It's easy to get bored, distracted, achy, hungry, thirsty, and tired during the last stretch of a long run, and I'll be honest: It's been a big challenge for me through this training process. In the past few weeks, I’ve often asked myself, “Am I STILL running?"
But I know that long runs are the most important part of my training, so I talked to experts for their tips. Below is their advice as well as a few things I’ve discovered myself.
1. Plan the Route
My more successful runs happen when I've pulled out Google Maps and marked my path, exactly how many miles it is, and how long it should take me. It makes sense: Know where you're going, and you'll have a finish line you can think about instead of just running aimlessly for hours on end. Michelle Portalatin, an ITCA-certified triathlon training coach, advises to plan a destination race. "Run from point A to point B to log in the miles, and end somewhere fun or at a restaurant you want to try that doesn't mind a sweaty patron," she says. I have a juice bar that I know I can run to on my favorite short route; on longer runs a few of my favorite finishing points have been Peanut Butter & Co. and OatMeals in Greenwich Village. (I've been known to make a stop at both.)
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2. Play Mind Games
Keeping your brain occupied while your body is fast at work is a huge part of the long-run battle. One trick I use is breaking down my running route into three- to five-mile increments that offer very different scenery. That way I feel like I'm accomplishing something and stay entertained, plus I can mentally break down the run. Instead of only thinking about the big finish line, I think about little ones too (the end of a bridge or start of a path or neighborhood) and run to them.
Portalatin suggests keeping your mind busy by thinking about your posture and counting how many times your feet strike the ground in one minute. It's a great way to keep your body engaged while entertaining your brain. Having a positive attitude is also crucial. If you're feeling down or tired, or like you just can't go on (we've all been there), wipe the thought away. "Envision yourself crossing the finish line strong and steady," Portalatin says.
3. Pair Up
Another way to break up the runs is to employ the buddy system but for only part of the run. "Get someone or multiple people to run parts of your long run with you," says Andrew Allden, the women's cross country coach at the University of South Carolina who is also part of my marathon race team, Team USA Endurance.* This can become a fun "Pass off the marathon runner" game. Friends feel like they're involved in your training and get in a good run at the same time.
4. Use Them As Dress Rehearsals
Long runs are your run-throughs for race day. Test out everything as if you were running the real thing: Eat a healthy meal the night before, hydrate, and get the right amount of sleep. Then for your run, wear the same shoes, clothes (including socks!), and gear you're planning on wearing on the big day, and even try to do your long runs at the same time of day as the scheduled race. Don’t forget to test the refueling and hydration plan that you'll be using so that there are no surprises. "You'll need 200 to 300 calories an hour of sports drink or a gel and water, but don’t have both," Allden says.
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5. Taper, Taper, Taper!
Long runs build your endurance to be able to last well into double-digit mileage. However, you won't gain anything from running long too close to your race. "It takes 10 days for a workout to register in terms of fitness, so anything inside of 10 days adds to fatigue and not fitness,” Allden says. “The last long run should happen 14 to 11 days out.”
*Team USA Endurance was formed this year by the U.S. Olympic Committee to support fundraising efforts for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes at the upcoming games. If you would like to support the U.S. Olympics and Team Endurance as we run the NYCMarathon, you can donate here.