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How to Start Long Distance Running

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Whether you’re new to running or a runner who wants to step up the mileage and work towards a new goal, getting started with long distance running can seem like a daunting task. The time, the effort, the physical toll; it can all seem like a lot. How exactly do you jump into the long distance world?

The key to getting started with long distance running is to ramp up your mileage slowly, set a clear goal, and grab a good training plan. Take the time to build up to your new long distance routine.

It can be dangerous to jump into long distance running too quickly. Make sure to move through the following steps in a slow and methodical way, taking the time to redirect if needed as you go along. Making a smooth transition into the distance world will make sure that you stay injury-free and happily running for years to come.

Slowly Increase Your Mileage. Is the 10% Rule a Myth?

There’s a popular idea that runners shouldn’t increase their mileage by more than 10% a week. 

This means that if you’re running 5 mile runs 4 times a week for a total of 20 miles, you can only add 2 miles to your next weekly total for a maximum of 22 miles. You can disperse those miles however you would like throughout the week, but you don’t want to go above that 10%.

Even though 10% doesn’t seem like a lot, it adds up quickly. Remember that 10% is calculated from your weekly total, which is increasing every week. So, if you increased from 20 to 22 the past week, the next week you would take 10% of 22, which means that you can add another 2.5 miles the next week. See, you’ll be at a high mileage in only a few weeks.

Despite its popularity, the 10% rule has A LOT of critics. In fact, if you Google the 10% rule, you’ll find more articles debunking it than supporting it. And, rightly so. Any broad sweeping rule that is really specific, yet is supposed to apply to every single runner, is going to fail. Studies back this up as well. A study of runners found success with increasing mileage anywhere up to 60% (source).

This does not mean that you should jump into increasing your mileage up to 60%. What it means is that you need to be mindful about what mileage increase makes sense for your own body. Everyone is different and there’s no one size fits all when it comes to running. An increase of 10% may be too little, too much, or just right for you. Only you can know that.

What I DO like about the 10% rule is that it encourages runners to increase their mileage slowly. If you ramp up your mileage too quickly, you’ll be looking forward to shin splints, muscle strains, and more. Even if you’re feeling good, resist the urge to push yourself too far. 

It’s easy to get antsy as you transition into long distance running, especially if you have a certain race in mind. Take it slow to begin with though. Once you get a sense of how your body is reacting to the increase in mileage, feel free to adapt as needed. But, until you’re confident about what your body can handle, be very cautious with your mileage increases. 

Set a Clear Long Distance Goal

Long distance running can seem really glamourous but, in reality, it rarely is. The majority of long distance running is about feeling exhausted, sweaty, on the verge of giving up, and sore. It’s about waking up in the morning and barely being able to get out of bed while you stumble out of the door for yet another endless run. Overtime, long distance running can really wear on you.

Having a goal to work towards and look forward to can make the difference between pushing through those hard moments and giving up on long distance running entirely. Studies actually back up the fact that goal setting has a positive impact on running performance (source). Daily goals, weekly goals, race goals can all be used as a form of motivation and, as we’ll talk about in the next section, as a way to impose a sense of structure and routine into your running life.

If your long distance running goal is to finish a marathon or ultra, make sure to spread mini-goals throughout. Especially if it’s your first long distance race of that length, it can be really hard to stay motivated. Over months of training, the endless miles can start to seem worthless. What’s all of it adding up to anyways? Even though you’re making progress, it can seem slow and laborious. 

Schedule a 10k and a half marathon during the course of your distance training. This will give you something to look forward to and give you a giant boost of motivation right when you need it. When you run a race, you’ll reconnect with the passion and drive you have to cross that finish line. 

Mid-training races can also key you into your progress. All of us run faster and better during races than we do during training. There’s something energizing about all of the hoopla and excitement. If you run a half marathon during your marathon training, you can get a sense of whether your pacing and timing is on track.

Decide on a great long distance goal and then figure out what mini-goals you can set throughout.

If you’re struggling to figure out what goal would be best for you, my book Better Running Goals can take you through a step-by-step analysis of your schedule, time commitments, current running progress, and dreams. At the end, you’ll have a clear sense of what you really want, as well as what makes sense for you and your lifestyle. It’s available as an audiobook if you like to learn on the run!

Find a Good Training Plan

Jumping into long distance running can feel like running out of gas in the middle of the desert without a cell signal. It’s really easy to get confused about the distance, intensity, and volume of your runs. And, if you guess wrong and screw it up, you’ll have a nice slew of injuries to deal with. Long distance running is hard enough without having to figure out what you should be doing on a daily basis.

That’s where training plans come in. 

It’s important to find a training plan that feels right to you. I always comb through a number of different books before I settle on the plan that I’m going to use. I mean, you’ll be married to this plan for a number of months and it’ll play a big role in your success, so you shouldn’t rush through this. 

I talk about a number of training plan books at length on my recommended book page. What’s important is to pick a plan according to your skill level. For example, Hal Higdon has some great beginning plans, while Run Less Run Faster is a good choice for more advanced runners. Carefully consider the mileage, time commitment, and intensity of each training plan before you jump in.

It’s also ok to try out a few different training plans before you commit to one. Use a certain plan for a few weeks and see how it feels. If it’s not right, move on to a new one. It’s better to start over with a new training plan than force yourself to stick with one you don’t like. As you run more and more races, you’ll get a sense of which training plans are best for you and how you can adapt them for your needs.

Long distance running doesn’t need to be scary or overwhelming. Spending some time at the outset to properly plan your goals and mileage increases can go a long way to decreasing your risk of injury and increasing your chance of success. There’s a reason why marathons are so popular. Once you get started, you might just get hooked.

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