of stagnation, fueled partially by a gritty, blue-collar training approach embodied by the Hansons’ team. Their book Hansons Marathon Method (written with Luke Humphrey) brought some of their approach to non-professionals, helping thousands of athletes run PRs.

One staple of the Hansons’ approach is an emphasis on quality over quantity on long runs. It all comes together in their most infamous workout, the Hansons Simulator. Three to four weeks out from the goal marathon, many of the athletes they coach do a dress rehearsal involving 26.2 kilometers at goal marathon pace on terrain similar to race day. With a short warm-up and cool-down, it totals around 18 to 20 miles for the entire day. While some professionals in the group may do longer runs, that is usually the longest effort for non-pros.

One staple of the Hansons’ approach is an emphasis on quality over quantity on long runs. It all comes together in their most infamous workout, the Hansons Simulator.

The theory is that the chronic training stress of volume and intensity allows for a de-emphasis of long run length. Add quality to long runs, and athletes can prepare for mile 20 and beyond without the breakdown risk of going long all the time in training. Renato Canova, one of the most accomplished marathon coaches in history, has a similar emphasis on intensity in long runs, with many long progressions and specific pace work (though also including over-distance efforts). 

 

Looking over hundreds of training plans over time, I think there is a general rule. 

Almost all marathon breakthroughs are preceded by consistently high-quality long runs that involve race specific or greater intensity. Long slow distance can make a base, but without long fast distance, it often makes a bonk.

In the beginning, I didn’t necessarily connect road racing and trail running quite as directly as I do now. But then I saw the data. After every athlete raced or had a key training effort, I’d go back and record input variables, from long runs to workouts to training volume to life stress. And the one universal variable before breakthroughs at distances over 10K was long-run quality.

Almost all marathon breakthroughs are preceded by consistently high-quality long runs that involve race specific or greater intensity. Long slow distance can make a base, but without long fast distance, it often makes a bonk.

So it became a bigger emphasis with time. Eventually, I’d learn to make it explicit with athletes. Early in training cycles: “We are training now to train more specifically later.” Later on as the specific long runs began: “Now we are training to race.” 

There seemed to be convergent evolution with approaches that work for road marathons, even for athletes racing 50 miles and beyond. Long runs for trail runners on the team were generally shorter than other ultra approaches, but with intensity that seemed to allow athletes to race hard even with lower overall training volume. Before the Western States 100 in 2019, Clare Gallagher would often start 20-mile long runs with a focused tempo of 20 to 30 minutes. John Kelly’s FKT on the 250-plus-mile Pennine Way included just a few long runs over 20 miles, but many long runs had intervals or a tempo on steep terrain. 

And there are lots more examples like that. As a coach, I love high volume over the course of a week if an athlete has balanced life stress and can recover. But I do not love extra-high volume on long runs, even if an athlete is racing 250-plus miles, because it comes with high injury risk and requires athletes to reduce output to avoid breakdown.

 

Ring the bell, because disclaimer dinner is served. 

That is all correlation, not necessarily causation. Many different approaches work, and there is no magic to specifics. John Kelly and Clare Gallagher would be superstars if their training plans were developed by a drunk Magic-8 Ball. An unfortunate fact of training theory is that we can never tie an intervention directly to an outcome. It’s a scary and uncertain world out there.

However, applying road-marathon-quality long-run principles to trail and ultrarunning makes intuitive sense when you think about the adaptations that are unique to long runs. There are three main adaptations to consider.

 

Glycogen recovery

What many athletes perceive as their endurance limit is actually their body using up glycogen stores, leading to reduced output even before glycogen is exhausted entirely. The body burns glycogen during high-intensity activity, though almost all running involves some glycogen metabolism. Meanwhile, low relative intensity preferentially involves lipid metabolism. So how do you solve the equation and improve endurance via glycogen availability?

At narrow margin events where every second counts like the Olympic marathon, approaches have converged around one goal. The key is to get very, very fast, raising aerobic threshold through the roof, so that they can burn fat at high outputs. The best fat adaptation is being very fit.

Intensity during the beginning or middle of long runs calls heavily on glycogen metabolism, reducing stores similar to race-day stresses, but without going too long and risking injury or slowing down.

If athletes raise aerobic threshold output, they spare more glycogen stores during activity, and that matters even for low-intensity longer ultras. There is some evidence that burning glycogen and then refilling those stores is at least partially trainable, through digestive and metabolic adaptations. Intensity during the beginning or middle of long runs calls heavily on glycogen metabolism, reducing stores similar to race-day stresses, but without going too long and risking injury or slowing down. Subsequent reduction in intensity (usually with race-day fueling strategies) may improve glycogen recovery during activity and raise aerobic threshold.

 

Specific musculoskeletal stress

Muscle breakdown can hurt performance long before muscle soreness strikes. Some studies show elevated creatine kinase in trail runners that would send a normal person to the hospital. However, there is a repeated bout effect for adaptations.

Introducing stimuli that are more intense than what will be experienced on race day will have a protective effect against breakdown. In addition, combined with smart training cycles, it could improve maximum output via aerobic and musculoskeletal adaptations. The athlete with a slightly higher ceiling on their performance might not always win on race day, but a focus on raising that ceiling over years can eventually make it so that they almost can’t lose.

 

Neuromuscular fatigue

Some studies theorize that neuromuscular fatigue—used here as a catch-all term for nervous system activation and related processes—plays an outsized role in peak performance. Long-run intensity introduces a major neuromuscular stress, even if it’s hard to quantify the exact magnitude of that stress and individually variable processes for how it impacts performance. There is probably some central governor regulating performance variables even in long ultras.

My guess is that individual variance explains some differences in performance that cannot be explained by physiology alone. For example, at the Pennine Way, John Kelly went through severe stomach issues and fatigue that would have stopped almost anyone else in the world. How could he continue? What is the source of his toughness? No one knows for sure. John probably was born with one-in-a-billion gifts that he developed with toughness and time. The same goes for Clare Gallagher. I remember seeing her at the Foresthill aid station at mile 62 of Western States, and even though a muscle biopsy would have likely revealed a crapstorm on the cellular level, she had a fire burning in her eyes that will inspire me until my dying day. We probably all have genetic baselines for these neuromuscular performance limiters. If there is a way to improve from our baseline, it is likely stepping to the edge, coming back, and continuing to move forward.

 

Putting it all together

Based on training theory and practice, I think that long runs don’t have to be incredibly long if intensity is included, even for ultras. There is no magic to the specifics, but here is a general outline of what works for athletes on our team.

Based on training theory and practice, I think that long runs don’t have to be incredibly long if intensity is included, even for ultras.

Offseason/base period: very rarely incorporating intensity during long runs, though sometimes light surges with 1 minute moderate every 5-10 minutes or similar, usually capped at 16 miles.

Early-to-mid training cycle (this is where many athletes will spend a lot of time during long-term training): approximately every other week, tempo runs of 20-40 minutes or cruise intervals after a warm-up, ideally on terrain like races/events, followed by easy to easy/moderate running for the remainder of the distance, rarely going over 20 miles.

Later in training cycles: tempos early in long runs for shorter races, with longer races involving a heavier focus on steady running, followed by easy to easy/moderate running for the remainder of the distance with an emphasis on efficient and purposeful downhill running to prepare for musculoskeletal/neuromuscular stress of longer events. Now, long runs can go up to 25 miles or even 50K for very long events.

John Kelly’s long run progression prior to the Pennine Way may be instructive, since John is durable and talented, with the toughness and ability to go as far as you’d want. Thus, it demonstrates how even athletes without limits can excel at the longest distances without going beyond the marathon in training.

As always, N=1, trust your coach/approach, different things may have worked better, the universe is dark and cold and ambivalent, and eat pizza if possible. In addition, this represents more of an upper-level cap for our athletes. Most athletes on the team doing ultramarathons will do fewer and shorter long runs than John.

 

Pennine Way: 250+ mile FKT

1 week out: 8 miles easy/mod on trails, can push some uphills

2 weeks out: 20 miles moderate on trails, one last adaptation effort (note: John adapts to stress rapidly, so this effort is analogous to the Hansons simulator long run, which would usually be 3-4 weeks out)

3 weeks out: 25 miles easy/mod on trails, pushing some downhills to get sore (again, John adapts rapidly, so this long run is probably too far for many athletes)

4 weeks out: 25 miles easy/mod on trails (20 minutes mod/hard tempo after warm-up)

5 weeks out: 20 miles easy/mod to moderate on trails, pushing downhills

6 weeks out: 16 miles easy/mod on trails (40 minutes mod/hard after warm-up)

7 weeks out: 20 miles easy on trails with efficient downhills

8 weeks out: 20 miles easy/mod on trails (20 minutes mod/hard after warm-up)

9 weeks out: 16 miles easy/mod on trails (25 minutes mod/hard after warm-up)

10 weeks out: 16 miles easy/mod (at 25 minutes and every 5 minutes after, do 1 minute fast)

11 weeks out: 20 miles easy/mod on trails, working downhills

12 weeks out: 16 miles easy

 

Charity Shout Out

John Kelly’s historic run on the Pennine Way broke a 31-year-old FKT by Mike Hartley, eclipsing a legendary time on one of Britain’s most storied trails. John is using the platform to raise money for The Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, which supports young people from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds to inspire and enable them to succeed in the career of their choice. The trust does incredible work and you can donate to support the cause at John’s fundraising page here.

 

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts a weekly, 30-minute podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner

 

 
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Streaker
Streaker
20 days ago

Good stuff Maynard. Now tonight’s plan is to run 18 miles fast instead of 25 miles slow. I figure on saving more than an hour plus forcing myself to run faster.

David Roche
20 days ago
Reply to  Streaker

Woohoo so exciting! Make sure fueling these long runs to allow your body to best adapt to the more intense stimulus too if possible.

Jason
Jason
16 days ago

Wondering why the tempo comes early in the run rather than late?

Billy
Billy
7 days ago
Reply to  Jason

From my understanding of the article, it is the high glycogen depletion early on that then requires the body to manage glycogen utilization for the rest of the run, which is why fueling the runs is important as well. In other words, you are training the body to metabolize glycogen more efficiently. I suspect diet can also effect this, but clearly it needs to be coupled with muscular adaptions and metabolic interaction specific to running.

 

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