When training for a marathon, half marathon, or other endurance race, you’ll get plenty familiar with the long run. You’ll likely head out for a long training run every single Saturday or Sunday morning, ramping up the mileage each week. Pounding the pavement for two or three hours at a time obviously helps your muscles and cardiovascular system prep for the physical stress of race day, but mental training is a big part of it, too.
Usually, around the halfway mark of a long outing, runners start struggling mentally and feeling like the miles are moving by at a glacial pace, says Jeff Gaudette, owner and head coach of RunnersConnect in Boston. At that point, he says, you’re starting to get tired, but the end is still pretty far off. Boredom sets in and the minutes tick by slowly. You have nothing to think about except how much distance you have left. Plus, according to Aaptiv trainer Meghan Takacs, “After 60 minutes, your body starts to burn muscle instead of fat. So you start to feel sluggish and need something to keep the momentum going.”
The number-one trick for keeping long runs interesting: Do them with a friend, says Gaudette. “It’s a great time to catch up, and they can pull you through rough patches.” They can also help keep your pace in check. A long training run should generally be done at a conversational pace. So you should be able to speak a sentence or two at a time while you move. If you do run with a partner or a group, just make sure that you’re not relying on your buds too much, says Takacs. “The only downside to running with a friend could be too much pressure or reliance on that person to keep your pace. It’s important to be able to pace yourself, too.”
Break up the miles in your head.
When you’re heading out on an 18- or 20-miler, the distance ahead of you can seem daunting. You get a couple miles under your belt and start thinking, “Okay only 16 miles left.” Then get overwhelmed at how long that sounds. Instead of thinking of the entire run as one big challenge to conquer, a lot of coaches suggest mentally breaking up the miles. Gaudette suggests splitting the run into small chunks of varying pace. For instance, run three miles at a pace 20 seconds slower than your goal race pace, then five minutes at an easy pace and repeat. “The workout isn’t difficult [when] the mind focuses on these shorter segments rather than a 90-minute run,” he says.
One of the most challenging aspects of a long training run, especially if you tackle it by yourself, is that you have lots of time to think about every passing step. Letting your mind wander to something else will help the miles fly, says Gaudette. Although it’s not always easy to do. “The idea with long runs is to get lost in rhythm and thought,” says Takacs. Spend some time mid-run brainstorming for a work project. Put together your to-do list for the rest of the day. Or think through goals you want to try in the future. (One word of caution: zoning out can make it difficult to hold a certain pace. So it might not be the best strategy if you’re training hard to nail a PR.)
Listen to music.
If you’re not running with a friend that you can talk to, you likely already listen to music on runs. Close to two-thirds of people listen to music on their phone while running, according to a survey from Running USA. Music can be a great motivator, but you have to pay attention to the beat, says Gaudette. He recommends listening to an up-tempo playlist. Or use Aaptiv, an app that chooses songs to play by matching their beats per minute (bpm) with your cadence. The ideal running song will have a bpm between 165 and 185. That’s how many steps you should be taking per minute. “I like to think about the beat of the music fueling my stride,” adds Takacs.
The downside to listening to music while you run is safety (assuming you’re outside and not on a treadmill). “You need to really watch out for cars, bikes, etc.,” cautions Gaudette. “Even if you’re on the trail, you need to be hyper-aware of your surroundings to [stay] safe from other people.”
Try something new.
When you’re hitting the road on a long training run every weekend, mixing things up from time to time is key to keep from getting bored. “New running routes, especially if they are in beautiful areas, can help,” says Gaudette. Changing up what you’re listening to from music to a new podcast can be a good way to keep your brain focused on something besides the distance ahead of you. But pay extra attention to your cadence, Gaudette adds. Keeping your footsteps up is important because it prevents overstriding and can help you sidestep injury.
Stop checking your watch.
With all the mileage- and pace-tracking technology available right on your wrist, it can be really difficult not to look at your watch at least every mile. But, trying not to look down at your pace very often can help you tune out and stay calm and relaxed, says Takacs. “I think tracking pace every mile on long runs can create anxiety, and that’s not conducive to patience. With long runs, patience is key.”
Ignoring your watch (just for a bit!) can also help you tune into how your body feels. “I try and really create a fluid cadence between my legs, my arms, and breathing pattern, and make it as comfortable as I can,”Takacs says.