Long-Distance Running Tips From A Running Coach

Woman running in the countryside
(Image credit: LPETTET / Getty Images)

Running coach Lucy Waterlow was brought up on the running track, with a father who ran a 2hr 39min marathon and a sister who is an elite marathon runner.

She has competed—and racked up multiple wins—in track and cross-country races from 5K to marathon throughout her life, so it’s fair to say Waterlow knows a great deal about long-distance running. 

Through her running books and coaching sessions, she shares her experience and encourages runners of all abilities to reach their potential. She shared with Coach her long-distance running tips collated from a lifetime of running.

Lucy Waterlow
Lucy Waterlow

Lucy Waterlow is a British Athletics running coach with Running Jo and is co-author of Run Mummy Run and Nell McAndrew’s Guide To Running. She is also the ghostwriter of Mimi Anderson’s Beyond Impossible and Limitless.

What is the definition of long-distance running?

It depends on the context. In track athletics, races over 3,000m are considered long-distance running—but a marathoner would consider 3,000m a taper run.

Between 800m and 3,000m is considered middle-distance running while anything under 800m is sprinting. 

Long-distance running involves running continuously and predominantly using the aerobic energy system.

In terms of training, a long run is the one on your schedule that is further than any of your other runs of the week, so this will vary from runner to runner depending on their race goals and experience. For most runners, a long run is one that takes them an hour or more. 

Is long-distance running healthy?

Yes. Long-distance running is good for you, but as with most things, it’s good in moderation. 

As long-distance running is mostly aerobic exercise, it improves the efficiency of your cardiovascular system, giving you a healthier heart and lungs. 

Numerous studies have shown those who run regularly are less likely to suffer heart attacks and strokes, develop some forms of cancer, or have high blood pressure and cholesterol. 

It is also healthy for the mind. On a long-distance run, you can get out into nature which can create a sense of calm and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Studies suggest that running bouts of variable lengths and intensities can improve mood and mental health and have a positive impact on wellbeing.

While some people can get knee injuries from running, the risk of this can be reduced by sensible training and by doing regular strength work. Recent studies have shown running can actually protect against knee and hip osteoarthritis.

But you can have too much of a good thing, and if you do too much long-distance running and don’t allow your body time to recover, you will be more at risk of developing an overuse injury such as a tendon strain, stress reaction or stress fracture.

What are your top long-distance tips for beginners?

Start by walk-running if you need to build up your stamina and endurance. This is also known as “jeffing” [after Olympic endurance runner Jeff Galloway] and is a great way to build a solid base of aerobic fitness. 

For continuous runs, build up gradually, adding five to 10 minutes or one to two miles to your long runs each week for two to three weeks. Then have a cutback and reduce your long run that week, to help avoid injury.

Don’t go off too fast. Ideally you don’t want the first mile of your long run to be faster than your last. Aim for a pace you can sustain throughout the run.

Fuel and hydrate your runs. For anything over an hour, have a snack before running and then take water and gels or energy bars to have on the run. The longer you run, the more fuel you will need to keep going. 

Don’t forget to do strength work as well as running. This should include moves such as squats, lunges and glute bridges to keep your body strong so it can tolerate the extra running miles.

Long-distance running requires mental stamina as well as physical endurance. Find ways to keep yourself going as you tire, such as repeating a mantra, listening to some upbeat music, or breaking up the run into chunks so the overall distance doesn’t feel as far.

What are your top long-distance running tips to get faster?

Once you have a base level of fitness, start introducing different pace runs into your routine. These could be interval sessions, for example running harder for five minutes with 90 seconds jogging in between, for four sets. Or do mixed-pace runs, where you go faster for a certain number of miles, slow down for a couple more miles, and then speed up again. 

Make sure you fuel correctly by eating before you run and taking on fuel during your run to keep your energy up. Recover well with plenty of rest and protein after a long training run or race. Don’t do back-to-back hard runs—you’ll need to be feeling fresh if you want to run faster on a mixed paced run or interval session. And keep doing strength training so you have strong muscles to help you go faster.

Plyometric exercises such as hopping, jumping and skipping can have a positive impact on both running economy and speed, so these are a great addition to a strength session. A recent study published in Nature found daily hopping exercises were effective in improving amateurs’ running economy when running fast.

Lily Canter

Lily Canter has worked as a journalist for more than 20 years and currently specializes in running and fitness. She regularly contributes to Coach as well as Runner’s World, Well+Good, Fit&Well and Live Science. Lily is a UK Athletics running coach, the founder of the Great Bowden Runners club and a participant in multi-day ultra races. Her biggest racing achievement to date is placing second at the Ultra Challenge 100km in the Lake District. She has a BA in English Literature, an MA in Print Journalism and a PhD in Journalism Studies. She is also co-host of the award-winning podcast Freelancing For Journalists and teaches feature writing, podcasting and freelancing to university students.