What Is Chunking and How it Can Help Your Long Runs?

Try these four techniques for breaking down long kilometres into manageable increments.

two runners in a parking garage

Thomas Hengge

Have you ever looked at a training plan and been terrified by the distance of your long run? It’s natural to feel overwhelmed not only by the physical challenge of a long run, but also the mental commitment it requires to run for many kilometres.

To better wrap your head around the distance, many coaches recommend using the “chunking” technique. So, what is chunking and how can you use it to help your training? Let us explain.

What is chunking?

Chunking is a mental technique that involves breaking up long runs (or even projects) into smaller pieces or “chunks.” A good comparison is the steps that comprise baking a cake.

When baking, you don’t mix all the ingredients together at once. First, you combine the wet ingredients, then the dry, and then you mix them together. While the cake is baking, you make the frosting. Finally, you build the cake.

This step-by-step way of thinking can be helpful for long runs, because you can’t do all the kilometres at once and to even think about the entire length can feel daunting. Instead, to help conquer long runs, you can “chunk” the run into smaller bits.

Here are four ways to use the chunking technique during your long runs. And, by the way, sometimes even one kilometre can feel long, so chunking works for any distance!

Chunking Technique #1: Split the Total Kilometres Into Distances You’ve Run Before

When my coach first said we would run “10-10-10,” my 5 a.m. brain could not compute. I even asked the person next to me, “Hey, does he know that this adds up to 30 miles?” (48 KM) But, he wasn’t talking about 10 miles (16 KMs) three times. Instead, he was referring to 10 miles, 10 miles, and a 10K (6.2 miles!) for a total of 26.2 miles (42.2 KM) —the length of a marathon.

This chunking plan worked for me because 10-10-10 put the marathon distance in a perspective that was easier to contemplate than 26.2 miles. (Or 42.2 Kilometres)

For many runners, ten miles (16 KM) is the distance of the first long run on a training plan. A 10K is often an early season tune-up race or the distance of a fartlek workout. The point is: You have done variations of 10 many times.

Chunking Technique #2: Break Up Your Run With Media

Whether you prefer a good playlist, audiobook, or podcast, this method means you chunk your run by time and entertainment.

Focus on the length of an episode, songs, or a number of chapters, but remember to challenge yourself. For example, chunk two chapters without stopping during your next long run. Add three new songs to your playlist and don’t take a rest break until you get to the end of the playlist.

Chunking Technique #3: Plan Pit Stops With Rewards

If you have a training run for which you have to plan the route yourself, use Google Maps to pinpoint various fueling points and rest stops along the way. For example, while an out-and-back route may not always be the most fun, consider dropping your fuel and hydration at the turnaround point. Doing this means you don’t have to carry your own fuel.

I’ve done this many times—leaving my gels and sports hydration underneath a tree, behind a sign, or out of sight—to be able to run free of anything on my waist or in my hands. This does require planning and having to make a pit stop to drop items off. However, if you’re like me and want to run free of any extra weight, chunking will allow you to split your run in half with a reward of gels and snacks at the halfway point.

Chunking Technique #4: Give Each Segment a Focus

Chunking is most often broken into equal portions over a set distance, but there are other creative options.

16 kilometre run ahead? Fuel every 45 minutes until you complete the distance. Are you racing a 10K? Focus on consistent negative splits, which means each kilometre gets a little bit faster, and your hard pace drops 10- to 15-seconds in the final couple kilometres. Struggling toward the end of a marathon? Dedicate each kilometre to something or someone you’re grateful for and think about the positive payoffs throughout the kilometre.

It’s helpful to program whatever fitness tracker you use before you get out on the road to tell you when a segment is up, and make sure the cues are audible so you aren’t always looking at your watch or phone.

The Bottom Line on Chunking Long Runs

Chunking is a great strategy to break up the monotony and repetitiveness of running. As you take to the roads, keep these ideas in mind and figure out what works best for you. Most pro runners keep a training log and you can too, complete with notes on how the chunking technique worked for you. Change it up if the strategy feels forced or doesn’t work. Try the music chunking and then experiment with distance chunking. Above all, remember to have fun and enjoy the process.

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