When you start any new sport it’s smart to build it up slowly, and it’s especially important with a high-impact sport like running. If you do too much too soon, you’re likely to burn out or get injured. So, if you’re looking at how to increase the time you run for, you need to start with a plan.
How do you run longer safely?
“There are two things I would highlight here. If you look online or you speak to a lot of coaches they’ll say the general rule is ‘10% each week’. Add 10% on from your previous week’s mileage the following week.
“But I would always take this with a pinch of salt. Adding 10% in the early stages of your training is probably OK. It’s quite safe. However, as your mileage increases it ends up being a lot. If you're running 60km a week and then adding 6km the following week, progressing from there is a big deal.
“It’s best to follow a running training plan that guides you through a slow, progressive build. At Runna, for instance, we have two running plans for beginners or getting back into running. These focus on starting with a series of walk/run intervals, which people often find quite painful, though it’s actually the best way to build up your running. It allows your body to adapt to the load.
“You can use the 10% rule, but I would probably only stick to that if you’re running three or four times a week max.”
What are good distance targets for people just starting out?
“I’d start with time rather than distance, the reason being it takes different people different times to run a distance. If you’re a new runner and it takes you 20 minutes to run 3km, that’s a long time for your first run. If you changed to time and added walking intervals, you might be out there for about 20 minutes, but you might only be running for six to 10 minutes of that. Then the goal would be to gradually build up those running time intervals and reduce the walking intervals.”
Should you build distance and intensity at the same time?
“It’s addictive when you’re on training apps like Strava. You’re looking at your graphs and you’re wanting that weekly mileage to be progressively increasing. It’s actually not the healthiest way to do it. You should be striving for consistency.
“If you can run 20km for a few weeks and then build it up to 24km for a few weeks, it’s a much better way of doing it if you want to run long-term. It reduces the injury risk, and you can then add the intensity at the same time. Whereas if you’re trying to add distance and intensity, that’s going to increase your chance of injury.”
Can everyone benefit from a training plan to start with?
“It's helpful for many reasons. It controls you and stops you doing too much too soon. Also, by having structure within your training, it helps motivate you and keep you accountable to doing it. Otherwise, it might be that you stick with something for a few days, a few weeks, and then it dwindles. Whereas, if you’ve got something that’s telling you what to do, then you don’t need to think about it.”
Can cross-training help you run longer?
“I’m a fan of runners cross-training. When I went to the Olympic Games, cross-training was a feature of my training plan. It was something I did daily. It was also something I did when I first got into proper running training. I was only running three or four times a week but, in addition, I was going to the gym either for circuit weight-training or non-impact training like swimming and cycling.
“These types of movements and exercises can be done while you’re building your running because they take off that load and you have less stress going through the body. It’s a good way to boost aerobic fitness and your endurance, but also to develop strength in your muscles and joints.
“If you are doing a lot of cross-training, make sure you’re also getting good sleep and good recovery in between, because these things will help your body adapt to the training you’re doing.”
How do you fuel longer runs?
“If you’re out for a training session that’s longer than an hour, make sure you’re thinking about your fueling during it. I typically use isotonic gels. I take them every 30 to 35 minutes during a long run.
“Don’t do any training fasted. I know that’s a big thing because people talk about training their body to run on fat but when you wake up, your cortisol levels, which are your stress levels, are at their highest. So if you go out with no food to do exercise, which is fundamentally stress on the body, you’re putting stress into your body. Fueling takes some of that away and helps with energy levels and recovery.
“Where it might vary is for someone who doesn’t train a lot and they’re limited for time and they’re going out for a short, easy run—then you can do it fasted. However, I think if you’re following a training plan and you’re an active person, plus you’ve got a busy job, a lot on your plate, and your sleep is not optimal, then definitely avoid that fasted training.
“Fueling afterwards requires focus. It’s more important for people who do a lot of training. Be conscious about that refueling because it helps with your recovery, which will then have an impact on the next session.
“Try for a balanced diet. If you’re someone who perhaps struggles to keep to a certain weight, then it’s about being balanced with what you eat. We’re usually aware of what makes us put on weight, but when you’re training, be aware that you need fuel. Don’t starve yourself.”
What are your tips for getting through long runs?
“Plan your route. You need to know where you’re going because if you go out aimlessly you don’t always know what the distance is going to be. You could end up doing laps of the block and that’s not fun. If you can get someone to join you, that holds you accountable and it also makes the time go quicker. Arrange something nice for after the run, whether that’s brunch or stopping by a favorite coffee shop; this gives you something to look forward to during the run.
“Try not to be scared of paces, splits, times and distances. Focus on the effort and start off within yourself. I believe many people think when they go out running that each run needs to be hard. Actually, the bulk of your training is easy running. To begin with, running may not feel easy but the more you do it the more you’ll learn about paces and zones. As a result, you’ll be able to gauge your effort better.
“The best way to judge an easy run is, can you hold a conversation? That’s a simple way to ensure your easy runs are easy. It’s also how every run should start because we need to warm up into them. It should never start too fast. Don’t put pressure on yourself to hit specific paces or splits at the start. Settle into it. If you’re not running with other people, getting a good playlist together is great, as is a podcast. It keeps you distracted—or it can inspire you!”
For help deciding on the right gel for you, visit our guide to the best running gels.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.