Pacing the Long Run

by Jeff Godin, Ph.D., CSCS, creator of

For many people the thought of the long run seems daunting.  I am not sure why, it is one of my favorite workouts.  The pace is pretty relaxed, conversational, and I usually get to look around and enjoy the scenery instead of focusing on effort. Most people actually run their long runs to fast. To achieve the maximal benefits, the pace should be slow, a lot slower than most would think.

I have discussed the lactate threshold before. The lactate threshold is a measure of exercise intensity. The long run should be conducted at a pace where there is no lactate accumulation, the muscles are 100% relying on aerobic metabolism, and utilizing fat as the primary source of fuel.  It is ideal to have your lactate threshold measured and utilized to calculate training intensities.  However, this may not be feasible or practical for everyone. The next best method is to run based off of your target heart rate.

The first step is to estimate or actually measure your maximal heart rate. To estimate your maximal heart rate use the formula 220 – age. Maximal heart rate declines, on average, about one beat per year. Unfortunately this formula can be off by as much as 12 bpm for some individuals. For example my predicted maximum is 175 bpm, but when I am in the middle of some serious hill training it gets as high as 190 bpm.  Therefor my actual is closer to 190 than it is 175. To actually measure your maximal heart rate, try a graded exercise test. This can be done on a treadmill or on a large hill. You will need a heart rate monitor.  If you are on treadmill, warm-up for 10 minutes then increase your running speed up to a comfortably hard pace (not quite out of breath, could carry on a conversation but would rather not). Increase the grade on the treadmill every 3 minutes until you cannot continue. Outside on a hill, run up the hill at a moderate pace, then repeat the hill at a slightly faster pace. Continue until you can’t run the hill any faster. In both cases, note the highest heart rate achieved during the test.  NOTE: Before engaging in maximal exercise it is always best to check with your physician first to make sure that it is safe for you .

Now that you have either your estimated maximal heart rate or measured  maximal heart rate you will calculate your target heart rate for your long runs. Long runs should be run at an intensity that corresponds to about 65-70% of your maximal heart rate.  For me, that corresponds to a long run training heart rate of 123-133 bpm.

Don’t be fooled by the intensity of the workout, it is about putting in the miles and getting in time on your feet. You have other workouts during the week that will include work at higher intensities.  Enjoy the long run for what it is:  a long distance, moderate effort.


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