Benefits of Long Distance Running

Runner tying her shoes before a long run

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If you’ve ever run a marathon or you’re currently training for one, you’ve probably heard about (but hopefully never experienced) “hitting the wall.” That's the point in the race when your body has used up its stored carbohydrates or glycogen and has to rely on fat for its primary source of energy. Since burning fat is not as efficient as burning carbohydrates, your body feels fatigued and your pace slows dramatically. Some refer to the feeling as running through mud or running with bags of sand on their feet. 

So what’s the best way to avoid that miserable experience? By preparing your body with weekly long runs. The benefits of long-distance running (for marathon runners, that means 10 to 20 miles) range from using your body's stored energy more efficiently to having time to work out any kinks in your gear or nutrition. Learn some of the advantages you’ll gain by lacing up for more miles.

Improves Endurance

When you’re running long, you’re developing greater aerobic endurance so your body doesn’t have to work as hard to attain the same performance level next time. The long runs strengthen your heart and open your capillaries, sending energy to working muscles and flushing waste products from fatigued muscles.

Increases Muscle Power

During long runs, your body recruits fast-twitch muscle fibers to help with slow-twitch tasks (like running a marathon), so you have more muscle fibers trained to get you through the marathon. Other physiological benefits include the increased number and size of mitochondria, which are the energy powerhouse of your muscles.

Trains Body to Use Fat for Fuel

The long run also teaches your body to tap into fat as an energy source before your carbohydrates are depleted. As a result, your stored carbohydrates last longer, helping to avoid that dreaded “wall.”

Provides Nutrition and Hydration Practice

Of course, you’ll still need more energy during a 26.2-mile race, so the long run also gives you a chance to practice fueling with carbs while running, which is another way to avoid hitting the wall. Since every runner reacts differently to eating or drinking carbohydrates on the run, the long run lets marathoners experiment with different fueling options, such as sports drinks, gels, or energy bars that are quickly digested and absorbed into the bloodstream to fuel muscles. You can experiment with different options and make sure you don’t have any stomach or gastrointestinal issues after consuming them.

Hydration is also critical to your race safety and performance. Long runs give you a chance to practice drinking water and sports drinks throughout the run so you'll be prepared knowing what works best for you on race day.

Offers Opportunity for Gear and Clothing Tests

In addition to your run nutrition choices, the “nothing new on race day” rule also applies to your running shoes, gear, and clothing. Shorts or shirts that pose no problems during shorter runs may chafe when you get past the 10-mile mark, and it’s much better to figure that out during a training run than during the marathon. Testing gear and clothing during your long runs mean that you’ll have your race outfit ready to go, and there will be no surprises on race day.

Builds Confidence and Mental Toughness

In addition to building the necessary endurance and physically preparing you for running 26.2 miles, long runs get you ready for the challenge of staying focused and mentally strong to avoid hitting a point when your mind, not your legs, is telling you to stop.

Long runs build your confidence as a runner so you’ll feel prepared to deal with the mental challenges. And if you face a rough patch during your marathon, you’ll be able to draw upon strength built from past distance runs to help pull you through.

A Word From Verywell

No matter how much you train, there are bound to be ups and downs when it comes to long runs. Whether you're facing inclement weather, battling sore muscles, or adjusting to new gear, don't be discouraged if some runs don't match your personal best. And if you do hit that wall during a race, consider it a great opportunity to sign up for another race and work towards a new goal.

By Christine Luff, ACE-CPT
Christine Many Luff is a personal trainer, fitness nutrition specialist, and Road Runners Club of America Certified Coach.