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Long runs – the first step to improving speed

When I finished my first 5K race, I was tired, proud of my accomplishment and immediately ready to sign up for another one. Like many other runners before me, I wanted to improve my time in the next race, so, like many runners before me, I ran 5Ks at race pace every other day for the next 4 weeks trying to improve on my time.

That worked.

To a point.

I did take 2 minutes off my time, but the repetitive fast 5K training plan did little to improve my times after that second race. The next big leap in my 5K performance came after a drastic change in my training. I started running slower and I added longer distances.

While it may seem paradoxical, the first step to running fast in a short race (though it may not seem short, 5K is typically the shortest road race distance) is to run slow for a longer distance. There are two main reasons for this:

The first lies in your body’s physiology. Low intensity (slow) running strengthens your heart muscle, increases blood supplies to your running muscles and increases the ability of the muscle cells to process the oxygen that the cardiovascular system delivers. In addition, it strengthens your running muscles and gives you a solid base of fitness. In short, it trains your body to deliver more blood to your working muscles with each heartbeat. Because of this increased pumping efficiency, you can run a shorter race distance at a faster pace while feeling less fatigued than you did before you started the long runs.

The second reason is that to truly get faster at any race distance, you’re going to have to add some form of speed work to your training regimen. Often, speed work involves some type of interval or repetition training where you run fast for a certain distance and then jog to recover. For example, you may run fast 800 m (1/2 mile) repeats with 400 m (1/4 mile) jogs. If you want the total of your fast 800’s to equal 3 miles, you’d need to run 6 of them. Add six 400 m jogs to that and you’ve got another 1 1/2 miles. If you do a mile warmup and a mile cool down, your total workout is 6 1/2 miles. If you can’t do 6 1/2 miles at a slow continuous pace, then you’re likely to injure yourself trying to do it fast. Thus, several weeks of base building at low intensity with a long, slow distance run at some point during each week should come before any attempt at speed work.

How long is long?

A good general rule is 25-30% of your total weekly mileage. If you’ve been running 3 miles, 5 times per week, then make one of those runs a 4 mile run. If you’ve been averaging 25 miles per week, then a long run of 6-7 miles is appropriate. When increasing mileage, make sure you do so gradually. In any given week, avoid increasing your weekly mileage by more than 10% over the previous week.

Because the pace is easy and the distance can be tedious, long runs are a great time to catch up with a friend or chat with a group of fellow runners.

Written by

Brian Darrow is a running coach in St. Petersburg, FL who specializes in online coaching for beginners. Follow him at

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