Long runs are a weekly staple in most running programs, improving muscular endurance in the running stride and building aerobic volume. They also build confidence, letting the athlete know they can sustain running up to and beyond their target race time.
Depending on the race distance you are training for and the stage in that race preparation, long runs can last anywhere from 30 minutes (5K prep or early in 10K prep for beginners) up to 2 hours and beyond for marathons and ultras. Most programs call for a progressive weekly increase in long-run duration and can last several months. Most runners are apt to follow these increases blindly, leading to overuse injuries and interruptions in training.
I recommend recreational to low-level competitive runners transform their long runs into a moderate run plus a bike ride. Spending less time running might not seem like an optimal approach to race prep, but this system has benefits for running performance and decreased injury risk.
The most obvious benefit is you can do more aerobic work with less stress on the body. For every runner, there is a point during a long run at which mental and muscular fatigue affect your ideal stride. This fatigue causes changes in foot-strike patterns (typically a more pronounced heel contact), wear on muscles and joints through less overall stability and a shift towards a less optimal running pattern.
Switching onto the bike before this breakdown happens will allow the aerobic training session to continue with lower impact. Since your bodyweight is supported when riding, your needs for stabilizing and impact control are much less, however you can definitely continue to work aerobically.
Instead of pounding the pavement for a 60-minute long run and feeling it for the rest of the day, try a solid 45-minute run followed up with an equal duration ride. By using this strategy, you’ve just put in 30 more minutes than planned and many more aerobic dollars in the bank.
Cycling puts different stress on your lower body. Running is an elastic strength activity – your muscles stretch and recoil in relatively fast movements. In cycling, the leg is under tension through a longer stroke of motion and, with practice, the muscles are challenged during the full pedal stroke. This difference in tension and range of motion creates strength and endurance in a different way. Most coaches would agree that this transfers over to running, especially if hilly courses are involved.
This strategy is also easy to implement. I recommend increasing your scheduled long run duration by 1.5, running for half your time before switching to cycling. You don’t need a fancy bike and could even utilize a spin bike at the local rec centre. Just make sure your bike is set up for an optimal pedal stroke so cycling doesn’t stress your knee joints and lower back.
Give this system a shot for your next race build up – you might be surprised at how good you feel when training and racing.