Medium Long Runs

Thursday evening I completed my first “medium-long” mid-week run in almost six months: a 19.7 km run run at the best aerobic pace I could muster on the day without really pushing the effort. I knew afterwards that after my long period of ankle troubles, the body is beginning to function properly again.

If there is a secret to the Lydiard aerobic phase of training then it could be the mid-week long runs. Once a runner is able to run two hours at good aerobic effort, they will do two mid-week runs of 90 minutes or longer and this is “where the money is”, to borrow a phrase. It is easy to think that the long aerobic run during the weekend contributes most of your fitness but the aerobic system needs to be challenged more consistently than just during one weekend long run.

When I began proper Lydiard training programmes initially these mid-week runs felt the most intimidating. I needed only look to the suggested pace to understand that I would very soon be running a decent-paced half-marathon (or longer) twice per week in addition to the long run. And, of course, the days in between featured running too. My greatest surprise was just how quickly running these 90-plus minute runs became routine and how swiftly they improved fitness and, perhaps more importantly, confidence in what the body can do when asked politely.

Coining the term

Lydiard never used the term “medium-long run” in his books, I first came across the term in “Advanced Marathoning” written by Pete Pfitzinger and Scott Douglas, an excellent training resource which some may be surprised to hear is a Lydiard training book through-and-through. Like in Lydiard’s original schedules, most of Pfitzinger and Douglas’ feature two medium-long runs from Monday to Friday in addition to the long run. Marathon runners in particular can become very obsessed with the importance of the long aerobic run during the weekend but it is far from enough to truly bring your aerobic capacity to a new level. As Peter Snell showed us during the Lydiard Seminar in Boulder, studies now indicate that after approximately ninety minutes of exercise even the fast-twitch muscle fibres begin to show signs of depletion. This is the direct scientific reason why running beyond ninety minutes can be so effective in developing a “tireless state” of running.

People training less than seven days per week will not necessarily do two medium-long runs and a long run as this could leave too few days for other varieties of aerobic training such as the “out and back” and “fartleks” but they would always do at least one longer mid-week running. This could mean forty minutes for a beginner whose longest run is sixty minutes but eventually, for every able-bodied runner, the duration will move beyond ninety minutes.

What type of effort?

The pace of these runs can be surprisingly brisk as your strength increases, towards the peak of my own training in 2011, I began running half-marathons faster in training than I had done when I raced my first half-marathon five years previously, a tremendously satisfying achievement. Time passes by much faster and the world seems to move around you at pace when you are not merely struggling to complete this workout but putting in some effort. True, I would leave some of these runs counting down the last few kilometres as tiredness kicked in but a nice shower, a quick injection of recovery drink followed by a proper meal would set me up for an energised day and I would have no problems running well in the next day’s fartlek. By the time Thursday came along, I would run an almost identical route and find that my pace was even a bit faster than it had been Tuesday. When done correctly, the body begins to recover from the Sunday long run by Monday and this process continues even when you run a medium-long run on Tuesday and a fartlek on Wednesday as long as you have built up to it right and choose the right intensity (which means, do not go into anaerobic intensities where you a huffing and puffing to match the pace you have set out to do). As with long runs, the pace has to come naturally.

It is easy to see where the mileage comes from in a Lydiard program once you know that medium-long runs will be part of our routine: for an elite athlete this can mean 25km on Tuesday, 25km Thursday and 35km on Sunday for a total of 85km of running out of a mere three days effort. Shorter runs begin to feel much briefer in your mind and long races begin to seem like just a slightly harder version of the long runs you do almost every second day. This is similar to the Kenyan philosophy of “train hard to win easy”. Certainly many of my runners have cursed me the first few times I have subjected them to this “madness” but just the other day I had a runner flying around a 22km course at 6:47min/mile pace, more than a minute faster than the pace he ran these at when beginning our Lydiard training last year. Race improvement has to follow if you increase your daily efficiency by such magnitude and you cannot underestimate the mental and physical toughness this adds to your racing armoury.

Where should I run?

For those runners who suffer regularly from over-use or repetitive strain injuries I often recommend that you make your two medium-long runs as different as possible: firstly do not use the same course! Perhaps you can make one a long park run and the other a road run or for the mountain runners do a frisky road version of your run on the Tuesday and a ninety minute plus run on trails and mountains on the Thursday. When choosing a route with challenging terrain or a very undulating topography, simply ignore the prescribed paces in your workouts and focus on the intensity. When in doubt it is no harm to run a bit slower than you think you should for these runs: being on your feet for ninety minutes is a valuable way to spend your time no matter how you do it and the reverse situation of running over your limit can significantly deplete your glycogen stores and leave you feeling jaded for days. This is not desirable as the aerobic phase calls for almost daily steady exercise and you generally want to be in a position to run really well for your “out and Back” workout on Saturday which is run at a pace close to your anaerobic threshold and thus is more challenging in many ways than the medium-long runs. Then the long run comes around on Sunday and you do not want to struggle through this every week either. If you split out your effort wisely for each run each day of the week you will find there does not need to be very much difference in the quality. And why would there be?

Timeless workrate

For time immemmorial, men have risen in the morning to go hunting for hours and hours or work the fields for 10-12 hours. They managed practically the same level of effort day in and day out. Much as we are divorced from that lifestyle, the potential for such work rates still lies within us. All you need do is jump over the mental hurdle that “90 minutes sounds like an awful long time”. After a few weeks it will be routine and your main concern will likely be around logistics. This is particularly true for the morning runners. Fitting a 40 minute run in before going to work is one thing, fitting in a 90 minute run is another. With many offices opening rather late, there is obviously time enough for the really early risers. Others will need to rely on long lunch breaks and rushed eating practices. Luckily once the long summer hours hit us, or if you happen to live in a nice area with street-lights, time of the day may matter less and you can happily begin your run between 5 and 6 and be done and showered before eight o’clock to enjoy a big dinner and a some quiet hours or family time in the evening.

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Director and coach at Borg Coaching Services
Rene Borg is the head coach of Glendalough AC and a passionate runner competing over all distances and terrains.

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