Coach Jeff

Written by Coach Jeff

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Surges During Your Long Run

From elites to first time 5k runners, almost everyone knows it is important to get some sort of long run into their training plan every week or two. However, the long run has the potential to be more than just time on your feet with long, slow miles. While fast-finish long runs are quickly becoming a fundamental element in advanced training programs, an underutilized and rarely mentioned workout involves surges during the long run.

Implementing planned surges during a long run serves a multitude of purposes. First, you can inject speed into a training plan during what would otherwise be a “slow” running day. Second, you can learn to run fast while fatigued, which develops race specific strength and skills. Finally, surges help increase the overall quality and pace of your long run, thus enabling you to finish faster.

Long runs urges: Speed in disguise

Any runner I currently coach knows I love to “disguise” speed into my training programs. I believe that it is essential to insert some sort of speed development into the training plan at least four or five days per week. Speed training helps improve running mechanics, increases efficiency, and buffers the body for race pace or faster efforts.

However, speed development doesn’t have to occur all in one workout. You can spread speed training throughout the week in small doses, which enables you to maximize your time spent developing the more important physiological elements, such as threshold and aerobic strength, while also reducing the risk of injury associated with speed work. By adding surges to a long run, you can go from 0 minutes spent working on speed, mechanics, and efficiency to 10 or even 15 minutes of “disguised” speed training per week. This slight increase in speed development is all you need to start seeing dramatic results in your mechanics and overall speed.

Long runs surges: Specific Strength

One of the most difficult aspects of racing is realizing that as the race goes on, you have to keep working harder to maintain the same pace. Anyone who has ever raced at any distance knows that the first mile is significantly easier than the last mile. The increase in difficulty is caused by fatigue. Therefore, anything you can do in your training to improve your ability to run faster while tired is going to lead to better race results. By injecting surges into your long run, you develop the specific physiological adaptations and mental skills necessary to increase your effort and pace as the race gets more difficult.

In addition, if you’re training for a marathon or your goal is to run a half marathon in the 2-hour range, surges late into a long run, especially when you’re low on fuel, help teach your body to burn fat more efficiently at race pace. Why is this important? Typically, the faster you attempt to run, the greater percentage of carbohydrates you burn (since carbohydrates are converted to energy quickly). Therefore, if you can increase the percentage of fat burned for energy while at race pace, you’ll have more carbohydrates to burn late in the race.

Adding quality to the long run

When doing surges during the middle of the run, you will typically notice two things: (1) the first surge is always the hardest and (2) once you slow back down to your normal long run pace, you will find that your “easy” pace is now faster than before the surge.

The first surge is always the hardest because you have to wake your body up. As runners, we’ve been conditioned to think of long runs as slow and leisurely Sunday strolls. (Granted, running slow for your long runs is appropriate at times, especially after a hard week of workouts or following an increase in volume). Therefore, the body and mind aren’t ready for the hard interval you’re about to throw in. Luckily, as your body and mind get adjusted to the speed, you’ll start to feel invigorated by the change of pace. You will also notice the pace increase bleeds into the recovery portion of the workout and you will find yourself running a faster overall long run than you normally would without surges.

How to Incorporate Surges

Long run surges should begin about half way through the intended long run distance and end about ¾’s to 8/10’s of the way through the run. This means if you have a 10-mile long run that usually takes you 1 hour and 40 minutes to complete and you’re scheduled for 5 x 1 minute surges with 5 minutes rest, you should begin the surges at mile 5, which will result in the last surge occurring at around mile 8. If you have a schedule written by me, I will designate the starting point of the surges for you.

The length of the surge itself, the rest in-between the interval, and the starting point of the surge during the run are all variables that you can adjust to make the workout harder or easier. Typically, I start most runners out with 4 x 1 minute surges with 5 minutes normal pace (normal being your average long run pace) between each. For runners at a very high level, we may progress to 6 x 2min surges with 3-4 minutes rest.

The pace of the surge should be anywhere from 5k pace to 8k pace. The exact pace will depend on the length of the surge and how much rest is given between hard efforts. Again, a schedule from me will have a goal pace included; typically, the longer the surge, the slower the pace.

While this explanation of surges was a long article, it didn’t delve into detail regarding specific physiological adaptations such as myoglobin and mitochondria development because I wanted to keep the article simple and practical. If you would like to discuss surges in the context of advanced exercise physiology, I am always available via email or the comments section.

Enjoy the new training stimulus and if you try out the surges in your own training, post back here with your experiences. Happy running!

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8 Responses on “Surges During Your Long Run

  1. Hi Jeff,

    I’ve been incorporating the surges during my last few long runs and also used it in the Run Geek Run 8k in DC last weekend. I went out a little fast for the first mile and while I hit my desired pace for mile two found myself slightly dropping pace in mile three. In past races I would accept the drop off and meander to the finish. Instead I incorporated the speed busts in mile four and was able to stabilize the pace for that mile but more importantly had re-kick started the legs to have the last mile be the second fastest split and 15 seconds below overall pace goal. End result is a PR by almost two minutes and new found confidence to push it at later stages in the race.

    Thanks again and happy running,

    Tom

  2. Thanks for the report on your experience with the surges, Tom. As I mentioned when we last spoke, racing is a skill, just like shooting a basketball. If you practice the specific racing strategies and techniques in training, you’ll be able to utilize them during the race. I am glad the idea helped you record such a big PR. Good luck the rest of the Fall season!

  3. Hi Jeff,

    I’m running my 2nd half marathon in 4 weeks. Have been following a 12 week plan, with long runs on Sundays. I always run a 10 min mile and can’t seem to break that. I do not do speed work, but am intrigued by the concept of incorporating surges into long runs. Is starting that this late in the game too late to benefit from it during the race a month from now?
    Secondly, if I were to push myself during the race to ‘break’ that 10 minute pace, what would be a good point to do that where I wouldn’t DIE? Halfway through? 3 miles left?
    I appreciate your expertise! Would like to do better than the 2:14 time I got last time.

    Thank you in advance!

  4. Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for the question. I don’t think 4 weeks is too close to start incorporating the surges into the long runs. I would do them the next 2 weekends (not the weekend before the race, since that should be a shorter long run that is designed to be a little easier). The first long run, you should shoot for 5 surges @ 9:20-9:35 pace with 5min easy pace between each and the second you should shoot for 6 surges at the same pace. Both times you should start about 1/3rd the way through your intended long run distance.

    In addition, I would incorporate 2-4 strides at the end of 2 or 3 of your regular runs during the next 3 weeks. Start out with two strides and work your way up to 4 by the end of the three weeks. This will also get your legs prepped for the transition to the sub 10 minute pace.

    Finally, I would wait until 3 miles to try and dip under the 10 minute barrier. Half way might be a little too aggressive, whereas you’ll still be able to take a good chunk of time off in the last 3 miles.

    Thanks for the question. Good luck!

    Jeff

  5. Oh, how I wish I had seen this weeks ago. Just finished Phoenix Half Marathon. I trained for a 1:39 finish, but ran a 1:41 instead. I had two miles in particular (when legs got really tired) where I knew I was way off pace, tried to pick it up and felt like I was (to your point about the same pace taking more effort later in the race), but I just couldn’t get back on pace. In the end I’m pleased with my overall effort, but disappointed that I had no racing strategy when things got tough.

    I have never heard of surges, but it makes complete sense. I will start incorporating those on my next training cycle. Thank you!

  6. Hi, Jeff. I ran my first half last year at the OKC Memorial Marathon/Half Marathon. I had trained for an 8:30/mile pace and thought I was ready, but I had focused on speed and not much else. A 2-hr weather delay and lack of experience proved that I was not ready! I kept an 8:30 pace through about mile 8 then just died on a long hill that rose 101 feet over 2.44 miles. Ended up running 9:10/mi and finishing at 2:00:00 flat…crap!

    I’m incorporating a lot of hill training this year and am trying not to peak on speed too soon. I’m trying to run negative splits and the thought of surges is a great idea, but I’ve never really known when and where to do them…i.e. pretty sure I don’t want to begin a surge on an uphill leg; downhill or flat spots are intuitively the better options. The biggest problem I’ve had is figuring out how long (in minutes or miles) and how fast to surge.

    Last weekend, I had a great pace going through mile 4 of my 8 mile long run, most of which had been uphill to that point. I found a nice, long slightly downhill, slightly flat stretch of highway about mile 5 that ran through mile 6.5. I picked a 1/2-mile stretch and picked up my pace. I wasn’t on my toes sprinting, but I was definitely going much faster. All sorts of thoughts sprang up: How far do I do this? How long do I rest afterward? Do I dare do it again? What if I don’t have enough juice left to finish strong? And so on. Your article is right on point and I will try the 4 x 1s during next weekend’s 9 miler.

    I’ve got exactly 6 weeks left until race day. I’m 45 years old and in pretty good shape…strong legs, strong lungs…still running 8:30 paces in pretty hilly terrain. Not a world beater by any stretch, but believe I could be more competitive. Should I stick with the 4 x 1 surge tactic over the next 6 weeks and use that during the race? Or would you suggest something else?

    Regards,

    Brian

    • Hi Brian, thanks for reaching out. Sounds like you are taking the right steps to run well, and reach your goals. Glad we were able to help, and give you some comfort with those pesky little negative thoughts that can come up. Great job with your training, at this point we would not want to make any big suggestions to change things, as it seems you are working out well, and changing things may cause issues to rise that would not be ideal. For future races, we would love to help you develop a training plan, if you would like to sign up to our newsletter (which you can do at the top of this page), then we can send you all kind of running related information to assist with your training. We would love for you to eventually become one of our athletes, but for the time being, hopefully this helps!

  7. Coaches,

    I’m three weeks out to a marathon in Seattle and shooting for a BQ. This is just the article I needed as I had not be doing formal speed training but incorporating it a little bit at a time during other runs. I’m planning for a 20 miler Sunday and will build in 5 x 1 minute surges at mile 10 and let you know how it goes. Thanks a ton.

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