Building Endurance: Are You In For The Long Run?

by BodyHealth Representatives February 14, 2018 5 min read

Athletic person going for a run in a snowy forest.

BodyHealth Team Member CJ Hitz - long endurance run in the winter with snow

From the 5k to the marathon, one of the most essential ingredients to improving overall endurance is the long run. And what is endurance? Let's see what Webster's has to say:


  • the ability to withstand hardship or adversity; especially the ability to sustain a prolonged stressful effort or activity [a marathon runner's endurance]
  • the act or an instance of enduring or suffering [endurance of many hardships]

Those definitions are certainly relevant for runners of all distances. One of our primary goals is to increase the amount of time we're able to hold a specific pace. In other words, you might easily be able to run a mile in 7 minutes, but how about holding that pace for 3.1 miles, 10 miles or 13.1 miles? It doesn't really matter how much speed you have if you can't cover the distance of whatever race you're running.


What is the Long Run?

The long run is simply the longest training run of the week, both in miles and length of time. Depending on experience, I encourage those training for a 5k to cover 5 to 12 miles on their long runs. I began to notice significant improvement when I consistently included a long run in my weekly training plan. Before I became serious about lowering my 5k times, I found myself settling for shorter runs as I reasoned that "it's only a 5k I'm training for." If I was crunched for time, I would simply cut miles off my long run thinking it was no big deal. Since then, I've discovered it is a BIG deal.


Finally Passing a Rival

Race after race I would run against him. Race after race he would beat me. His name is Joe Baker. It didn't matter if I was ahead of him for 95% of the race. Joe would manage to overtake me in that last 5%. It was frustrating and I knew something had to change. After all, if you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always got. Albert Einstein had a definition for insanity: "Doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result." I tend to agree with Mr. Einstein, especially when it comes to running.

Around the peak of my frustration with losing to Joe, I was invited by a group of guys to join them on their weekly long run. It was January in northwest Ohio which meant it was freezing cold and there was snow on the ground. We did these long runs at one of the Toledo metro parks which contained miles of trails. Each week, we would cover 10-14 miles at 9 minute per mile pace. We certainly weren't breaking any records but I began to notice improvement after just three or four of these long runs. I was able to run longer without becoming as winded. My day of putting these long runs to the test would come at a 5k race in mid-February where I again found myself standing on the starting line with Joe Baker. The air was cool & crisp but the course was about ready to be burned up.

The gun fired and we were off. The first mile was fairly tame as neither of us really wanted to lead but by the midway point, Joe made his move. He proceeded to put a gap of about 15 yards between us as we hit the two mile mark. With less than ½ mile to go, I pulled even and began a surge that gave me a 15 yard lead of my own. I could smell the finish line yet I knew Joe would put forth one final kick. But amazingly, with less than 100 yards to go and the finish line in sight, Joe was now 50 yards behind me and losing more ground with every step I took. That final kick by Joe never happened.

Sweet victory was mine as I crossed the line 11 seconds ahead of Joe!

Joe congratulated me upon finishing and we enjoyed some usual post-race conversation. After that day, the gap between Joe and I continued to widen as I continued to progress and become more consistent in my training. If there's one key ingredient that pushed me past Joe it's the long run. I had known for a while that Joe seldom runs more than 20 miles total for the week and his longest training runs are 4 or 5 miles. To his credit, Joe is gifted with natural speed and back in his prime, he was churning out sub 17 minute 5ks. Since 98% of all the races Joe runs are 5k, he hasn't seen the need to include a long run in his weekly training. But without that long run, Joe continues to sacrifice endurance…that ability to hold a given pace for a longer period of time.


Benefits of the Long Run

  1. Using fat as fuel - our bodies will use carbohydrates as the first option for fuel. After carb stores are depleted, the body then moves into using fat stores as fuel. This is a wonderful thing, especially for those of you trying to lose those stubborn excess pounds. Incorporating a long run into your training can be a healthy weight loss tool.
  2. Glycogen storage increases - When glycogen stores are depleted, muscles are stimulated to restock to a higher level. This is a survival mechanism the body uses to ensure it doesn't run out of glycogen again. Simply put, by gradually increasing the distance of your long runs, you'll gradually increase your glycogen storage. Remember, glycogen is the fuel our muscles crave!
  3. Increased capillary density - Long runs increase the number of capillaries per muscle cell, which improves the efficiency of oxygen and nutrient delivery as well as the removal of carbon dioxide and other waste products. More capillaries equal more oxygen & nutrients to our muscle cells. Think of it like roads. Over the last 60 years, the highway system across the United States has dramatically improved which means more efficient transport of goods and services. In a similar way, long runs help our bodies lay down more "highways" for those precious resources to get to our muscles.
  4. Muscle fiber adaptations - Though the 5k requires some fast twitch muscle fiber action for pure speed, it also requires slow twitch action in order to sustain pace. Slow twitch fibers naturally have more mitochondria, more aerobic enzyme activity, more oxidative capacity, and more capillaries than fast twitch fibers. Endurance training through long runs will not actually build new slow twitch fiber but it will give the existing fast twitch fibers some of the same qualities as slow twitch fibers. Some people (Usain Bolt) are born with more fast twitch fiber and some people (Ryan Hall) are born with more slow twitch fiber.

Long Run Pace

A general rule of thumb for your long run pace is 2 to 2 ½ minutes slower than 5k race pace. For example, if you can hold a 7 minute per mile 5k pace, your long run pace will be 9:00 to 9:30 per mile. Beginners should stay closer to the 2 ½ minutes slower pace until their bodies adjust to the miles.

Building Endurance for the Long Run

Are you ready to start holding a faster pace longer with every race you run? Are you ready to see your endurance level increase dramatically? Are you ready to train your body to burn fat as fuel and lose those extra pounds weighing you down?

What are you waiting for? It's time to go long!

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.