Physical Benefits of the Long Run

As promised, this week’s blog (and next week’s too) will return to the topic of the long run, its role in marathon training, and why it is the cornerstone of that training.

Last week, I alluded to the purpose of the long run being to prepare both the mind and the body for the rigors of running 26.2 miles. So it seems reasonable to spend one week on the mental aspects and another on the physical. Since at least some the physical aspects are more apparent (after all, you should feel that you’re already in better physical shape than you were a couple of months ago, right?), let’s start there. Keep in mind that I am not a trained physiologist, so don’t take everything you read as the gospel truth!

When someone engages in strenuous activity like running, the body has to burn fuel from some energy source. The easiest source to tap is glycogen. I won’t even pretend to know exactly what glycogen is, but think of it as a simple form of sugar stored in the muscles from which the body can quickly draw energy. Great stuff, glycogen. It’s produced from carbohydrates, which is why many marathoners “load up” on carbohydrates the night before a marathon. Too bad the body can’t store enough of it to last for 26.2 miles. So, when your muscles can no longer locate it’s preferred energy source, they go looking elsewhere . That usually means converting some stored fat into energy.

Well, hey! Converting fat to energy sounds pretty fine, doesn’t it? Indeed, over time this is the basic reason why many people lose weight while engaging in an exercise program. Unfortunately, this conversion of fat to energy isn’t the simplest biochemical process in the world, and it’s not something that your body will readily do on short notice. Your muscles need to practice, practice, practice in order to efficiently produce energy from stored fat while running. In fact, it requires a fairly long run (say, 10 or more miles) to deplete the glycogen to the point where muscles to start eyeing fat cells for more energy.

In addition to training the body to utilize fat more efficiently, other benefits from the long run are believed to include:

Strengthening the heart muscle and increasing the volume of blood pumped; Improving the blood flow in the capillary system; Strengthening the ligaments, as well as the muscles, in your lower body; Improving the removal of waste products produced by muscle cells as they fatigue

I hope all of this will motivate you to get out on that first 10 mile run if you haven’t already.

Let me finish with one simple bit of advice on doing runs of 10 or more miles. A long run should be done at a pace no faster than you plan to run the marathon. In fact, many trainers urge runners to do the long runs at a pace significantly slower than they plan to run the marathon. For example, if your goal is to run the marathon at an 8-minute pace, do your long runs at an 8-and-a-half or even a 9-minute pace. What matters is being on your feet and covering the required distance. That takes mental discipline and toughness—two points we’ll talk about next week!

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