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Trail Tips

Feel-Good-Finish Long Runs

There are lots of benefits - both psychological and physiological - to running long mileage feeling really fresh.

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In sports, pushing yourself to failure is often held up as the ultimate virtue. My high-school football team had a shirt that said, “Pain is temporary. Pride is forever.” I wish I could go back and tell the 17-year-old me that guzzled protein shakes and screamed on the squat rack that by the time college starts, no one cares about your high-school football record, but the lingering back and hip pain can last for life.

Running risks venturing into that territory too. In the amazing book Running Tough, author Michael Sandrock quotes Olympic gold medalist Frank Shorter’s approach to interval training: “My goal was to get done with the last interval, have it be the fastest one in the workout, and be so exhausted that if someone came up and put a gun to my head and said ‘Do another one,’ I’d say, ‘Shoot me.’”

My goal was to get done with the last interval, have it be the fastest one in the workout, and be so exhausted that if someone came up and put a gun to my head and said ‘Do another one,’ I’d say, ‘Shoot me.’

I read Running Tough not too long after I quit college football and decided I’d get into endurance sports. That quote stuck to the roof of my brain like a brown piece of gum on the sidewalk. The pain of those all-out intervals? Temporary, of course. The pride of pushing to the limit? We all know that lasts forever. As Pre said, “The best pace is a suicide pace, and today looks like a good day to die.”

Only the pride doesn’t last forever.

Runners have short memories; otherwise we’d choose a less grueling sport, like football or competitive slapping. I’d forget about the effort by the time I guzzled my post-run protein shake (some habits die hard). I finished each workout and long run feeling like an overcooked frittata, requiring a heavy-duty spatula and strong forearms to scratch me off the pavement. “This is what it takes,” I would think, my squat-rack scream replaced by the ongoing existential wail of a body pushed to the limit with miles left to run.

Eventually, I learned what I have been preaching in Trail Runner for the last 500,000 words of columns. Going to the limit all the time works for Shorter and Pre because they are freakishly talented athletes pushing freakishly impressive limits. They don’t need to be scraped up off the pavement with a spatula. They were born non-stick.

Eventually, I learned what I have been preaching in Trail Runner for the last 500,000 words of columns. Going to the limit all the time works for Shorter and Pre because they are freakishly talented athletes pushing freakishly impressive limits. They don’t need to be scraped up off the pavement with a spatula. They were born non-stick.

That’s a gross analogy. So here’s another try.

Throw 100 eggs at a wall, and a few might not break. If a philosophy forms around the approach of those unbreakable eggs, we may think that the secret is going full speed into a wall. That’s why the first thing I look for when thinking about training is whether there are graveyards of shattered shells lying around.

RELATED: Why Consistency, Not Intensity, Is The Key To Running Success

The basic message is don’t interpolate from outliers.

The reason many outliers are a couple of standard deviations away from normal is their backgrounds and factory settings are abnormal. For most athletes, training is about sustainable stress that forms a positive feedback cycle between aerobic development, musculoskeletal strength and biomechanical efficiency to improve running economy. That means trying to avoid holding out fatigue as a proxy for adequate work, since most athletes adapt when they feel good long-term.

On feel-good-finish long runs, the goal is not to prove fitness, it’s to improve fitness. Like an online recipe that goes through half the words of War And Peace before getting to the shopping list, let’s break down the ingredients.

I have written about controlled workouts, but perhaps even more important for trail runners are controlled long-runs. On feel-good-finish long runs, the goal is not to prove fitness, it’s to improve fitness. Like an online recipe that goes through half the words of War And Peace before getting to the shopping list, let’s break down the ingredients.

RELATED: The Case For Sustainable Training Levels To Support Long-Term Growth

Feel-Good-Finish Long Run Ingredients

  • Longest run of the week;
  • Go into the run relatively recovered, feeling fresh;
  • Avoid running to resistance, feeling conversational and relaxed, including on uphills;
  • However, you don’t need to hold your body back, and you can flow on downhills. In particular for advanced athletes, these runs can be pretty fast;
  • Fuel like you would a race, with plenty of calories and hydration;
  • Try to keep your thoughts positive and uplifting, embracing a feeling of play;
  • Choose a creative or interesting route if possible;
  • Do these long runs consistently around half of the weeks in winter/off-season, and periodically every few weeks in summer based on training approach.

Goal: reach the end of the long run feeling like you could go back out there and do it all again joyfully

I’m writing a whole article about feel-good-finish long runs because I think the approach stands in contrast to what we instinctively think will lead to the most growth.

I’m writing a whole article about feel-good-finish long runs because I think the approach stands in contrast to what we instinctively think will lead to the most growth. If I’m feeling good at the end of a long run, I should do a fast finish, right? Getting to the house and having more energy than when I started is basically a character flaw. My competition is outworking me! How will I become better than yesterday if I don’t feel my today tomorrow? With that turn of phrase, I may have a future in designing slogans for high-school football T-shirts.

It’s all designed to finish a longer run uplifted, rather than torn down. Run so that you feel good, rather than running until you feel bad. My turn-of-phrase game must be butter, because it’s on a roll.

Fresh finishes have four main benefits.

One: Aerobic development may be optimized in efforts consistently around aerobic threshold or below.

By avoiding pushing to resistance, you’ll generally be around at aerobic threshold or easier. That base-building effort can improve capillary formation through angiogenesis, optimize aerobic enzyme activity and enhance lipid oxidation/metabolic factors that contribute to aerobic development over time.

Two: Endurance is often fueling- or intensity-limited, rather than distance-limited.

When runners talk about “hitting the wall” in a longer run or race, what they’re often talking about is dehydration or depleted glycogen stores caused by going too hard relative to fueling. Many athletes hit the wall over and over and over each weekend, like they’re a lonely tennis player. I’d prefer athletes to have a realization like Neo in the Matrix with the spoon. “There is no wall.”

RELATED: Break Through “The Wall.”

Three: Possibility of varying muscle-fiber recruitment even at mostly easy efforts.

There are theories that as a relaxed long run gets longer, slow-twitch muscle fibers can fatigue, causing intermediate fast-twitch muscle fibers to pick up the slack. It’s possible that pushing back that moment of slack is part of the reason for going relaxed on some long runs. Plus, some coaches theorize that the recruitment of intermediate fibers may be part of the reason that long runs support speed development beyond purely aerobic factors.

Four: It’s all about stacking bricks.

And here is the most important element of all. A hard long run that starts with a dream and ends with a spatula may just be a 5% risk of injury or burnout. But add up enough 5% risks, and you have a certainty of disaster eventually. Maybe for some athletes, the risk is 0.1%, for others 10%, and adjusting based on individual background is key.

Just remember: one really big brick doesn’t make a wall. As I learned the hard way after I quit football, it takes thousands of bricks over many years to see what type of wall you can build.

A feel-good-finish long run can be just another brick, supporting fitness development without too much risk of tearing it all down. And damn that brick can be fun.

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.