Running Longer Takes Mental and Physical Grit — and These Mind-Body Tips Can Help

Advice

Learning how to run longer can feel like gaining a superpower. Distances you used to only drive across suddenly become something you can cover on your own two feet. Still, heading out the door for multiple miles can be incredibly intimidating. And in the process of building up your endurance, it’s easy to make mistakes that lead to injury, like going too far before your body’s ready.

Of course, “longer” is a relative term. But whether you’re trying to make it through 5K or getting ready to tackle a marathon for the first time, many of the principles behind how to run longer remain the same. We spoke to two run coaches to get their insights on what it takes to go the distance — not just physically, but mentally too.

How to Run Longer: Physical Tips

When you’re looking to increase your running endurance, you want to make sure you’re supporting your body. There’s no need to overcomplicate it; the best way to run longer distances is to start running longer distances. That said, there are strategies you can follow to help ensure you stay strong and injury-free as you start to log higher mileage.

Increase Your Distance Gradually

No matter your current mileage or experience level, ramping up too fast in your quest to run longer distances can lead to injuries like shin splints or stress fractures. “If you pour too much water into a bucket, it’s going to overflow. It’s the same thing with running: if you put too much stress on your body, something’s going to give,” says running coach and personal trainer Tammy Whyte of TW Training and Wellness in Chicago.

Even if you’ve got great aerobic fitness from other workouts like cycling, it takes the body a while to adapt to the strain of running, so increase your mileage slowly. For example, if you currently run for 30 minutes at a time, three times a week, try lengthening just one of those to 45 minutes; after two weeks, assuming you’re injury-free, consider adding 15 minutes to another one of your runs. Or, if you’re itching to make the leap from half to full marathon, follow a training plan that adds a mile or two to your long run every week.

As you gradually increase your distances, be sure to ease off the gas and reduce your mileage and running intensity for one week out of each month. “Taking a ‘down week’ really helps that training sink in and avoids overtraining or injury,” says Amy Tortorello, a running coach with Heartbreak Hill Running Company in Boston.

Run Slower Than You Want To

When you’re only running shorter distances, you can run at your top speeds every time you lace up. But you need to pull back the pace when you’re running farther. On a long run, aim for an effort that’s easy enough to comfortably hold a conversation the entire time. It may feel too low, especially at the start — but try to avoid pushing yourself. “There’s a lot of benefits to that slow running,” Whyte says. “When you run really easy, you’re building your capillary density and your body’s ability to use fat for fuel.” It also makes injuries less likely.

Let Go of Walk Break Shame

Some runners are hesitant to walk on a run because it’s not, well, running. But walking can help you run longer. “Walk breaks are great, not just for being able to increase your time on feet, but also the mental piece, being able to chunk things up and be like, ‘Okay, I’m going to run for two minutes, and then I’m going to walk for a minute,'” Whyte says. Giving yourself that permission to stroll for a bit can help prevent you from throwing in the towel before you hit your goal.

Focus On Building Strength

Longer distances mean more stress on your body. Prep your muscles to handle the extra miles by strength training. “You want to make sure that your body is strong enough to withstand all the pounding and the repetitive movement,” Tortorello says. In particular she recommends strengthening your glutes, hamstrings, and core.

Whyte adds that low-impact cardio — like cycling, doing the elliptical, or even power-walking — can also improve your aerobic fitness while giving your joints a break. “Your lungs and your heart don’t know the difference if your breathing is similar and your heart rate is similar,” she says. “Your body’s going to have the same type of response in terms of building that endurance.”

Eat and Drink More

When you’re increasing the time you spend on your feet, you’re increasing the amount of water and calories your body needs to sustain you — so make sure to fuel up properly, Tortorello says. Before your run, you’ll want to eat a snack of carbs, and maybe a little protein and fat. After, refuel with a post-workout snack that contains protein and carbs, Whyte suggests.

During your runs, it’s always a good idea to carry a handheld water bottle or enough cash to buy something to drink along the way. And if a run lasts more than 60 to 90 minutes, you’ll want to take in some carbohydrates midway through by eating a gel or some sports gummies to keep from “bonking.” Just know that you may need to experiment with a few different types of mid-workout snacks to find something that you can tolerate.

How to Run Longer: Mental Tips

Increasing running endurance isn’t all about pushing yourself physically. Staying on your feet for longer requires mental strength too. While what motivates runners to keep pushing past “the wall” is personal, these tips can help you get your head in the distance-running game.

Track Time, Not Distance

Focusing on how many minutes you’ll be on your feet rather than how far you have to go can feel less daunting when you’re first starting to run longer distances. This strategy can also help keep you from running too fast, since picking up the pace won’t get it over with any faster.

Tortorello likes comparing the time she has to run to another activity so it feels more manageable: “Like, okay, this run is going to take me two hours. That’s only a quarter of my workday. How many times have I lived through a quarter of my workday? Like a billion.”

Schedule an Aspirational Run

Putting a race on the calendar can give you the motivation to keep pushing even when you’re tempted to cut a run short. Whatever “long” means to you, choose a race distance just far enough that it will stretch you past your comfort zone, but still feels doable in the timeframe you have to train. Or, if pinning on a bib for an official race isn’t up your alley, sign up for a virtual race or simply set a date with a friend to run a particular route. The idea is to find something that will hold you accountable.

Try a Running Buddy

Real talk: Hitting new distances is likely to get uncomfortable at some point. But the miles will go by a lot faster if you’re not alone. Even if you love the solitude of jogging alone, consider trying to enlist a running buddy or finding a local running group you can join, just to see if running with others helps you break the mental barrier you might have around hitting certain distances. “I’ve been running for a long time and I’m still like, ‘Please do my long run with me!'” Tortorello admits.

Distract Yourself (Safely)

The right running playlist can keep your spirits high, your legs turning over, and your mind off any pain or monotony. If your go-to songs are starting to feel stale, listening to an interesting podcast or audiobook can also keep your mind busy on long runs — and if you only let yourself listen to it while you’re running, you’ll have another reason to be eager to lace up your running sneakers. Just be sure you’re in a safe area and the volume is low enough to allow you to stay aware of your surroundings.

Plan a Route to Look Forward to

Some people enjoy using their long runs to visit a beautiful place or explore a new neighborhood. Others prefer to stick to a tried-and-true loop they know well so the distance doesn’t feel overwhelming. Tortorello suggests thinking about whether novelty or comfort might be more useful to you when deciding your route. Know that the answer might change from day to day.

Embrace the Hate (Sometimes)

Running long distances doesn’t always come with that legendary “runner’s high.” Sometimes, even the most dedicated runners and professionals struggle to get through the miles. “Give yourself grace and know that sometimes it’s just not going to feel good, and that’s OK,” Tortorello says. If you simply keep putting one foot in front of the other, things will often turn around by the end of your run. And if it sucks right up until your very last step? Well, sometimes that’s just how it goes. But you might feel totally different tomorrow.

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