Most runners tackle the long run on the weekend, waking up before the brunch- and church-goers — depending on the day — to push their bodies to new limits and add even more miles to their legs.
While the distance of your long run depends on what you are training for and your weekly mileage, most runners — including Olympian Courtney Babcock, who holds the Canadian Women’s 5,000m record and is the head coach of Key Running — consider it any run over 75 minutes.
With more mileage comes a greater need to take care of your body both before and after a run. Though it is tempting to lay down and binge watch your favorite TV show the second your tired feet walk through your door, that, unfortunately, isn’t going to promote optimal recovery. What exactly should you be doing? We talked to the experts to find out.
You may have heard of the intense strain put on the body after running a marathon (one study even noted radical effects on the kidneys). Does your long run have the same results? Not quite, especially as the average long run is often done at a much more conservative pace and involves running fewer miles.
It can be natural to think of the long run in terms of the damage it does to the body, however, there are actually more positive benefits. Those benefits will be most noticeable if the long run is executed properly — including a proper warmup and cooldown — and extend beyond just the physical.
“The long run is an extended aerobic exercise where an athlete is building their cardiovascular foundation,” explains Matthew Zepeda, head coach at Zoom Performance. “The physiological adaptations are: building of mitochondria, increased blood volume and maximum stroke rate, opening of capillaries, increased efficiency at burning fat for energy and strengthening of muscles and ligaments for better endurance and ability to handle more intense training runs. Also, long runs build confidence and mental toughness.”
Of course, even with benefits, there is still stress on your body. As with any exercise, you are putting a strain on your body as you build strength and stamina. In fact, Babcock shares that a run longer than 9 miles causes increased muscle break down, which illustrates why recovery should be a priority. Post-run, it is important to focus on what helps your body absorb the benefits and recover from the stressors.
Both Babcock and Zepeda agree that after a long run, your top priority should always be your nutrition. You not only want to replenish any fluids that were lost during the run, but you also want to make sure to take in the right ratio of carbohydrates, protein and more. This process is so vital that Babcock notes it should begin 10–15 minutes after you have finished a run.
“When you’re done with your run, begin your recovery right away with either food or a smoothie or chocolate milk,” she adds. “Whatever you can get down — because sometimes you won’t feel like eating anything — should have both carbohydrates and protein. Your body will thank you next time you try and go for a hard run.”
Zepeda explains you should aim to take in 100–200 calories with a ratio of 4 grams of carbohydrates to 1 gram of protein within 20–30 minutes of your run. For every pound lost due to sweat, he says you should consume 16 ounces of hydration including a balance of electrolytes. Many runners either weigh themselves before and after a run or simply take note of how much they sweat (including any salt rings that may form on clothing) in order to roughly estimate how much to drink afterward.
Want to do more than just refuel to help your body recover from the longer miles? Do nothing; crawl into your bed and take a nap. If you are exhausted after your long run, getting some sleep is a totally acceptable way to spend the afternoon.
“Sleep, at any time, is one of the most underrated recovery tools and napping is a part of that,” says Babcock. “I am a strong napper, but that is not the case for everyone. If you can’t close your eyes, lie down and put your feet up to help with recovery.”
Of course you don’t want to hit the hay without first doing a proper cooldown (which may include stretching and drills), replenishing your nutrition and — even if you don’t shower — changing out of your sweaty clothes. All of this gives your body an even bigger benefit as you give it the proper break it needs by getting some shut eye. Even if you can’t nap, prioritizing sleep in general — but definitely before and after any big workouts or races — is always a good idea.
“Sleeping is when your body is repairing itself and rest is what allows us to recover so we can keep trying to go a little farther and a little faster,” she concludes. “Without sufficient rest, your body is just pushing and pushing and will eventually break down or plateau.”