Someone once asked me, “how long does a run need to be before it can be called a long-distance run”?
Well, the answer is simple – the definition of the long run depends on who the runner is. For someone who is an elite, ultra-endurance runner, running over 100 miles a week, and perhaps even taking part in multi-day ultra-endurance events, a “long run” is probably anything in excess of the 42km of a marathon.
For serious runners – perhaps “club athletes” who do long run training regularly and compete over distances such as 10km and half marathon, a long run is considered to be probably anything beyond 10k, or a run that is around 1 hour in duration.
For most runners this is an attainable goal, and once a run is longer than an hour, it is probably safe to say that it is “pretty long”, regardless of the distance that has been covered.
This reminds me of a favourite essay question that I used to set – “is it harder to run a marathon in two hours, or in 4 hours?”. Since most runners complete the distance at an intensity which is between 70% and 80% of maximum, it is probably fair to say that spending 4 hours pounding the streets at that sort of intensity to cover 42km is tougher than spending just 2 hours to complete the same distance.
LONG RUN FOR BEGINNERS
But if you are a beginner, gradually building up fitness and taking part in exercise for the first time in many years, then a long run could be anything from just 50 metres and beyond. 50 metres may seem like a ridiculously short distance for anyone to classify as a “long run”, but if you take a look at the general population, and in particular at the number of people who are sedentary, obese, and unfit, it is clear that for many of them, even running just a few strides is an almost impossible challenge.
This is why most running programmes, which aim to change unfit novices into recreational runners, initially focus on walking before running. After a gradual increase in the distance and intensity of walking, adding short periods of slow running into a walk is the next crucial stage. After a while, the walking is gradually replaced with running, so that the walking becomes less as the running increases. The next stage is to increase the distance and intensity of the run, whilst always remembering not to try to do too much too soon – and that is how to prepare for a long run (a truly long one) in the future.
Long run for beginners does not need to be excessive. Anyone who does try to do too much too quickly – literally running before they can walk – risks injury and also unnecessary fatigue. As soon as fatigue builds up, and exercise becomes a strain not a pleasure, then the motivation to continue with exercise drops, and fitness is quickly lost.
SO HOW LONG IS A LONG RUN?
So going back to the initial question, “what is considered a long run”, it is clear that one runner’s long run could be another runner’s sprint. But we should never ever criticize the runner whose long run may not seem to be that long, or that fast. For them, the personal achievement of running 5km in 40 minutes – or a ten-minute session of a dog running on Sunday – may be as great as that of an Olympic Champion running a marathon in 2 hours. Not everyone has the same physiology as an elite athlete, and personal backgrounds and choices can dictate how much exercise an individual has been able to do.
To turn a life around through exercise and a healthy lifestyle is a challenge that is not to be underestimated, and in many cases can be on a par with the sacrifices and dedication shown by many much fitter elite athletes.
Author: John Brewer, Visiting Professor of Sport and Exercise Science, University of Suffolk