How to run for longer | The health benefits of running

February 05, 2024 12 min read

How to run for longer | The health benefits of running
Photo: Keri Wallace.     
                                               
Smart Running brings together Jen and Sim Benson's combined passion for everything running. The book aims to help inform and inspire every runner, whether you’re just starting out, looking to move up to the next distance, or seeking the competitive edge to win races or set a new PB or FKT.

The book begins with an exploration of the science of running, including the biomechanics, physiology, energetics and psychology that all combine to create a happy, healthy, lifelong runner. It then takes you through how to fuel your running, how to prevent and manage injuries, the best kit for performance and planet, where to run and how to find your way, and even how to take a great running photo. And much, much more! The final section is a step-by-step guide to creating a training plan that, unlike the generic off-the-shelf versions, is tailored specifically to help you achieve your running goals in a way that works with who you are and how you live.

In these extracts, Jen and Sim explore the finer details of various running workouts and the relationship between running and health.

 

LONG SLOW RUN

Intensity: low; RPE: 3; talk test: able to hold a full conversation.

Purpose: building endurance; conditioning the body to the repetitive stresses of running; improving ability to utilise fat for fuel.

How to do it: run at a comfortable pace for an extended period that matches your race goals. If you’re training for a marathon, long runs should build up from around 10–12 miles to peak at around 18–22 miles. Long runs when you’re training for an ultra should reflect the terrain you’ll be running on and not usually be more than 4–6 hours. Be aware of your running form, stopping if you find you’re losing form and dropping back the distance of your long runs until you can maintain good form throughout. Practise fuelling and hydrating as you go.

Example workouts

Basic long run
The longest run of the week, undertaken at a low intensity throughout.

Long run for ultramarathons
Slow running on terrain similar to the race for 4–6 hours. Practise hiking up hills – a key skill for hillier ultras. Practise with a pack and poles if you’ll be using these in the race. Eat regularly – every 20–30 minutes – and drink to thirst.

Long run with strides
In the final hour of your long run, add in 8–10 bursts of faster running to loosen up the legs and recruit different muscle fibres.

Long progression run
Increase your pace towards the end of your long run, starting out at low intensity and building to moderate intensity towards the end of your run.

Fast finish long run
Do your long run at a low intensity until the final 5–10 kilometres, then ramp it up to a harder effort. This is a great way to get the legs moving again after they’ve been working in the same way for several hours, and to bring some fast-running fun into your long runs. It’s great practice for sprint finishes in races, too!


STEADY STATE RUN

Intensity: moderate; RPE: 4–6; talk test: able to talk in short sentences.

Purpose: conditioning your body to higher stresses over a longer period of time, so are important when training for half marathon and marathon distance races. Moderate-intensity runs are all the rage right now, but these mid-paced workouts should be treated with care as they apply a reasonably high level of stress on the body for an extended period of time.

How to do it: Run at a pace that’s at or just below your marathon pace, or that you could keep up for 2 hours at the most. You should be able to speak in short sentences, but not hold a full conversation. They’re nowhere near all-out, but they are definitely not easy runs.

Example workouts

Basic steady state run
The duration should be between 90 minutes and 2 hours for maximum benefit while minimising injury risk. Warm up well for 20 minutes, then increase your pace to at or just below your marathon race pace. Hold this steady for the duration of the workout.

Steady state run with strides
Add faster bursts of running into a steady state run, returning to your marathon race pace in between the harder efforts. This is a hard session, but helps marathon pace to feel more manageable, as you’re accumulating time at a faster pace in between steady state running.

Progression/steady state long run
Increase your pace as you progress through a long run – this will accustom you to working harder later on in a run, which is great race preparation. Your steady state run should form the mid-to-late portion of the run, during the final 30 per cent of the distance.


INTERVAL TRAINING

Intensity: high; RPE: 9–10; talk test: single words only.

Purpose: improve speed and cardiovascular fitness; targeting different energy systems; accumulating time at higher intensity with breaks in between efforts.

How to do it: intervals alternate between short, high-intensity bursts of running and brief recovery periods. Have a fixed plan for your interval sessions and try to stick to it. Try to run your final reps at the same pace as your first ones – even though they’ll undoubtedly feel harder! Interval sessions are also great to do on a treadmill; often these will allow you to pre-set your session, so you don’t need to think about it.

Example workouts

3x3 minute interval
Run 3 minutes hard then jog for 3 minutes to recover. This is great interval session for those training for half marathons and longer, as these longer intervals improve running economy and lactate threshold. If you’re new to intervals, start out with 3–4 reps and increase to 8–10 as you progress. Try to pace the session so that the final 3 minutes is run at the same (hard) pace as the first.

Pyramid intervals
Run for 1 minute hard with 1 minute recovery; then 2 minutes hard with 2 minutes recovery; then 3 minutes hard with 3 minutes recovery ... carry on until you’re on 5 minutes, and then reverse back down to 1 minute. Pace each effort so you’re consistent throughout – your shortest efforts should be fastest, and your longest efforts slowest.

400 metre reps
Great to do on a track – run 400 metres at your goal mile pace then take 60 seconds of active rest, walking or jogging slowly. Build up from 5 to 10 reps as you progress. Alternatively, try 800 metre reps with 120 seconds of active rest.

Mile reps
Great for those training for 5K or 10K races. Run 1 mile at goal 5K or 10K race pace, take 2 minutes and 30 seconds of active rest, walking or jogging slowly. Repeat 2 to 4 times.


FARTLEK

Intensity: variable – efforts should be high intensity; recovery should be low; RPE: 8–9 (efforts), 2–3 (recovery); talk test: one or two words (efforts), full sentences (recovery).

Purpose: combine speed and endurance training.

How to do it: meaning ‘speed play’ in Swedish, fartlek is a less structured form of interval training that’s enjoyable and flexible to fit in with the area you’re running in. Run at a comfortable pace, but mix in random bursts of faster running for varying durations – perhaps between two trees or lamp posts. You can either run each effort hard throughout or use the ‘peak and fade’ approach, gradually building speed, peaking at the middle of each interval, and then decreasing pace. This approach avoids rapid changes in pace, reducing the likelihood of injury.

Example workouts

Lamp posts or trees
If your regular run takes you along paths or pavements with regular ‘goals’ such as trees, lamp posts or gates, use these to dictate your efforts. As you go, pick a start and finish point up ahead and run hard between them, then easy jog to recover in between.

Hilly fartlek
As for Efforts on a hilly run, if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere undulating, fartlek sessions can focus on running hills, simply taking advantage of the changes in terrain as you go. Go easy on the flat and downhills, but push hard on each hill as you encounter it.


TEMPO RUN

Intensity: high; RPE: 7–8; talk test: short sentences.

Purpose: improve your lactate threshold and race pace.

How to do it: run at a ‘comfortably hard’ pace that is just below your 10K race pace. This pace should be challenging but sustainable for an extended period, usually 20–40 minutes.

Example workouts

Basic tempo
After a thorough warm-up of 20–30 minutes’ running at an easy/moderate pace, run for 20 minutes comfortably hard. You should feel like you’re working as hard as you can without things becoming unstable – a pace you can maintain for the full 20 minutes. As you progress, gradually build the duration of your tempo run up to between 40 and 60 minutes, but if you can run at this pace for more than an hour, you’re not running hard enough, so increase your pace to reduce the time.

Long run with tempo
Adding a tempo run into a long run is a great way to break up the monotony, recruit different muscle fibres and use your muscles in a different way. It also increases fatigue, so your long run doesn’t need to be as long to feel the same in terms of effort. Add your tempo about two-thirds through a long run, so you’re tired but not too fatigued. Generally, 20 minutes at tempo pace is enough in the midst of a long run. You could progress to two lots of 20-minute tempo efforts.

Progression long run
This is a great session for marathon training, when you want to train yourself to run hard in the final hour of a marathon. Divide your long run into three (either by distance or time), running the first third easy, the second third moderate, and the final third at, or slightly faster than, your marathon race pace.


PROGRESSION RUN

Intensity: low progressing through moderate to high – ideally about 30 per cent each; RPE: building from 3 up to 7; talk test: building from full sentences to a few words.

Purpose: learning to pace yourself, and that you always have more left than you think!

How to do it: start at a very easy pace and gradually increase your speed as the run progresses. The goal is to finish strong, running faster than you started. Your hardest effort shouldn’t be all-out though, as you’ll be tired by this point and pushing too hard could lead to excessive fatigue.

Example workouts

Progression thirds
Whatever the planned distance/duration of your run, you can divide it up into thirds to make it a progression run. Run the first third easy, the second third moderate, and the final third hard.

Progression tempo run
After a thorough warm-up, run for 10 minutes at your half marathon pace, then 10 minutes at your 10K pace, then 10 minutes between your 10K and 5K pace.


TIME TRIAL

Intensity: high; RPE: 8–9; talk test: one or two words.

Purpose: assess your progress and set new goals.

How to do it: run a specific distance (e.g. 5K or 10K) at your maximum effort to gauge your current fitness level and set benchmarks for future improvements. You could use your local parkrun, or a loop or out-and-back of a known distance. To allow accurate comparison it’s a good idea to use the same course for each time trial.

Example workouts

Parkrun
At an accurately measured 5 kilometres (although the ascent and underfoot conditions vary widely) your local parkrun is a perfect place to run a regular time trial. Run the same course each time if you want an accurate representation of your progress.

Race
Regular 5K and 10K races take place right across the country. Entering these from time to time will give you a good idea of your fitness, and opportunities to experience race day nerves and pre-/post-race prep and routines without too much pressure.

Home-based 5K or 10K time trial
Using a watch, measure out a loop, linear or out-and-back route of an exact distance. It doesn’t need to be 5 or 10 kilometres, but as these are popular race distances, they give you a good idea where your pace is in comparison with others – if that’s something you’re interested to know. After a thorough warm-up, run the measured route, timing yourself as you go. Note the times down, and repeat regularly, or whenever you want to check on your progress. Remember to cool down well after a longer, harder effort, too.

RUNNING AND HEALTH - IS RUNNING GOOD FOR US?

It seems intuitive that running is good for our physical and mental health. But the reality – as is so often the way with human beings – is a little more complicated.

Mental health and well-being
If you’re someone who already runs regularly, you’re probably no stranger to the feelings of life-affirming joy that running can produce. It’s why most of us do it. As busy, self-employed parents we both know we’ll be happier, nicer, more patient and more productive for the rest of the day if we’ve started it with a run. No matter how hard it might feel to get through the door in the first place, barring injury, illness, or some other misadventure along the way, we’re always glad we made the effort. There’s a lot of truth in the saying that no-one ever regretted a run. Running is a great way to meet and spend time with like-minded people, or to escape and destress after a busy day at work, or to zone out to music or a good audiobook. Best of all, running is endlessly flexible and customisable to fit around our busy lives and to undertake at whatever level we want.

Regular physical activity, especially when done out doors, does appear to be over whelmingly beneficial from a psychological point of view – those who participate regularly are less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety and more likely to report a better quality of life.

But there’s a dark side to this, too. What about when we can’t run? When we don’t perform well or even fail to finish a race? When illness, injury, family commitments or work gets in the way? When not being able to run isolates us from our social groups? It’s really good for us, as humans, to have a passion. But, like any passion, it’s possible to become too dependent on running – to miss out on life’s other joys for the sake of running, or to measure our self-worth by how far, fast or frequently we run. It’s a difficult balance, and there’s no single right way for everyone. But if you’re someone who makes a habit of turning down other opportunities because they might negatively affect your running, it’s well worth bearing in mind.

There’s also far less evidence on the benefits of running for people with certain existing mental health problems. Particularly those for whom undertaking physical activity isn’t straightforward for social, cultural, physical health or other reasons, exercise isn’t necessarily the quick fix it’s sometimes touted to be. As passionate runners it’s all too easy to extoll the virtues of our favourite pastime to everyone we meet, but it’s certainly not an answer to all of life’s challenges.

Physical health
When it comes to the more easily measured physical benefits of running, there’s a lot more data available. There’s overwhelming evidence that regular physical activity of any kind is hugely beneficial to our health. Starting with large-scale epidemiological studies in the 1980s, backed up by lab-based physiological research, the 1990s saw a firm stance taken by government health advisors advocating for an active lifestyle. Today, we know that because of the adaptations that take place with regular training, exercise not only reduces our risk of cardiovascular disease, but also provides direct cardiovascular protection (Liet al., 2020).

How about running specifically? Longitudinal cohort studies follow a large number of regular runners for many years, comparing numerous health-related variables with similar groups of non-runners. A review of several of these types of studies found that runners have a 30–45 per cent lower risk of dying from any cause than non-runners, including up to a 70 per cent lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and up to 50 per cent for cancer (Lee et al., 2017). The researchers also found running to be protective against neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, metabolic disorders like diabetes, and respiratory infections. Long-term runners see the greatest health benefits, adding, on average, 3.2 years to their life expectancy.

Too much of a good thing?
That all sounds like good news for regular runners, but how much running is enough – and how much is too much?

Purely from a health point of view, the sweet spot for running seems to fall between one and three hours per week – less than an hour is better by far than no exercise but doesn’t maximise running’s benefits. For many runners, 3 hours of running each week works well, but how about those who are keen to do more? Research also suggests that, particularly when it comes to heart health, there may be an upper limit to the recommended amount of running, beyond which these benefits may either disappear or even turn into higher risks (Lee et al., 2017). Recommended upper limits for running range from 30 to 60 miles (50 to 100 kilometres) per week across different studies, but the researchers all acknowledge the lack of available evidence to support these numbers.

Many athletes, including elite distance runners, average over 100 miles (160 kilometres) of running per week for years, seemingly without harm, so there’s certainly plenty of room for interpretation. The likelihood is that differences in health and running history, genetics, the ability to rest and recover between runs, and running environment all strongly influence how much running an individual can safely tolerate, but it’s well worth considering how much might be too much for your specific set of circumstances, particularly if you or a close family member has a history of heart problems.

The more obvious short-term risks of overdoing it with running include increased susceptibility to illness and injury, low mood, and a lack of motivation. For runners still early in their running journeys, this is usually down to increasing training load – a combination of distance, intensity and frequency – too rapidly. For more experienced runners the cause is more likely to be down to the chronic over-stressing of physical and psychological resources, usually a result of inadequate recovery including, crucially, good quality sleep, and/or poor or inadequate nutrition.

Top tips for healthy running
* Regular running is great for our bodies and brains, so keep doing it!
* To maximise running’s health benefits, run for 1–3 hours each week.
* Above 60 miles (100 kilometres) of running per week may not be beneficial for all runners.
* If you have a history of medical problems, seek advice before starting or increasing exercise.
* Support your running with good sleep, nutrition and recovery.