If you think of your body as an engine, then a great way to add horsepower is with a good, long run – a continuous effort ranging from 90 minutes to 3.5 hours in duration, depending on your experience and race goals. By going long, you increase aerobic capacity by building muscle enzymes, capillaries that deliver blood to muscles, and mitochondria (which help power cells). Spending more time on your feet also strengthens the musculoskeletal system. And as even nonphysiologists know, you build mental toughness by pushing your body through those times it would prefer to wave a white flag.
Two Hours Before
30 Minutes Before
This is checklist time. Energy gels? Sunscreen? “But don’t do too much,” say coach and nutrition consultant Alicia Shay. “You have a big effort coming, so stay relaxed.” A 2008 Olympic Trials qualifier and internationally competitive runner for the Nike Trail Team, Shay uses this in-between time to attend to e-mails. Keep sipping water, but not so much that you’ll have fluid sloshing in your stomach when you depart.
“The key thing with long runs is to start slowly,” says coach Greg McMillan. No matter how eager you are to get rolling, rein in your pace during the early kilometres. McMillan recommends “the old talk test: You should be able to chat away with your training partner.” If you can only utter a sentence before you gasp for breath, you’re going too fast. And that will spell trouble for the second half of your run, which, says McMillan, “is where all the great benefits happen.”
45 Minutes in
Begin to refuel. Take in gels and fluids at least every three-quarters of an hour during your run. “By fuelling early, you are less likely to deplete your stores,” says Nisevich Bede. “And if you take in bits of fuel at a time and chase with water, you’ll absorb it better and are less likely to have GI distress.”
15 Minutes to Finish
Tough it out. “As you get toward the end of the run, the fatigue curve ramps up,” McMillan says. You have to increase your focus and intensity to maintain the same pace. But keeping your pace constant, or even picking it up a bit, is crucial to reaping maximal gains. McMillan recommends using mantras for those soul-searching moments. “Run tall” helps athletes clean up late-run form problems like slouching and cross-body arm swings. And “nice, light stride” reminds them to avoid shuffling.
You’ll want to collapse on the couch. Don’t. “You should immediately start taking in fluids,” says Shay. Rehydration comes in many forms: water, sports recovery drinks, smoothies, even chocolate milk. Within 30 minutes, Shay also suggests carbs for glycogen replacement and boosting the immune system, plus protein to aid in muscle repair. How those carbs and proteins come – whether in drinks, solid food, or a mix of both – is a matter of individual preference and depends on what your stomach is able to handle. “But you want about 1230 to 1640 kilojoules total,” she says, “with a carb-to-protein ratio of 3 or 4 to 1.”
Within One Hour Postrun
Stay active. Find a routine that helps you avoid the onset of soreness and tightening that can follow a hard effort, whether that’s a session of active stretching or a walk around the block with your dog. Duane Button, an assistant professor of exercise science, has found that subjects who used foam rollers on their leg muscles following workouts experienced less soreness and recovered faster than those who didn’t. Although he hasn’t done studies specifically with runners, he’d “speculate that foam rolling would help runners recover from a long-distance run.” He recommends performing a full lower-body foam roll, including your calves, hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes, and IT bands. Roll the bottoms of your feet on a smaller roller or a ball.