Last year, Benji Durden of Colorado, who made the 1980 Olympic team in the marathon, was coming back from an injury and all the training he could handle for several months were leisurely-paced runs around Boulder, where he lives. As he waited for the chance to do more intense work, Durden decided to perform an experiment on himself. He wanted to determine if he could get faster by continuing long, slow runs a couple of days a week. No tempo runs. No hills. No track work. Just Long Slow Distance.
"I started out with the ability to run 22 minutes for a 5-K," Durden recalled. "I was doing one-hour runs. Two months later, I was down below 21 minutes. Then I upped the run to 90 minutes. And a few months later, I was under 20 minutes."
Durden, 54, eventually improved his time to 18 minutes and change, more than a 3-minute improvement overall. All of his progress came from running long and slow.
A former world-class runner, Durden re-learned one of the most important principles of running-that long runs, even at a slow pace, count for a lot.
Durden's rediscovery has valuable implications for high school runners, who oftentimes neglect long, easy runs in favor of more intense work. Sure, do your intense work, but don't think LSD is for the novice. A weekly 10-miler can work wonders. Wouldn't you like to improve your 5-k time this fall by 3 minutes, too?
10 It fine tunes your form: Running a 10-miler takes more than an hour to complete, putting you into fatigue when flaws in running form become obvious. You must try to correct those flaws (like slouching) and hold form to the end. Durden believes that a 10-miler makes you a more efficient runner-"by getting all your body parts, while fatigued, to agree on the direction you need to go: forward." You smooth away rough edges like a stream smoothes out a rough stone caught on its bottom.
9 It's not a marathon: "People think a 10-miler is like running a marathon, but it's not," said Robert Smith, boys track and cross-country coach at Michigan's Novi High, one of the state's best teams. Ten miles is not 26. You don't need four months to "build up" to the distance. Many high school runners, accustomed to running 5-milers and 6-milers, are fit enough to tackle a 10-miler right away. Others may need just a couple of weeks to reach that level. Some freshmen, Smith cautioned, should top out at 7 or 8 miles.
8 It caps off a great week: Speed on Tuesday. Hills on Thursday. Race on Saturday. That's a good week. Want to make it great. You guessed it: The Sunday 10. "It's the last accomplishment to a great week of training," said Katie McGregor, a professional who trains with Team USA Minnesota and is a former NCAA cross-country champion.
7 It's like weight lifting for your legs and heart: Ten-milers will not only do wonders for your leg muscle strength, but for your heart, another crucial muscle, as well. A strong heart means you have larger "stroke volume." That is, the amount of blood sent from the heart to the working muscles increases. More blood going from the heart to the leg muscles means your heart will need to beat less when you're running the same pace.
6 It gives you a king-sized bed: "When you spend more time on your feet doing 10-milers, you build more capillary beds," said Bob Williams, director of running at the Sports Lab Training Center in Beaverton, Oregon. Capillaries are the smallest blood vessels in your legs, and during 10-milers, you literally grow them like tree branches. More capillaries means that your heart (which we already know is pumping more blood, see #7) can deliver more energy-producing oxygen directly to the leg muscles during a run.
5 It fosters camaraderie: Because of its duration and conversational pace, the 10-miler fosters a sense of esprit de corps (French for camaraderie) among teammates. But one caution: "You can't expect all runners to stay together," said coach Smith. "Runners will naturally divide into same-pace groups-7 minutes a mile, 8 minutes a mile-early in the run." Smart coaches monitor the runners to make sure every runner is comfortably in a group, and that no runner is in over his head.
4 It makes you an aerobic tourist: Your 10-miler can take you far, and be your ticket to some nifty sightseeing. Every runner knows the importance of variety in keeping a training program fresh. You can venture to new trails, pass the homes of friends along your route, circle through town, hit that big hill that no longer seems far away-go almost anywhere your legs desire in the course of 10 miles. And the many new scenes will make the run go by that much faster. Enjoy!
3 It boosts confidence: Who doesn't feel 10 feet tall after running 10 miles? Okay, you feel good after 5, 6, 8 miles... But 10, you feel unstoppable. Suddenly, hard track workouts may seem more manageable and you'll feel more eager and less anxious about training. "I know I'm ready for a great race when I've done a great long run," said McGregor, who adds that recognition of your long run get you out of a bad patch in a race. If you get that sinking feeling in the second half of a 5-k cross-country race, recalling your 10-miler will remind you how tough you've been on hour-plus runs. "Soon," says McGregor, "the race could go your way."
2 It gets out the tightness: "A muscle remains tight because it isn't getting enough blood," contends Durden. "The tissues in the muscle haven't gotten enough nutrition to repair themselves." In this respect, a 10-miler a couple of days after a hard race will supply the muscles with ample blood flow for repair and recovery. Long runs therefore can function as recovery. Think of a 10-miler as a massage for your tight calves and hamstring muscles.
1 It enables you to switch on your kick: Can Bob Kennedy, the American recordholder in the 5,000 meters, outkick Tim Montgomery, the world recordholder in the 100 meters, on the home straight of a 5-k? Sure he can. But not because Kennedy is faster. He's not. But Kennedy has endurance that Montgomery, a sprinter, does not. And Kennedy got that endurance from countless long runs like 10-milers enabling him to turn on his speed as he approaches the finish. Coaches like to say that "speed comes from strength." The stronger you are, says Durden, the better you'll kick in the last 200 of a race.
How to Run 10
Start Slow: Aim for a "conversational" pace, about a minute and a half to 2 minutes slower than 5-k race pace. If you're a 19-minute 5-k runner (about 6:05 pace), run your 10-miler at about 7:30 to 8:15 per mile.
Stay Slow: Don't get hooked into "picking it up" with an adventurous teammate at 7 or 8 miles. "Racing long runs is the number-1 training error," says Benji Durden.
Stay Together: A good rule of thumb is that the slowest runner in your 10-mile pack dictates the pace.
Break It Up: Instead of focusing on the whole 10 miles at once, mentally break up the distance into segments, like circling the lake or reaching the next intersection. "This way," said Katie McGregor, "you'll avoid the moment, around 3 miles, when you realize you still have 7 miles to go."
Be Fluid: Drink 8 to 12 ounces of water or a sports drink leading up to the 10-miler to prevent dehydration. On hot days, you might want to "plant" a water bottle midway or stop for a drink along the route.
Finish Fuel: Try to snack on something solid within 20 minutes after the run to aid in recovery. Fruit or a bagel will help replace energy. A carbo-protein mixture, like half a tuna fish sandwich on rye, is ideal.
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