Tips for Long Distance Running
One of the biggest challenges runners face is learning how to run further for longer. They can often get injured or burned out before they meet their mileage goals for long-distance trail running.
In collaboration with Tim Higginbottom, a UKA Fell and Trail coach, we’ve pulled together a well-rounded guide full of tips for long distance running that will set you on the right path to run further for longer.
Estimated Reading Time: 12 minutes
1. Choose your Kit Wisely
It’s hard not to see the appeal of trail running – swapping busy tarmac streets and traffic noise for lush rolling hills and the sounds of nature. Once you’ve got the bug, you may find yourself wanting to transition to longer distance trail running.
There’s plenty of gadgets and accessories to try out and get for birthdays, or equally you can enjoy the simplicity of running through our amazing countryside with the minimum of fuss.
Backpack – Carrying your kit has come a long way in a short time – only 10 years ago there was little choice for genuine, properly designed trail and ultra bags. Usually you just used smaller day sacks and put up with the discomfort of a bouncing load on your back. Nowadays there’s a myriad of options out there, from minimalist vests with pouches, to back hugging mesh bags and everything in between.
It’s a boom time for ultra running, and you’re going to reap the rewards of some extensive testing with the current crop of options. The best way to find out what works for you is to borrow a few different types from anyone who’ll lend one to you – there’s so many different lengths, shapes and widths it’s going to be a bit personal.
The other way is to go to a race and see what people have – ask around! You might end up with 2 sizes – a small one for shorter runs in good weather, and then later on a larger one to accommodate all the kit for a longer challenge or poor weather. It’s worth knowing that trail ultras have a minimum kit requirement which can be quite bulky if you’re just starting out!
Waterproofs – Waterproofs are for more than just keeping you dry – they can be genuine life savers. It’s an unfortunate inevitability that if you start to run a long way at some stage you will find that you have to walk home, or worse sit and wait for help. It is amazing how quickly you get cold, even in low level, good weather situations if you are sweaty, tired and then have to suddenly stop.
It is worth spending probably £80+ on a good quality, genuinely waterproof jacket. They can weigh in at only a few hundred grams and pack down to the size of your fist. You can often find a good waterproof jacket in the sales as the newest model comes out. It will last you years, and you’ll be amazed how much you wear one once you’ve got a good one.
The same goes for trousers – it’s unlikely (but not impossible!) that you’ll run in them, but they could stop you from catching quite the chill, and if you enter an ultra you will be made to carry a full set of taped seam waterproofs – buy well, and buy once!
Flask – Drinking on a long run is a necessary evil – water is so heavy! Just remember that you probably don’t need to drink as much as you think, and you can always take water from streams in upland areas with some prior knowledge and care.
Some running vests and sacks come with a bottle or bladder, and there’s a whole range out there to choose from if not. Don’t think it needs to be technical though – if you found yourself having to buy a plastic bottle of water recently, why not reuse it. If you want to spend £20 on a super tech flexi bladder thingy, go ahead! It’s just a way of carrying water…..!
Head torch – A head torch is crucial if you are setting off early in the morning or later in the evening. Another area where technology has made leaps and bounds in the last decade. Until you’ve been caught out you will not believe how hard it is to even walk on trail terrain in the dark – and it’s usually very dark off-road! Even a small hand torch is a must, and don’t rely on your phone – you might need that to make phone calls.
Obviously if you set off for a 3 hour run at 10am it’s not something to take, but if you’re planning on getting back an hour before sunset…..it’s amazing how slow you move when the wheels fall off! A decent little torch will only cost a few tens of pounds – you only need a couple of hours on full power capacity. Unless you’re planning on being out all night – which is awesome, but that’s a whole other blog post for another day!
Phone – It’s pretty much an expectation that you will carry a phone with you these days. As a safety device it’s invaluable, and if you haven’t downloaded what3words yet do it now, as it really helps people find you if you need them to.
The flip side is that it’s too tempting to ask for help when you don’t really need it. Your local Mountain Rescue Team is there for genuine emergencies, not to help you find the way if you’re a bit lost. Part of the fun is learning the skills of trail running – it’s not going to be perfect every time and if you end up going a bit further – well that’s why you’re out there to get a long run in!?
Oh, and you can take awesome photos of the sunset from the hill you weren’t expecting to go up, safe in the knowledge that you’ve got your torch to help you back……!
If your phone is not waterproof and you find yourself in a spot of wet weather, remember to protect your phone in a plastic pouch.
Sunglasses – A pair of sunglasses will come in handy if you find yourself running towards the sun, especially when it’s low in the sky. It can be quite difficult if you find yourself squinting, which may cause you to tumble on the trails.
It’s worth getting some ‘sporty’ specs if you’re planning on doing a bit especially if your regular running trails have pale ground colour or rocks – glare can be really annoying. It’s easy to underestimate how much you can cook in even moderate sunshine without a hat and sunglasses. A comfy, cool cap with a sensible peak will help keep you cool too.
Shoes – Off-road shoes – this is a hot potato. What you wear on your feet when trail running is super important.
You’re going to find that every runner, shop and magazine will tell you different things and why X is better than Y. In simple terms, you want a shoe with a knobbly sole – the more off road you’re going, the knobblier the sole! You’re going to try a few out, some will work, some won’t! Every foot is different….
2. Stay Hydrated
Proper hydration is important not only when you’re out trail running but in everyday life as well. As an endurance sport that takes you into the great outdoors, trail running provides a well-needed break from civilization. If you’re ready to transition to long distance trail running, you’ll require smart hydration solutions.
We already mentioned flasks in the kit list above, but Salomon points out that when to hydrate is equally important as how you carry it with you. When you’re out on the trails, rather than drinking in regular intervals, try instead to pay close attention to your body and drink when you feel thirsty. It’s normal to not feel thirsty during the first hour of a trail run, but if you drink just as soon as you’re thirsty you’ll keep from getting dehydrated.
On the flip side, drinking too much can lead to you becoming overhydrated, with symptoms like confusion, digestive problems and/or stomach pains. So be sure not to drink systematically or in large quantities and opt instead to drink small amounts whenever you feel thirsty on your long distance run.
3. Choose the Right Nutrition
Trail running, like any endurance sport, requires a lot of energy expenditure. When you go trail running, no matter the distance, you are certainly going to want to eat more at each meal.
How much should you eat while running? The quick answer is that if you’re heading out for an easy run lasting about an hour or less, you can probably get by with just drinking water. If you’re running an hour or more, it’s time to start eating at a rate of about 200–300 calories per hour. For most runners, this means eating and/or drinking 80–100 calories roughly every 20–30 minutes, primarily in the form of small carbohydrate-rich snacks like gels, chews and sports drinks.
Long distance running is an almost completely aerobic load on your energy systems. You need to train in a way that allows you to access your fat stores at a sufficient rate to keep you moving at the pace you want – that’s training! You need a little in the way of food to keep the fires burning when you’re out, how much depends on how well you are conditioned to fat burning, how far and how fast you’re moving. Top tip – have an energy gel that just lives at the bottom of your bag – you’ll be glad it’s there!
4. Technique is Key
It’s said that technique makes up around 20% of your running ability. It’s a good number, but It’s said that technique makes up around 20% of your running ability. It’s a good number, but the real benefit of good technique is not getting injured – when you start upping your mileage you’re going to find areas of your body that aren’t up to the strain. They will improve, and you can help with strengthening, but that’s no consolation if you’re already injured.
Form and technique can be quite different from how you’d run on a road. When running uphill, you’ll want to lean forward slightly and place your weight over the balls of your feet. Exaggerating your arm swing a bit more will also help you carry your momentum and improve your balance over uneven terrain.
For downhills, get used to scanning about 10 to 15 feet ahead of you. This will help you pick a good line well before you’re in that section. Keep your steps light and short, as a quicker turnover is more efficient and much safer than long, lunging steps. Avoid leaning back too much, as it can stop your momentum and burn out your quadriceps, and focus on an upright posture when heading downhill to improve your efficiency.
If you’re looking for a weekend of top coaching tips to maintain your fitness and perfect your techniques through winter, take a look at our Autumn Trail Running Camp.
5. Strengthen for success
If you want to keep clocking in the miles for a very long time, it’s important to add strength training to your trail running routine. You can find out all about how yoga can improve your trail running performance in our previous blog post written by Poppy Backshall.
The American Trail Running Association points out that strength training should be complementary to your running, not competing with your running. You don’t want to tire yourself out before you’ve even hit the trails.
Trail runners can benefit most from single leg exercises, anti-rotation core exercise, and plyometrics. Single leg exercises should be top priority since running requires you to always be on one leg. Great examples are single leg deadlift, lateral lunge, pistol squat, and back elevated single leg bridge. You can find video demonstrations on some useful exercises here.
6. Get in the Mindset
Long-distance running is as much a mental sport as it is physical. In addition to a physical training regimen, you want to be sure you’re training your mind to go the distance as well.
Let’s remember that hopefully one of the reasons you’re out there, enjoying your run through nature is to try to remove yourself from the daily grind – even though you’re putting yourself through some stress! If it’s a good day, you’ll float along. If it’s a bad day, just slow down, walk even, and look around you – where you are is amazing, which is why you’re there. If you start racing, then you can learn to control your pain and emotions, but until then, stop, look and breathe….
In many cases, running further is simply “mind over matter.” While you could run with others to distract yourself, you could also simply lose yourself to the thrill of running.
7. Learn these Skills
If you want to venture longer distances off road you are going to need to learn how to navigate, but only in a simple way at first. Try to use paper maps rather than phones or GPS as they have batteries that can run out, maps don’t. Keep your maps dry, and if you struggle to understand them, find someone who will help you to read them. It’s one of the easiest ways to find freedom.
First Aid is a life skill that we should all embrace. It could be for yourself or it could be that you’re the only person within miles of a fellow runner who’s in trouble. Take a little time to learn how to do First Aid in remote areas, there’s plenty of courses and videos out there.
One foot in front of the other
It can be easy to feel like you’ve hit a wall when it comes to increasing mileage. But don’t be too hard on yourself. Staying consistent, patient, and fueling your body with the right nutrition can help you get to your goal distance.
If you’re ready to put your trail running to the test, why not join Tim Higginbottom on the Trans Wales Trail Run journey. Tackle routes you may have never attempted before under Tim’s professional guidance. This running holiday is no walk in the park, with 3 full days of running technical trails totalling 55 miles – this will be a true accomplishment and a big step toward being a long distance runner!