What Is Considered Long Distance Running?

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When it comes to running and distances, it can be subjective and individual to each runner.

Some runners may consider a 5K race to be long-distance. Others might feel like their hour-long run is a short one! It’s all down to each runner and where you are in your running journey.

It’s also important to note that the distance you run doesn’t dictate your skill as a runner! There’s a reason that races are split into different distances, and everybody is better at one or the other.

However, if you’ve been wondering what is considered long distance running, we’ll break it down in this article.

Long distance running means something different to everyone, so let’s look at the accepted definitions and consider what that means to you.

What Is Considered Long Distance Running?

There’s no straight answer to this question. Typically, there’s a distinction between track running and other types of running. But here are the standard definitions.

Short Distances

Athletes consider three distances to be short distances (or sprint distances). There are 100 meters, 200 meters, and 400 meters. That’s ¼ lap, ½ lap, and one full lap around a standard track.

Medium Distances

According to Brittanica, middle-distance running is any race from 800 meters—two laps of a track—to 3,000 meters—a little less than two miles.

Long Distances

Brittanica describes long distance track running as being anything longer than 3,000 meters—1.86 miles. Wikipedia suggests that a long distance run is 1.8 miles—3 kilometers—or longer.

The running website Runtastic defines a long distance run as anything that’s 1.5 to 2 times longer than your average run. Some other “authorities” describe a long distance run as being an hour or longer in duration.

What Is Long Distance Running to You?

It’s important to note that while the above definitions generally fall into each distance category, it truly depends on the runner.

3 miles could be considered a long-distance run for a brand-new runner without a running base.

However, for a seasoned runner with an excellent fitness level, a 3-mile run could be considered a very short distance that’s more suitable for an easy recovery run.

Marathoners typically consider long-distance runs to be anything from 16 miles and upwards.

And then there’s ultramarathon distance, which is technically anything more than 26.2 miles, although official ultramarathons typically range from 30-100 plus miles.

The most accurate answer is that a long-distance run is considered to be anything that’s noticeably longer than your average distance. That means your idea of a long-distance run could be vastly different to Eliud Kipchoge’s definition of a long-distance run, but it’s no less valid.

How to Choose the Right Distance for You

As a runner, you should be more focused on what you can do and what your goals are, rather than aiming to be a “long distance runner.” Keep in mind that you can work towards longer distances over time, as you improve and gain more experience.

With that said, here are the factors you should analyze to figure out what distance is right for you now. Also, remember that your idea of “long distance” may change as you improve!

Your Running Preference

Does the idea of running for hours make you cringe? Or does the thought of sprinting make you feel panicked? If you prefer one type of running over another, don’t force yourself to do something you don’t enjoy!

Running long distances doesn’t make you a better runner. Some runners are exceptional sprinters, while others are great at middle distances. Choosing the distance you really enjoy running is the first step to doing a great job!

Your Running Experience

If you’re a new runner, the idea of a 3-mile run could be intimidating! If this sounds like you, choose 3 miles as your “long distance” run. It may take some time for you to work up to running 3 miles without needing to stop and catch your breath.

Runners with more experience or who might already be running 5K races regularly, you may not consider 3 miles to be a long distance run, especially if you can already run the distance without stopping. In this case, a distance of 6 to 10 miles may feel more long-distance to you.

Your Fitness Level

Fitter people—even if they’re new to running—will most likely be able to run for longer before they fatigue and have to rest.

Unfit people—even if they’re more experienced in terms of how much running they’ve done—might need more time to build up a running base.

It’s important not to overdo it just because you’re fit! While your fitness level might mean you can run further distances, if you’re new to running, recovering from an injury, or getting back into it after time off, you’ll need to give your body some time to work its way back up.

Start with shorter distances and work up to longer ones as your body gets used to the motions and movements again.

Your Injury History

Injury history is an important factor when it comes to what’s considered “long.” Those with painful joints or foot problems might feel that 3 miles is an extremely long distance!

Even if you don’t actively have pain, those with previous injuries may want to stick to shorter distances to prevent aggravating old injuries. That being said, you may need to do less intense short distances—a full-out 200-meter sprint could still tweak an old injury, despite being a short run!

On the other hand, if you have no previous injuries, that doesn’t automatically mean you can choose to run a marathon tomorrow. You may be in a better position to work up to a marathon distance—or longer—but you’ll still need to work your way up slowly and safely.

Be sure to test yourself and your capacity carefully. If you feel pain in the site of the injury, slow down or stop completely if you need to. Don’t push yourself too hard when experimenting—rather, slowly work your way up to your ideal distance.

Your Training Capacity

How much time do you have to train? If you train three to four times a week, it doesn’t make sense to do a “long run” on every run.

You should be doing a “long run” once a week. Your other runs will prime you for extending your long run every time you do it, as you’re building up your fitness base slowly but steadily.

However, it’s important to note that you can’t just do a long run once a week and neglect shorter runs. If you can only train twice a week, as an example, you’ll still need to do a shorter run and a longer run, but you’ll progress a little slower than if you were training more often.

Your training capacity is also at the mercy of your running experience, fitness level, and injury history.

Tips for Increasing Your Distance

Want to start increasing your distance so you can run longer distances easily? Here are some steps you should take to help you get there faster.

Increase Your Mileage Slowly

If you’ve only been running 3-mile races, it’s not a good idea to suddenly jump up to running a 10-mile race the next time you get out on the road.

Increasing your mileage too quickly can lead to overtraining, which means you’ll be prone to injuring yourself. An injury could mean some time off from your running schedule, but it could also lead to lifelong problems.

Generally, you should increase your distance by no more than 10% per week. That means if your total distance was 14 miles last week, you should run no more than 15.4 miles this week.

Of course, your training structure matters too. If you were running three 3-mile runs and one 5-mile run, then you should try to stick to that sort of routine. For example, you can add half a mile to each one of your runs or increase one of your 3-mile runs to a 4.4-mile run.

It might sound tedious and slow, but this is the best way to increase your mileage safely and consistently.

Stick To a Comfortable Pace

It’s also important to know that long-distance running doesn’t necessarily require you to run at a fast pace. In fact, sticking to a slower but more consistent pace is much more likely to help you easily get through a long distance.

Staying at a consistent pace helps you to increase your distance without fatiguing too quickly. Pushing yourself too hard on pace will mean that you fatigue too quickly and you won’t be able to run a further distance.

Even if it takes you longer, stick to a comfortable pace that you can maintain over a long period. Remember, one definition of a “long distance run” is one that takes an hour or more, so you should be able to maintain this pace for at least an hour.

If it’s slow, that’s okay. What matters is that you can maintain it and reach your distance goal. Don’t be tempted to push yourself too hard!

Set Smaller Goals

Smaller goals are more likely to be realistic goals. For example, if your goal is to run a marathon but the longest distance you’ve ever run at one time is a 5k race—3.1 miles—then you can’t really just start running 20 miles. Not only will you struggle, but you’ll be at a high risk of injuring yourself.

Rather, set your first goal to be able to run 5 miles. Once you‘ve done that a few times and you’re comfortable with the distance, then you can increase it to 7 miles. Set small, realistic goals, and you’ll progress faster in the long run.

Don’t Neglect Rest Days

Rest days aren’t only important if you’re a competitive runner. Even if you’re new to it, you need to take at least one day per week. Resting allows your muscles to grow, to be replenished, and for your cardiovascular system to get a break.

You should have at least one day every week where you do no exercise activity at all. There should also be a day or two on which you don’t run but do some kind of cross-training activity. This keeps you active and builds up your fitness level while still giving your body a break from the rigorous motion of running.

Resting will ultimately improve your ability to run longer distances as you allow enough time for your muscles to recover and grow between bouts of exercise.

Cross-Train

Cross-training can help to build your running muscles, without placing extra strain on the joints.

For example, cycling helps to build your quads, hamstrings, and calves, without hurting your ankle and knee joints. Swimming can significantly improve your cardiovascular system, without wear and tear on your joints.

Weight lifting—especially leg exercises—can help you build the muscles you use for running, providing more power when you run and thus improving your performance. We advise one to two days of cross-training per week.

Wear the Right Shoes

To be a great sprinter, you’ll need to wear lightweight shoes designed for that kind of running. Most of them have spikes, but you can get them without spikes if you want.

On the other hand, long-distance running shoes are likely to have more cushioning, provide good support, and a higher level of comfort. Make sure you’re wearing the right kind of shoes for what kind of running you want to do!

If long-distance is your goal, then it’s a good idea to get a new, comfortably cushioned pair of shoes to support your goals.

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.