I’m revisiting a list I made back in 2015 when my mileage first started really creeping up on runs. Eight years later and quite a few ultras under my belt, this advice is surprisingly still relevant! (I’m always worried that when I write something as a beginner, older and wiser (maybe) Molly will disagree. And it’s happened. I’ve changed my tune about a lot of training and lifestyle things over the years as I’ve gotten older and realized that things that seemed smart when I was 25 really only worked because I was… 25.
But whether you’re new or a veteran long run person, these tips make a ton of sense. I’ve updated them a bit, but really, it comes down to keeping it pretty simple. And yes, a long run can be six miles if you’re a new runner! There’s no magic number that starts to dictate what a ‘long’ run is.
It’s a long run, so take time to smell the roses. I don’t mean you need to putz around, but there’s nothing wrong with stopping to take a picture every once in a while. This is a mistake I continue to make—even last weekend, I started a 20-miler and in mile 1, I knew I had a rock in my shoe. It was super annoying. Did I stop to fix it? Nope. I ran like that for 10 miles, until I finally got fed up and had to stop to extract it. There is no gold star that, and I would have been so much happier the whole damn time if I had just let myself hit pause. It’s easier said than done, but for long runs, just give yourself that grace.
It’s a long run, so don’t go out too hard. I had a tough time with this on my biggest run back when I wrote this list in 2015: it was six miles of road to get to the trails, and I so badly wanted to get to the trail that I took the road at a pretty aggressive pace. Which worked out fine, but it was definitely not tiring! Especially since the trail started at the base of a ski hill so it was a lot of climbing. Funny enough, this is still my life today, even though I’m writing it across the country from where I first wrote this article. The addendum to this tip, though, is that if you’re trying to boost fitness, consider trying to negative split your run and finish more aggressively. Or do a moderate effort in the middle. But don’t blow all your matches in the first 5K.
Seriously, ease into it. Cannot stress it enough. I’ve realized this is a huge thing for me. I don’t just mean physically (though I did successfully start one long trail run by hiking the ski hill instead of trying to run it). I mean mentally. It’s going to be a long day, but don’t dwell on that, or even think about it for the first hour or so. Just focus on enjoying the moment and the trail before you turn your focus to time.
Bring water. OK, this is the tip that has REALLY changed. I originally wrote: “You don’t need a ton (or, at least, I don’t), but you want to have enough to wet your mouth along the way. For the 18 mile trail run I did, I actually ran the first 9 miles of it holding a cheap-o 16 ounce bottle from the grocery store in addition to my tiny 6 ounce handheld. Not comfortable, but it was well worth it to have that extra water on trails with no water access. And when I was done, I was able to cram it into my tiny back pocket of my shorts. A Camelbak may work for you, but make sure you’ve done short runs with it: I find a lot of them really uncomfortable for my stomach and breathing, so I tend to avoid them when possible.”
2015 Molly was a dummy, ladies and gentlemen. That Camelback was a CYCLING PACK. Of-freaking-course it was annoying and uncomfortable on the run. You know what else is uncomfortable? Dehydration. Since writing this, I don’t go on runs of over 10 miles (so over 1:15 of running) without a pack. Ironically, I actually hate handhelds these days. Packs are so much easier for carrying emergency supplies, water, snacks, and your phone. It’s a no brainer—it’ll take some trial and error to find one you love (and when you do, buy a couple of them, because the company will change the model for the worse). My current love—for years now—is the Osprey Dyna.
You don’t need as much clothing as you think. I tend to underdress on runs, but that’s almost always been a good thing for me. But a lot of people—especially cyclists—tend to dress like they would if they were going on a ride: you don’t need that much, I promise. (If you’re really worried about being cold, wear a windbreaker that packs down and can be crammed in a pocket… And this is something I ALWAYS do now.
If you start tripping on stuff, slow down. When I start slipping on rocks or catching my toes on roots, that’s when I know it’s time to slow down and take a breath. Don’t be a hero and try to speed up. That’s when ankles get twisted and you end up hobbling out of the woods. This is still one of my all time favorite reminders to myself, and I have a bruise from last week to prove it.
Download podcasts or audiobooks if you’re a headphone person. I love listening to music, but I find that for long runs, I’m better off if I can listen to a podcast or two to start and then switch to pump-up-the-jams music for the final few miles. Does wonders for my mood, and the podcasts are usually distracting enough to make me forget that I’m tired in the beginning. (Hey, in 2015, this was a hot tip, not freaking obvious advice because everyone has a podcast! That said… The addendum here is that you should use 1 headphone and keep the volume way down if you listen to anything on your run—and don’t get so distracted that you stop paying attention to your surroundings.)
Don’t try anything new on these runs. New shorts? Forget it, they might chafe. New run snack? Absolutely not, unless you’re willing to be cramped up on the trailside. New shoes? What are you, insane? Stick to what you know works for these runs and save the experimenting for another day. (This one has been tough as my shoes have been on their last legs but I haven’t broken in a new pair just yet.)
Enjoy it. You’re out on a run, and it’s awesome. If things aren’t going great, just think: you could be home working or cleaning or running errands. So how bad is this mile, really? <- probably the most important thing that I have learned about long runs. I always remind myself when it gets hard or the hill is neverending that this is the absolute best part of my day.