Long, slow run

Hungry vultures circled overhead, wide black wings casting menacing shadows under the blazing sun. In my exhaustion-induced delirium, their gaze seemed to follow me too closely as I neared the end of my very first “long run.” I looked forward to collapsing in the cool grass, but changed my mind and found a picnic table instead. Didn’t want those vultures to get any ideas.

I wouldn’t consider 7.5 miles a long run nowadays, but years ago when I started training for my first half-marathon, two laps around the lake at Watkins Mill State Park was a feat of endurance. So, for those folks in our running club who feel challenged as we move into longer runs on Saturday morning, I can relate.

But I promise, you’ll survive. You’re amazing … you just don’t know it yet.

Long, slow runs are a necessary ingredient in the training recipe of a runner. You might occasionally skip a mid-week workout, but the long, slow run is mandatory for anyone who plans to run any distance beyond a 5K.

Of course, “long” and “slow” are relative. My rule of thumb is that my favorite run of the week, typically on Saturday morning, is about twice the distance of my weekday runs, at a pace that’s 1-to-2 minutes-per-mile slower.

My second rule is that I reward myself with espresso and a giant cookie afterward. A long run burns so many calories (I typically burn more than 1,000 calories in this workout) that you can indulge without guilt.

Why are long runs so important?

  • Running requires as much mental as physical stamina.

Long runs provide a mental workout. They develop focus to maintain concentration over a long period of time. Just as important, they train your brain to appreciate what your body is really capable of achieving. You see, your brain is risk-averse. As soon as the energy stores in your muscles begin to deplete, your brain starts firing signals to your muscles to slow down or stop. This is perceived as fatigue. The reality is that your muscles can continue to keep going; you have plenty of fuel (and strength) to continue running. But your brain panics. By deliberately ignoring those panic signals and running beyond this fatigue boundary, you train your brain to realize that you can do it, and survive. Next time, your brain won’t panic so quickly. The perceived fatigue will be lessened and delayed. You will be able to run farther before exhaustion as you grow stronger both physically and mentally.

  • Time on your feet.

Related to the first point; your training needs to replicate the experience of the race. If you’re running a marathon, you’ll be on your feet for several hours. Long runs develop confidence that you can finish the course. The only way to become accustomed to running for such long periods of time is to, well, run for long periods of time. No shortcuts here. My longest runs (22 milers) are paced to take about the same length of time as my marathon finish.

  • Burning fuel more efficiently.

Your body will burn primarily two sources of fuel while running – glycogen (which is stored in your muscles and liver) and fat. Glycogen is the body’s first choice, because it burns more efficiently. But it only lasts a short time before it’s depleted. Your body doesn’t burn fat as efficiently, but there is more of this fuel available (unfortunately!). So your body prefers to burn glycogen for fuel, and only turns to fat when glycogen starts running low. At that point you slow down, because fat is a less efficient fuel. But with practice, your body can learn to both 1) store a larger amount of glycogen, and 2) burn fat more efficiently. By training your body to burn a higher proportion of fat, and to burn it more efficiently, you are building a larger fuel tank. Which means you’ll be able to run farther before you run out of gas. Long runs – lasting more than an hour – transform your body into a more efficient fuel-burning engine.

  • Building Body Infrastructure

Some other beneficial physical changes also occur during long runs (and to a lesser degree, in other training runs as well). For example, your heart is pumping oxygen-rich blood to your muscles, and this oxygen is directly delivered by the capillaries that surround muscle fibers. When those muscles demand more oxygen, your body actually builds more capillaries to meet the demand. With more capillaries per muscle fiber, oxygen and fuel is delivered more efficiently. Waste products that are produced in working muscles are removed more quickly.

Muscle fibers are either slow-twitch fibers or fast-twitch fibers. As the name implies, folks who are born with more slow-twitch fibers can run farther, while those born with more fast-twitch fibers can run faster. And it is genetic – you can’t do anything to increase the proportion of slow-twitch to fast-twitch muscle fibers to improve your natural endurance or speed. What you can do, though, is train your fast-twitch muscle fibers to behave more like slow-twitch muscle fibers, thus increasing endurance.

Cells in your muscle fibers have small factories – mitochondria – that use fuel to produce energy. Long runs accomplish several important objectives: Increase the size of your mitochondria (that is, build bigger energy factories), increase the number of mitochondria in your muscle fibers (that is, build more factories) and increase the efficiency of mitochondria (that is, speed up production in those factories). More, and larger, mitochondria means you can produce more energy and maintain a faster pace over a longer time. (Mitochondria produce energy aerobically, as opposed to producing energy anaerobically, which is important for endurance runners – but sort of complicated and beyond the scope of this post.)


Do coffee beans count as vegetables?


I suppose that, theoretically, it is possible to exist without coffee. In theory.

I mean, I have heard of people who don’t drink coffee. I live with people who claim not to like coffee. I just don’t understand them.

I’m writing this post from a comfy leather chair while sipping a large espresso drink – no sugar, no cream, just pure, dark goodness – at one of my favorite coffee shops. This liquid manna, and a warm chocolate chip cookie, is my reward for running 22 miles today.

Yes, it was worth it.

My running is fueled by caffeine. Not only is the Americano my favorite post-run reward every Saturday … my daily runs are preceded by a pre-workout drink that includes caffeine (along with some other very important, and beneficial, ingredients).

Do coffee beans count as vegetables?

They should, just because they are so healthy (like wine, of course, in moderation). Scientists have redeemed coffee’s reputation with recent research touting the benefits of coffee to improved health. A cup or two of coffee each day has been shown to lower the risk of heart disease, kidney stones, strokes, Type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, cirrhosis and dementia. Coffee contains beneficial antioxidants that help fight off free radicals.

Not only does coffee improve health, caffeine improves athletic performance.

Forget what you’ve probably heard about coffee causing you to be dehydrated. It’s not true, it’s just not. A cup (or even two, or three) of coffee will not dehydrate you. Hundreds of studies have shown that caffeine helps athletes run faster, and run farther. Caffeine:

  • delays perceived muscle soreness
  • enhances the body’s use of fat as a fuel (critical for endurance runners)
  • increases sprint speed and power
  • boosts alertness and improves reaction time

Caffeine’s benefits extend beyond the workout. Taking caffeine before a workout actually aids in recovery after a workout. That’s because caffeine induces a greater release of anti-inflammatory substances, called interleukins, thus reducing muscle soreness and speeding recovery.

This is why, 30 minutes to an hour before each hard workout, I drink a 20-ounce, mango-flavored drink called Prepare.
Prepare contains 100 mg of caffeine (the equivalent of about a cup of coffee). Prepare also contains plenty of other ingredients that boost athletic performance.

Nitric Oxide

Prepare helps me get the most out of each run, whether training or a race, by enhancing my body’s production of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide expands blood vessels, which allows more blood to reach more muscles more efficiently. Nitric oxide speeds the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to working muscles, thus boosting performance.

Prepare was developed by Dr. Lou Ignarro, who earned the Nobel prize in medicine for his discovery of the importance of nitric oxide to the cardiovascular system. Outside the laboratory, Dr. Ignarro is an avid cyclist and has completed 13 marathons. His credibility is based both on his Nobel-prize-winning research and his personal experience.

Prepare contains the precursors L-Arginine, L-Citrulline and L-Ornithine aKG that cause the body to produce more nitric oxide. Prepare is the only sports nutrition product exclusively endorsed by Dr. Ignarro, a member of the Editorial and Nutrition Advisory Boards of the Herbalife Nutrition Institute. Dr. Ignarro is revolutionizing sports nutrition and performance. Sports nutrition companies are now trying to capitalize on Dr. Ignarro’s research by offering products they claim boosts the body’s nitric oxide production. Some of those may be fine products; however, many of them fall short of the claims because they try to cut corners (and costs) and neglect key elements of Dr. Ignarro’s findings.


Prepare also contains 2,100 mg of creatine per serving. Creatine supports the fast-twitch muscle contractions required for explosive athletic movement. Creatine enables muscles to become larger and stronger by stimulating protein synthesis in muscle tissue and decreasing the breakdown of protein. Creatine also decreases mental fatigue, and in a long endurance run, mental stamina is just as important as muscle.

In addition, Prepare contains maltodextrin, a carbohydrate that provides energy and helps facilitate creatine uptake.

Bottom Line: Train hard, race hard. Prepare is invaluable in my own training, giving me the boost I need to train harder so that I can race harder.

Learn more about Prepare

Trying to lasso the Yasso


Bart Yasso, inventor of the Yasso 800s


This week launches a new phase of training as I approach two fall marathons. I’ve incorporated an ingenious torture device called the Yasso 800s as I’ve increased my mileage to top 50 miles per week.

So far, so good.

Yasso 800s are named for 1) their creator, Runner’s World Chief Running Officer Bart Yasso, and 2) the 800-meter distance (half a mile, or twice around a track) for the speed workout of 10 x 800 meters (10 laps of 800 meters each, with a few minutes of rest in between each lap).

I’ve never used Yasso 800s in my training before, so I’m curious to see whether it makes a difference. This is basically a speed workout to push me to a faster pace. 

Here’s how it works:

After running a mile to warm up, I run half a mile at a pace of 7 minutes per mile. If I were running on a track, I’d run two laps around the track. However, the recent heat wave has forced me indoors, onto the treadmill, so I measure a half-mile instead of meters or laps. (A pace of 7 minutes per mile is the equivalent of 8.6 miles per hour on a treadmill.)

Why a 7-minute pace? Because the formula for Yasso 800s is to run 800 meters at a pace, in minutes and seconds, to predict my marathon finish time, in hours and minutes. In other words, if I can run 10 laps of a half-mile each at a 7-minute pace, which is 800 meters in 3 minutes and 30 seconds, then I can run a marathon in 3 hours and 30 minutes.

Want to run a marathon in 4 hours? Then run Yasso 800s at a pace of 8 minutes per mile. You’ll run each half-mile in 4 minutes, 0 seconds and you’ll finish the marathon in 4 hours, 0 minutes. You get the idea.

I don’t pretend to understand the science and math behind this. But I’m told it works. Kinda like my DVR.

So, a mile warmup then a half-mile at a 7-minute pace, followed by 3 1/2 minutes at an easy recovery jog (a pace of 10 minutes per mile, or 6.0 on the treadmill). Run for 3 1/2 minutes, jog for 3 1/2 minutes.

Repeat this series of run-jog, 3 1/2 minutes fast then 3 1/2 minutes slow. Begin with four cycles the first time. Repeat the work-out each week, adding a cycle each time, until you work up to running 10 cycles.

Here is a Runner’s World article that explains the technique. I suspect that Yasso 800s aren’t the magic formula they are sometimes promoted to be, simply because a short, fast run can’t duplicate some of the most critical elements of the marathon. But 800 repeats may be a good speed drill, and a rough gauge of my fitness level.

Although I based my Yasso 800s on a 3:30 marathon finish time, my goal is actually to finish faster than 3:30 (my Boston qualifying time). I’m hoping to set a personal record at the Williams Route 66 Marathon in Tulsa, Okla., on Nov. 24, so I need to finish faster than 3:26.

There, I said it out loud. Now I feel accountable.

But first, I’ll run the Kansas City Marathon on Oct. 19. With two marathons so close together, I need to deliberately slow down in Kansas City so that I can recover for a hard race in Tulsa. I don’t want to peak too early for Tulsa’s race, so I’m running my Yasso 800s just a bit slower.

I finished my first Yasso 800 workout this week, repeating four cycles for a total of 5 miles (including warm-up and cool-down.) It was difficult, but doable. So far, so good.