Pace yourself … the LONG run

Smacked myself on a long, slow run yesterday. Contradiction? Apparently not.

Since February I’ve been following (a bit loosely, as it turns out) the Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training (FIRST) program for the coming Sydney Morning Herald half marathon. The idea behind the program is to train at a pace based on your fitness and to run only three days per week with cross training in between.

The upside is that the risk of injury and burnout from overtraining is lessened, but each session is tough. That’s where I’ve been a little tardy. In the speedwork and tempo sessions I’ve worked hard to meet my target times, but until recently I’d been treating the long runs as just building time on my feet and not really worrying about pace. That’s what I’ve done in the past when training for half or full marathons. But now that I think about it, I’ve always regretted not having had more speed in the final quarter of a race…

I think that’s where the “slow” part of LSD (that’s long, slow distance) has let me down.

So for the past couple of weekends I’ve been doing my long runs with my speedwork group and have discovered there’s a big difference between running 17km at 5:06 minute per kilometre pace and 4:40min/k pace.

I asked coach Kathryn Holloway about this. Kathryn is a former all-England cross country champion and owner of Positive Fitness personal training on Sydney’s lower North Shore. She has tried many programs and is a strong advocate of FIRST, having used it to run a personal best time of 3:03:00 for the 2011 New York Marathon.

“Some weeks in the program it is about running slow and not worrying about the pace, but generally there is a purpose behind the long run,” she says.

“We are all time-poor and we are getting older, so I believe strongly about training with purpose and quality. The purpose of the long run is to improve endurance by raising your aerobic metabolism. If you have a goal of 85 minutes for a half marathon and go for your long run of 19 kilometres at 5min/k pace, how on earth will you ever feel confident about or indeed be able to hold a 4.01min/k pace?

“A steady, cruisey run sightseeing and thinking about what you need to get done in your day is OK now and then, but the success factor of the program is to run at a set pace based on your race goal, which you first calculate from your 5K race or time trial pace.”

The 5km time trial sets a realistic goal for the half marathon and subsequently the speed of the three weekly running sessions. Another 5km time trial halfway through the program is a good way to track your progress and see if your goal time is still achievable. This can be adjusted accordingly as you should see an improvement.

“The pace for the long run can change week by week depending on what stage you are at in the program, as can the distance,” says Kathryn. “That is, it could be a 20km run done at goal pace plus 19 seconds, or a 17km run done at goal pace plus 12 seconds.”

And for people like me who take a while to get going, it’s OK to start off a long run slower, and build up during the middle and then come home hard.

“Overall it’s the average pace that matters,” says Kathryn, “so if you are going uphill, you don’t have to hold the goal pace plus 12 seconds, for example. Play around with strategies to get to your average based on the course you’re running.”

Because the FIRST program for the most part takes the “slow” out of LSD runs, it’s not ideal for beginner runners without much of a distance base or those without speedwork experience, or anyone not interested in improving their times. There are plenty of other programs that will still get you over a fun run line. It’s just a matter of shopping around a bit.

“The FIRST studies discovered that focusing on a specific pace prepares runners physiologically and mentally for racing,” says Kathryn. “The physiological side is that it increases the muscles’ ability to metabolise lactate, which is that horrible feeling when you legs start to burn.

“By training at a higher intensity, your muscles will adapt and use the lactate as an energy source rather than allow it to accumulate in your muscles and blood and give you that horrible ‘I want to stop’ feeling.”

So the bottom line is, if you want to run faster, you need to train faster. But never underestimate the value of the occasional mood-enhancing meditative mooch. Sometimes it’s just what your mind and your body needs.

* FIRST as written about by Bill Pierce, Scott Murr and Ray Moss in their book Run Less Run Faster, (updated edition released 2012).

What role does the long, slow run play in your life?

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