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Is Long Distance Running Aerobic or Anaerobic? The Science

Science plays an important role in any sport, especially in long distance running. Understanding how each element of your surroundings and body interact with each other determines how efficiently your body works. What does this exactly mean? Is long distance running aerobic or anaerobic? Let’s dig in.

There are two ways to perform physical activities: aerobically or anaerobically. Aerobic activities involve breaking down the sugar in your body to supply you with the necessary energy, while anaerobic happens when your body can’t produce enough supply to sustain your needs, which can leave you breathless.

To imagine it better, your body goes through an aerobic cycle when you perform exercises that keep your heart rate going for a long time; and into an anaerobic cycle when you’re reaching your maximum level of difficulty for a short time.

If you’re an experienced long distance runner, you’ve probably mastered using oxygen, water, and energy to your advantage. You’re also able to recognize the difference between running aerobically and anaerobically, which has drastic effects whether you’re running 10 or 25 miles. For the inexperienced ones, or the ones who are hungry for learning and experience, you may ask yourself: is long distance running aerobic or anaerobic?

Long distance running is largely aerobic since it requires sustained effort over a long period of time.

Is Long Distance Running Aerobic Or Anaerobic?

Long distance running is aerobic because it doesn’t demand an amount of oxygen that exceeds what your body can produce. Your body should ideally use its broken down glucose into carbon dioxide and water to sustain a lower intensity activity without pushing your body to undergo anaerobic glycolysis.

Say you’re preparing for an upcoming race, is marathon running aerobic or anaerobic? Actually, whether you’re running a mile or ten, the majority of running is 80 to 99% aerobic. Full marathons are 26.2 miles long and have an average run time of four to five hours.

Running for that long can definitely take a toll on your body’s energy, especially if you’re not operating the proper elements to maintain a specific speed for a long period of time.

Elite marathon runners use aerobic running so they can exert lower stress on their body. While not all long distance runners run at the same speed, running, in general, uses your aerobic capacity to maintain an even and elevated heart rate throughout. Ideally, your heart rate should stay within 70% of your maximum heart rate.

Long distances, like marathon running, are aerobic while shorter distances like sprinting is anaerobic for the most part.

Is Running Fast Aerobic Or Anaerobic?

Running fast – or sprinting – is an anaerobic activity. This can push your heart rate near its maximum capacity, but it can also lead to fatigue and the production of lactic acid in your muscles.

The biggest problem that runners face with running fast is that they don’t listen to the signals of their bodies. When your body produces more lactic acid than it can use, you reach your anaerobic threshold that forces you to slow down because of the burning sensation in your muscles.

However, with consistent training at higher intensities, you can increase your anaerobic threshold to achieve a faster running pace, especially in challenging terrains.

Now that you have an answer to the question “Is running fast aerobic or anaerobic?” there’s a way to use this to your advantage. The lactic acid build-up in your muscles can be solved by incorporating tempo runs or endurance training into your regime.

It doesn’t necessarily reduce the lactic buildup in your muscles; rather, it trains your body to dispose of lactic acid faster. To practice endurance training, try to find the fastest pace that you can hold for 20 to 30 minutes.

How Long Can You Run Anaerobically?

Running anaerobically means running faster than your usual speed, but within a shorter period. This is particularly beneficial if you’ve only got less than an hour to spare for physical activities because running anaerobically shouldn’t exceed half an hour.

It’s important to remember that any aerobic activity shouldn’t be abused since it has a tendency to work against your body when done improperly. If you lose your breath so easily, it could be time to check your endurance.

When running anaerobically, you may wonder why you are so out of breath. This happens because of the carbon dioxide buildup in your body, which forces you to breathe faster to release the unnecessary carbon dioxide in your lungs and increase your oxygen intake.

Sometimes, this happens because your body hasn’t gotten used to exerting physical effort. Once your body’s demand for oxygen is met, your breathing should return to its regular pace.

Losing your breath when running means that your respiratory system is working harder than usual. You may notice that when you’re out of breath, you breathe more through your mouth. This is because mouth-breathing is actually more efficient in taking in more oxygen to displace carbon dioxide in your body than through nasal breathing. With time, you should be able to notice that you can sustain your breathing longer.

Run Slow To Run Fast

Running slow to run fast mainly targets your aerobic zone. When this happens, your body learns how to use the stored fats and carbohydrates in your body to convert them into energy. It also means that instead of burning sugar, your body uses your fat as fuel instead, which increases your body’s efficiency and reserves your glycogen. Over time, your body will get used to this pattern, which lets you run faster by avoiding fatigue.

The common and the most effective advice for long distance runners to improve their performance is to “run slow to run fast”. Training yourself to run at a slower pace develops your cardiovascular system so you can run farther distances. With gradual training, your body has time to adjust until you achieve your optimal speed.

Practicing the “run slow to run fast” principle doesn’t mean to simply jog all the time. This type of easy running still requires you to bring your heart rate up to 70 to 80% of your maximum heart rate.

A general calculation to use in determining your maximum heart rate is to subtract your age from 220 and multiply by 70 or 80%.

For example, for a 25-year-old individual, their aerobic heart rate at 80% is 156 beats per minute.


Long distance running, or running in general, mostly uses the aerobic zone for efficiency in performance, cardiovascular and muscular systems, and time. Aerobic running yields more benefits for many elite long distance runners because of the slower pace that builds their aerobic capacity, allowing them to run longer distances. While it’s still beneficial to incorporate anaerobic training into running, you should be targeting the aerobic zone 80% of the time.

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About the author

Jasper loves to write about fitness, running, and anything else that gets him moving outdoors. He's an avid hiker, backpacker, and climber who loves to stay fit so he can make sure he's healthy enough to enjoy his favorite hobbies. He also spends time writing about his true passions in life.