Ten Tips for Running Long (26.2M+), with Just Five Hours of Running Time a Week

Why and How to be an Endurance Athlete for Life, Without Overtraining

Summary (tldr)

  • Gently sweating exercise, up to about an hour a day, makes your brain work better and your body live longer. But the longevity dividend stops and may reverse after that, so on average, you likely don’t want more.
  • Running a marathon or ultra delivers Huge Mental Benefits (HMBs). You feel fantastic and grateful for life after finishing something that tough, and everything else you do feels easy, for a few months afterward. Try it and see!
  • If you want to be able to do 1–4 marathons/ultras a year, your whole life long, with just five hours or less of training runs a week, as I do, you’ll need to get strategic. Here are ten good strategies, and a bonus tip at the end, to help you achieve that goal.

1. Minimalist training shoes, and a Barefoot/Pose running style. 
2. Proper training. Long run, intervals, cross-train, yoga, and stretching. 
3. Run/Walk/Run method, and variable rewards. Self-endorphins!
4. Aerobic max heart rate. Don’t exceed it. Speed & endurance at AMHR!
5. Hoka Mafates for your long runs. One size too big. Save your toenails!
6. Injinji toe socks and double-layered Wright socks. No blisters!
7. Great shade hat and mesh shirt with ice pockets. Add ice as needed!
8. Hydration backpack. Sips of cold, icy water every 5 mins. Amazing!
9. Intermittent fasting. Lose weight, become a ketoadapted beast!
10. Primal lifestyle and nutritional ketosis. Dump the carbs!

Why to Run, and to Occasionally Run Long

Our bodies are optimized for running, occasionally for long distances, and for sweating efficiently while we run. Listen to Chris McDougall’s Born to Run, for one great story on that. For most of us, near-daily running is not only the easiest but the best quality cardio we can get. There are also big mood and metabolic benefits to getting our cardio as close to daily as we can. Lots of enzymes stay upregulated for about three hours afterward. Our affect, focus, energy, and motivation all improve.

But as Paffenbarger’s Harvard Alumni Study discovered in 1986, there’s also a sweet range for your cardio, like most things in life. Longevity benefits peak at about 3500 calories of cardio a week. He found that exercising beyond that has no longevity benefit, and it may actually kill us faster. That last point is still only proven in mice (by Roy Walford in the 1990s), and may only be true for intense exercise, which eventually increases our risk of heart damage, atrial fibrillation, and stroke.

The sweet range in most recommendations today is about five to seven hours of gently sweating exercise a week, in which you stay aerobic, at a heart rate at 60 to 80% of maximum, and don’t go into anerobic “oxygen debt”, with lactic acidosis and muscle soreness the next day. A good rule of thumb to find your aerobic max is to able to hold a conversation or sing while you run, without ever being “out of breath.” If you are respecting this intensity rule, and Paffenbarger’s caloric expenditure goal, and also like to cross train 1–2 days a week, and take a day off (both good ideas), you’ll find you get, ideally, about five hours of running time in a week. If you’re not reaching this ideal target because you’re too busy at work, with kids, or whatever, you may average just two or three hours a week in your worst months, sometimes for several months at a stretch.

If you don’t think you can run a periodic marathon or ultra on that kind of intensity or training time, and get all the benefits that come with that goal, you probably have a misconception of the challenge. I’ve done it for years and know others who have too, with every body type. Run a marathon at a relaxed pace, using the strategies below, and see how far your body and mind take you. You’ll will be surprised in several valuable ways, I am sure. From what I can tell, Paffenbarger himself didn’t train hard. He knew where the longevity benefit ended, and the penalties to the body of what we now call overtraining. He started running at 45, ran more than 150 marathons or ultras, and lived to 84, outliving two of his six children — the ones who didn’t run :). Read Paff’s inspiring obituary for motivation.

In recent years, a literature (and a little science) on ultra low mileage training for marathons and ultras has emerged. As a distance runner for 40+ years now, I’ve collected few good strategies, which I’ve shared below. I challenge you to try any or all of them before and on your next long run. That might be an official run, or a run you do on your own, with a friend, or a local club one weekend. Don’t get sucked in by the “race” word used in many official runs, the timing, or the competitiveness of some entrants. For most runners, official runs are just runs we’ve paid for in advance, and will run with others, giving us extra motivation to train for and do them.

Running Long (26.2M+), with Minimal Training and Max Enjoyment

Let’s look now at ten great tips for running marathons and ultras with minimal training, and a big smile on your face, your whole life long :) Have others to offer? Share them below, thanks!

1. Minimalist training shoes, and a Barefoot/Pose running style.

This is your base strategy. Do most of your training runs with the lightest shoes you can handle without getting injury. You also want shoes that let your feet move naturally, with so-called “barefoot” flexibility, to strengthen your feet on training runs. For many, the lightest shoe they feel comfortable with is something like the Nike Free. Others can go even lighter without hurting their feet on runs. Try a few out and see how light you can go. I love the Mizuno Wave Universe shoes. They are so light, you feel like you’re in comfortable socks. They’re also fun to wear during the day. During your training runs, try to land on your forefoot and midfoot only. Never heel strike. In fact, minimalist shoes like these will motivate you to land on your forefoot, as any other style will hurt, either immediately or a day or two later, especially on pavement. Do your pavement runs for a mile or less at a time at first. Your feet, calves, and brain need time to get into this new way of running.

At first it is a challenge to remember to always land on your forefoot, and to fall, not push, yourself forward, every step of your run. But eventually it becomes automatic. Landing on your forefeet and midfoot strengthens your entire musculoskeletal system, and as your legs get stronger, it gets harder to injure yourself, and you feel a lot less pain in your legs later in a long run. Want to go faster? Lean further and pull your feet up quicker after landing (faster cadence). Footfalls are light, light, light while being quick, quick, quick, and strong, strong, strong. You fall and glide forward, you don’t stress the system. Breathe deep, relax, focus on lowering your heart rate. What Mo Farah calls easy speed will start to come.

Beyond the proper footfalls, running with proper form is a key way way to improve your runs. Here’s a 3 min. video on the basics of the Barefoot/Pose running style. Running like this takes far less energy than any other style. Each little energy savings adds up to big gains over a long run. Staying in the right poses all the way through really minimizes injury and effort, and as a hidden benefit, it improves your concentration and posture after the run.

2. Proper training. Long run, intervals, cross-train, yoga, and stretching.

Proper training is about knowing your priorities, whether or not you get around to strict schedules to maximize them. To complete long runs with maximum enjoyment, your training priorities are one weekly long run, also called “Long, Slow Distance” (LSD), then one weekly interval session (at whatever speed feels good to you), then whatever else you want or have time to fit in. That’s as simple as I think it gets.

George Beinhorn’s The Joyful Athlete, and his website, JoyfulAthlete, describe the value of LSD, the kind of endurance running most of us will do. He teaches you how to listen to your body, going slow some days, slower others, and faster when all the stars are aligned. When training for a long race, like a marathon, a 50K, or a 50 miler (I just finished the lovely American River 50 for my fifth time), the most important task is to do one long training run a week, for at least six weeks in a row leading up to your race, and take a two week rest (no running at all if you wish) before the race.

If you are running for time (hours of cardio), not speed or distance, as I recommend, that means doing a weekly long run of two or three hours, six weeks or more in a row, at least eight weeks out from your race. Unless you trust yourself to do them automatically, put them on a whiteboard on your wall and cross each one off, as you get them done, to maximize motivation and make the priority obvious.

The easiest strategy is to take off from your home, or on a beautiful trail, run for half the time, then turn around and run back. One day of long slow distance a week can be tough for busy folks to fit in. But doing it makes your willpower stronger. Think of your long run as a time for yourself to go deep into reflection or learning. Get started early on a weekend morning if you can, and bring along a small notepad for jotting down ideas. Run with your phone on an armband or in a fanny pack, streaming podcasts if you need some mental input. Run from home to a trail or park if you can, rather than driving, to get efficient with your time. Use the other strategies on this page as well, and you’ll look forward to your weekly two or three hour session. You can go as slow as you want on this run, and take along food and drinks and run/walk as well (see below). Your goal is to just put in the time.

A second training priority is to run intervals, either one day a week on a track with others or on your own, or spread throughout the week, a few minutes a day (most convenient but mentally hardest). If you don’t have a track next door, you can do them right in front of your house, on a loop or out-and-back. Mark off the distances with a measuring wheel, and write your daily times on a whiteboard to motivate yourself.

I like to do a “morning mile (1600M)” out front of the house, running the second and last 400’s fast, before anything else in the day. If you want to try it, keep your shoes, shirt, and shorts near your bed, to make it easy to get done, first thing. If you finish out of breath, and feel a buzz for 20 mins afterward, you’ve done your intervals perfectly. On good days, you may find yourself motivated to do a second “interval mile” in the evening. That will give you gentle interval work most of the week, whether or not you can get to the track (that’s good too, but track intervals take a lot more time).

If a mile is too long for your daily interval run, start with 400M or 800M. By keeping your interval runs short, you can easily justify racking one up, every day. Erase your times once a month, and whiteboard the number of times you got in your interval run. How many did you get done? Consider doing two or more for a few days at the end of each month, to make up for days when you did none. Tally up your annual score. Did you make it to 365? If so, that’s pretty amazing! Go celebrate!

Intervals will improve your strength, peak power, speed, VO2 max, and even your immune system function. Like long runs, they take more willpower than ordinary exercise, so they make you mentally tougher. Unfortunately, intervals will also increase your injury rates, so be very careful with them. As Beinhorn would say, listen to your body. If things feel tight or wrong, don’t push it. Run them slowly instead, or do them another day. For the emerging art and science of interval training, read Loehr and Schwartz’s great The Power of Full Engagement. It will convince you that you want intervals in your training, and in your life.

As a third-level priority, a day or two a week of cross-training, either on the bike, in the pool, on machines, or doing strength training, yoga, stretching, trampoline, roller blading, parkour, etc. will keep your exercise fun and unpredictable, and make it easier to do long and interval runs without getting hurt. Overdoing any of these can also cause injury, so be careful with them as well. Listen to what your body and brain craves most on your cross-training days. Feel free to regularly try new stuff, but be careful as well.

3. Run/Walk/Run method, and variable rewards. Self-endorphins!

Jeff Galloway is a genius. He found that once your body starts to get stressed, taking brief walking breaks, for 15 seconds to a couple of minutes, every few minutes will greatly reduce your injuries on long runs. Most important for building your self-control and drive to keep going, every walk break you take you give yourself a big endorphin hit, for a length of your own choosing. Think of how you feel right after you stop any run — great! Every time you start running again after a brief walk you also build your resolve to keep going, no matter what.

This Run/Walk/Run strategy increases your control over and enjoyment of your long runs. On races, you’ll meet others using this strategy, and you can synch some of your walk breaks with them, making new friends in the process. When you walk, you also get to truly enjoy the views around you. Your memories of your marathons and ultras, and your motivation to do more of them, will be richer as well.

On my long runs, I presently shoot for 20–60 seconds of walking, every 5 minutes of exercise time. I start my walk breaks as soon as I feel any tightness or tiredness in my legs, which might not happen until an hour (or more) into a long run. This style of running gets you making constant choices of when and how long to walk, which brings self-pacing and self-motivation benefits to your daily life as well. See Galloway’s The Run Walk Run Method for details.

It’s also important to take variable rewards on each break. Sometimes I take 20 seconds, sometimes a few minutes, if I’m running a marathon or ultra. Sometimes I do a quick muscle massage if something is getting sore, sometimes stop and stretch against a tree or pole. On long runs, I take an occasional jackpot reward, like an icewater sponge to the head and back at an aid station. Psychologists and casinos know that schedules of both consistent and variable rewards, with a few big “jackpots”, are key to motivating us to do anything.

When I can, I even take a ten minute wade or swim in a lake or stream, removing my shoes and socks first, to totally refresh my body and legs for at least an hour and a half afterward. Taking a wade or a swim is a great 15 min jackpot reward, perfect for the middle of a marathon or ultra, and I’m surprised I don’t see others doing it more often on long runs near lakes and rivers. Use frequent self-administered rewards (walk/eat breaks) and variable and jackpot rewards in your runs, and get the mental benefits for work and life as well.

4. Aerobic max heart rate. Don’t exceed it. Speed & endurance at AMHR!

Phil Maffetone is a genius too. The next big strategy is to keep your heart rate between 60 and 85 percent of its maximum on your runs. You might wear a heart rate monitor every so often, to find your current ideal speed range, but you don’t need that tech if you don’t want it. A good rule of thumb to find your aerobic max is to able to hold a conversation or sing while you run, without ever being “out of breath.” So sing a favorite song to yourself every so often and pay attention to your breath. If it gets labored, slow down.

Maffetone’s 180 Formula, 180 minus your age, with a few mods, is an evidence-based way to find your heart’s max aerobic rate. Running slower like this will let you to burn fat as well as glycogen, and prevent you from getting into oxygen debt (lactic acidosis), with all the microinjuries, muscle soreness, and reduced desire to run the next day that comes with it. You’ll get faster, and run stronger and longer, every year you run like this. Speed and endurance without injury at your debt-free aerobic max is your goal, when you Run for Life. Everything else is a mirage. See Phil’s classic, The Maffetone Method: The Holistic, Low-Stress, No-Pain Way to Exceptional Fitness, for the details.

5. Hoka Mafates for your long runs. One size too big. Saves your toenails!

For all your long runs, I recommend Hoka Mafates (aka “clown shoes”), a super thick-soled yet ultra-lightweight shoe that the running world is slowly waking up to, after five years on the market. Hokas of all stripes are ideal for your long runs, to keep your feet from getting beat up. Get them one size too big, because your feet will swell in a marathon or ultra. You will enjoy being able to wiggle your toes even four to ten hours into a long run, when your feet are a half-size to a full size bigger, and oversizing will keep your toenails from blackening and falling out, as long as you trim them before the race. You don’t want to run in shoes like these for most training runs, as they would make your feet weaker over time. But they are a great distance and recovery shoe. You also want to be careful about rolling your ankles in them at first. If you start to roll, your brain should immediately and automatically tell you to lighten that foot. I rolled an ankle a few times the first year I used them, but my ankles got stronger and my brain smarter. You learn to adapt.

With these magic shoes, a Pose running style, walk breaks, and aerobic max speed, you’ll be back to your regular training runs just a few days after a marathon or ultra, and perhaps hiding out in your Hokas the first week of recovery running, when most runners need a week or more of rest to get back in the groove. Remember that your consistency of running, along with occasional longer runs and weekly intervals, will all maximize running’s benefits in your daily life.

6. Injinji toe socks and double-layered Wright socks. No blisters, seriously!

Kudos to Fell Runner for figuring out the ideal antiblister sock combo, Injinji lightweight toe socks, underneath Wrightsock double-layer socks. That two-sock combo will isolate your toes, and give you three thin layers of socks inside your Hokas. I can report no blisters, even on ultras of 50 miles, with only five hours a week of training runs. Wow!

7. Great shade hat and mesh shirt with ice pockets. Add ice as needed!

Get a very light, stuffable, and great shade hat, like Columbia’s Coolhead Catchalot, to keep the sun off your neck and wick sweat from your temples if it gets hot. You can fold the neck cover under your hat when it isn’t hot. If it gets hot, be sure to stop at the aid stations and put a cup of ice (ten to fifteen small cubes) under your hat, so it can melt as you run. You’ve made your own portable swamp cooler. A lovely feeling! If it gets too cold, take off your hat and run with it in your hand for a few minutes, while chewing some of the ice. More loveliness!

I also recommend a light-colored, long-sleeve (UV-barrier) wicking mesh shirt, like the Heat Gear T-Shirt by Under Armour. If it gets hot, take off and wet down your shirt at the aid stations. That will keep you super cool! If it gets really hot, you may want to take your shirt off and run with nothing for an hour or two, so bring a small tube of sunscreen too. Mesh tops like the triathlete Craft Kona Body Control top are great for regulating body temp in races. The Kona even has an ice pocket sewn into it at the neck. If you run in heat a lot, or expect a really hot marathon or ultra, take your mesh shirt and cap to your tailor and get a few ice pockets sewn in at your neck and shoulders, and under your cap, for aid station stops. Line the pockets with a very thin sponge, so that as the ice melts, it cools the sponge, and cold water trickles down your shirt and head. Incredible!

8. Hydration backpack. Sips of cold, icy water every 5 mins. Amazing!

Get a nice, lightweight, 1.5 or 2 L hydration pack. I like Osprey’s Hydration Packs, as they have a magnetic stay for the bite valve, keeping it easily accessible and yet not flapping around. On your walk breaks, or whenever you feel like you need it, take a few sips, or quite a few, as you prefer. Load up your hydration bladder with water and some ice whenever you need more. Drinking regularly throughout the long run, and taking one or two electrolyte caps every hour or so, will keep you hydrated and peeing well throughout your run.

9. Intermittent fasting. Lose weight, become a ketoadapted beast!

Now we get to two more challenging, but particularly beneficial endurance strategies. I’ve been practicing intermittent fasting (IF) for seven years now, and it’s the single best health decision I’ve made so far. There are scores of brain, body, and longevity benefits to IF, whether you do it just three days a week (the minimum recommended), or every day, and whether you do it for just 12 hours at a time (the “Mini-fast”), 19 hours (“Fast-5”), or occasionally, 36 hours (Wefa.st’s “Monk fast”), or even 60 hours, which will reboot your immune system and make new brain cells in your hippocampus, greatly improving your short-term memory for weeks afterward. IF gives you many of the brain and body benefits of exercise, including incredible clarity and focus for the first eight waking hours of your fasts, so you can think of it as a form of good stress, or metabolic exercise.

Fasting also regenerates your brain and body as well, via ketosis, autophagy, mitochondrial regeneration, BDNF, chaperones, DNA repair, and about twenty other beneficial things. Mike Vandershelden’s The Scientific Approach to Intermittent Fasting is the best book I know summarizing all the benefits of IF. If you are more than twenty pounds overweight, I’d recommend starting with Julian Whitaker’s Mini-Fast IF Diet, five or more days a week for a year (eating no breakfast, moving lunch to an hour later, and taking a brief walk, nap, or chewing sugarless gum, iced coffee or tea if you get hungry before lunch). After a year of that, you’ll be ten to twenty pounds lighter, and can move up to one of the even longer and more beneficial IF patterns. My IF pattern is five days a week (M-F), 19 hours a day, the Fast-5 style. See Bert Herring’s The Fast-5 Diet and Lifestyle and his Fast-5 support community on Facebook for more.

IF will teach your body how to burn its fat stores, converting them to ketones, any time you are low energy. Ketones are an optimal energy source for your brain, but being fat-adapted also means you can burn your own fat, anytime you are low energy. We all store about two weeks worth of fat energy, at all times, but only a few hours worth of glycogen. You become a ketoadapted endurance beast! Long runs, as long as you stay at or below aerobic max, become incredibly, surprisingly easy. So do long endurance sessions, whenever you need them, in any other facet of your work and life.

10. Primal lifestyle and nutritional ketosis. Dump the carbs. Choose life!

Mark Sisson’s The Primal Blueprint was a big advance when it came out in 2009. It gives great guidance for eating, exercising, and living in a way our ancestors likely did for millions of years. It also makes clear that a high-good-fat, moderate protein, low-carb lifestyle is what we want, for vitality and longevity. Carbs are the poorest and most dangerous energy source we can use. The excess blood sugars they produce quickly age us and degrade us, and once we get in our 40’s, all the glycation, oxidation, insulin insensitivity, and IGF-1 upregulation, and inflammation that sugars produce really starts hurting our bodies and brains. Meat and protein are the second most dangerous nutrient. Eat too much protein and your body converts it to sugar as well, via gluconeogenesis. The only thing we can eat with abandon are good fats, which produce ketones, not glucose, as an energy source. Over 70% of our brain, by dry weight, is made up of fats, which is one reason why those daily fish oil supplements are so good for you. The Primal Blueprint will get you down to about 150 grams of carbs a day, and shift you to a diet rich in good fats. If you eat and exercise in a typical developed world way, living primal is a great step forward.

After you’ve been eating, exercising, and living primally for a few years, you’ll be ready try nutritional ketosis. That adventure will require cutting your carb calories to 50 grams a day or less, ideally for three weeks or more at a time. It also includes eating mainly foods that are high in good fats (avocado, olives, seeds, nuts, nut butters) on your endurance runs. Sisson and Kearn’s Primal Endurance is an excellent guide to that. Once you are ketoadapted with IF, you can burn mostly fat, your own and any good-fat foods you eat, the whole way through your endurance runs.

Brad Kearns Primal Endurance podcast dives deeply into the challenges and benefits of nutritional ketosis. He also makes clear that you want to eat between one and two grams of protein per kg of body weight a day, ideally staying at the lower end of this range. That is a lot less protein than the typical Paleo or Primal eater likes to eat. It’s one level of challenge to shift away from most meat eating, to just a little fatty fish every few days. It’s another to get to 150 grams a day of carbs, and yet another to get just 50 grams a day of carbs for three weeks or more at a stretch. I’m still struggling with that challenge, and presently see-saw between Sisson’s 150 gram and Kearn’s 50 gram ideals. But all of these regimes, when combined with IF, will teach your body to eat its own fat in an endurance activity, and give you amazing energy for incredible lengths of time.

See Phinney and Volek’s The Art and Science of Low-Carbohydrate Performance for another great intro to this exciting and emerging new philosophy of exercise. You can eat carbs on your long runs as a “jackpot” reward at the end, but only eat them when you really start losing energy. If you are ketoadapted, and especially if you are in nutritional ketosis, that will take hours to happen, as you are a fat-burning machine.

Again, after you’ve been ketoadapted for a few months, you will find you can run for hours, at aerobic max, on just water alone, and feel amazing. Doing that is also really good for your body and brain as well, according to Maffetone, Sisson, Kearns, Volek, Phinney, and others in this space. It’s a sad that there’s very little good fat, or even protein, at the typical aid station on an endurance run. The general running community has been very slow to get this message so far, so you’ll just have to pack in your own good fats (see above) and good protein (like eggs, and tuna, smoked salmon, or salmon jerky, if you are pescetarian like me) for your races and training runs, and you’ll have yet another amazing set of rewards to give yourself, any time you choose.

Last Thoughts and Bonus Tip

If you want to get the benefits of running and doing endurance activities your whole life long, make your training, and your endurance runs, as consistent, injury-minimized, and enjoyable as you can. Lots of athletes, aiming for speed and improving their place in the pack, bust up and burn out their bodies and stop doing endurance sports in the second half of their lives. Don’t be one of those people. Run for life, and use your running to live a long and healthy life! See the big picture, and choose a healthy, long, and high-endurance life.

As Brad Kearns says, let your 90 year old athletic self be your mental coach most weeks of your life. But allow your current self to pull you into a few risky adventures every so often as well. Most importantly, seek consistency with your training, and maximize your enjoyment and mental and physical benefits from it, not your speed. Forget about race times. Just putting in the effort, while having fun, is your victory, every week of your amazing life!

Finally, on the subject of choosing an amazing life, let me mention one more fantastic book, Tony Robbins’ Awaken the Giant (Within) (1991). Chapter 6 is the best brief read on personal empowerment I’ve yet found, in 40 years of reading such books. That’s the bonus tip.

If you like Chapter 6, read this entire book (Tony’s most complex and perhaps his best, in my opinion), and take your life to a whole new level of self-creation and self-discovery. You deserve it! Thanks for reading.

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John Smart is a global futurist, helping people thrive in a world of accelerating change. See his 550-page book, The Foresight Guide, now free online as a page-commentable blog, at ForesightGuide.com.

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