4 Reasons For A Long Run Gone Wrong

Coach, I just finished perhaps the worst long run ever. I’m training for a marathon–my fifth–and covered 28.8 kilometres. But I had to stagger through the final few kilometres. My leg hurt, my breathing was labored, and it was as if I hadn’t been running all season. I’m a bit deflated and wonder if you could shed some light on why it happened. Thank you. ~Ken

I’m sorry you had such a tough long run. Although this isn’t a consolation, it is quite common to experience at least one humbling long run during a marathon training cycle. Like any disaster, it can be helpful to assess the situation to try to figure out why it went awry. Here are four common culprits for long runs gone wrong.

The Heat
We all know that running in the heat and humidity increases the intensity of your normal easy pace and increases the workload on your body. For instance, if your conversational long run pace hovers around 7 minutes per kilometre on a perfect weather day (dry), it may slow by seconds or minutes as the temperatures and humidity climb–especially with longer runs where you’re training for more than 90 minutes in duration. If it was a warm day, this could have contributed to your distress since your body’s response is to make you slow down to avoid heat exhaustion. This is especially true if it was abnormally hot or if you traveled to a warmer destination and your body wasn’t acclimated to the climate.

Assess it: A good way to evaluate whether heat could’ve been a factor is if you started out feeling good, and then midway through your run, you started to feel fatigued to the point that you had to slow down. You also may have had elevated heart and breathing rates.

Fix it: The number one way you can train smarter on warmer days is to slow your pace and run by effort rather than trying to calculate a modified pace. Additionally, you can help keep your body core temperature in check by running in short 6-8 kilometre loops that would allow you to cool yourself with a cold towel and hydrate with ice water and sport drink. You should also consider adding one-minute walk breaks every 4-5 minutes.

Accumulated Fatigue
If you’ve ever stayed up too late, you’ve felt the effect of accumulated fatigue. Like sleep deprivation, training fatigue can build during the season from a variety factors including mileage and intensity progression rates, the volume of training, lack of recovery and adequate nutrition, sleep, and life stress. What begins as a small amount of fatigue eventually builds until you begin to feel the performance effects of a breakdown.

Assess It: You’ll know if you’re dealing with accumulated fatigue if all of your runs are suffering rather than just one or two. If you feel down and out and sluggish, this is likely the culprit.

Fix It: One highly effective habit I have my athletes do religiously is to keep a diary and make notes about how they feel in each workout. They rate their performance with a colour: yellow for a strong run, orange for an okay but nothing special run, and red for a poor, or in this case, awful run where you struggle through it.

As you review your diary, you’ll begin to see trends in your performance and how you’re adapting to the training loads. If you see a lot of yellow and some orange, you’re recovering efficiently. If you begin to see a trend in orange and red, it means you need to review your training, recovery, nutrition, and life schedule, then make adjustments to allow your body to adapt and recover.

In many cases, if you weave in a cutback week by reducing your mileage volume and intensity, focus on getting in plenty of sleep and eating well, it’s enough to trend back to yellow on the performance scale. It’s all about tuning in to how you feel along the way, and staying open to tweaks and modifications that will keep you on track to continue to progress and improve.

The Pace Master
Another common culprit for long runs gone wrong is running them by pace. The body knows effort, not the pace that your watch reads. The goal of the long run is to spend time on your feet, cover lots of kilometres in the aerobic zone, build fat-burning enzymes, and build your mental strength to go the distance. When you try to run by pace, the competitive side within all of us begins the game of “Am I Good Enough?” If it’s a challenging day, you might be tempted to accommodate for that, so you decide to run 15 seconds slower per kilometre. But that isn’t slow enough to train in the right zone, so you end up running at a harder intensity for a long period of time. And that my friends, is the recipe for a disastrous long run.

If however, you run based on effort, you tune into how your body is responding on the given day so you will always be at the optimal zone. That may be a lot slower than you think you should run, but if you leave your ego and watch out of it, you’ll find you’ll finish strong and recover efficiently, which sets you up for the season and race ahead.

Assess It: You’ll know immediately if you’re training out of the long run zone by the sound of your breath. Take the talk test and recite a few sentences out loud. If you’re able to speak in full sentences, you’re in the easy, long run zone. If you’re gasping for air and speaking just a few words at a time, you’re out of the optimal zone.

Fix It: On your next long run, ignore your watch, and run by effort. Take the talk test, be mindful of your body rather than your pace, and stay in the easy, conversational zone based on what your body is telling you on the day. When finished, let the pace and other stats be the outcome of the performance. When you do so, you will begin to learn more about how to pace yourself authentically in any situation or race–and that’s a runner’s gold mine!

Life Stats
Outside of your workouts, the other variables that can affect your long runs are sleep, nutrition, life stress, and illness. Sleep deprivation can zap the energy from your legs, and it doesn’t take more than one poor night’s sleep to affect a run. Eating poor quality food, or more often inadequate calories, will also affect your recovery and energy levels. If you’re experiencing a high-stress life cycle (loss, divorce, work…), you’re living on high all the time, which elevates stress hormones and can affect your sleep, cravings, and energy levels. And finally, if you’re on the edge of illness, your effort level will, in many cases, increase at your normal pace.

Assess It: Keeping a diary is a great way to assess whether any of these variables are the cause of long runs gone wrong. It will allow you to see the trend in your life schedule and compare it to how you’re recovering along the way. It’s important to note sleep hours, stress levels (1 = none, 10 = crazy), and fuel logs.

Fix It: Being mindful is the secret to fixing these draining gremlins. If, for example, you are moving next weekend and have a deadline due at work and are coming down with a cold, it’s a great time to modify your plan and cutback your mileage for the week. That way, you get through the stress of the week with less overall stress on the body and can continue to progress the following week when things have calmed down.

One bad long run does not break a marathon season. If it were a golf game, we would call it a mulligan. Although it may not seem like it now, a humbling long run can be an asset because it teaches you how to push through the hard stretches and motivates us to tune in and make positive changes that lead us to improved performances down the road.

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