Base training can make or break a training program. Without a solid foundation of endurance and speed, even the world’s best workouts won’t come to your rescue.
“Base training is more than just building general endurance.”
But if you take base training seriously, it will take your performance to a whole new level.
The 3 Goals of Base Training
If I had to explain base training in one sentence, it would be this: “Training to get ready for real training.” Base training is the easiest part of any training cycle, and it will make every subsequent training cycle easier. What’s not to like?! The main goals in the base phase are developing general endurance, general speed, and injury resistance.
General endurance: This comes down to your weekly easy mileage. Whatever your training level, you will need to build up an endurance base that allows you to execute and recover from all workouts that come your way in the later stages of your training plan. Otherwise, you will fall short of your potential.
General speed: Yes, speed is essential for distance runners too. Fast legs are a prerequisite for the vital VO2max workouts en route to a new potential PR – regardless of your race distance. But don’t worry; you don’t have to schedule dedicated sprint sessions at the track. Some hill sprints and strides as add-ons to easy runs or Fartleks do the trick.
Injury resistance: Training for performance goals happens at the edge of your current ability. Hence, potential injuries can’t be ruled out entirely. But most injuries are due to training errors. I will argue that many athletes tackle workloads and workouts without an adequate strength and conditioning base and therefore end up being sidelined by injury.
Increase Your Weekly Mileage
Increasing your weekly mileage is in itself a potent stimulus to enhance performance. It builds mitochondria, increases aerobic enzymes in your slow-twitch muscle fibers, and gives your heart a full contraction at every beat at only 60% of VO2max. That’s a good return on investment, considering a pace where you should be able to hold a conversation.
You probably have heard of the 10-percent rule, which states never to increase your mileage by 10 percent in any given week. That’s a good rule of thumb but not an exact science. The upper limit of that rate of progression (10%) is appropriate only if you were at your target mileage level in a previous training cycle.
Let’s assume you start at 30 miles/week and increase your mileage by 3 miles week-by-week. You would end up at 54 miles/week after 8 weeks. And that’s without compounding, which takes you to 64 miles in the same time frame. That’s a recipe for burnout and injury. At the minimum, you should be at 60 percent of your mileage goal at the start of your base phase.
Build Your Long Run
Increasing the duration of your long run and increasing your weekly mileage go hand in hand. Initially, your long run will not be much longer than your easy runs. Then add a mile every 1 – 2 weeks until your long run is about 50% longer than your longest midweek easy run. But it’s not the time yet for add-ons at a faster pace. Keep your long runs easy. You should, however, allow for a heart rate drift of 10 bpm toward the end of your long run to sustain an even pace.
Long runs improve the strength of muscles, ligaments, and tendons. They also enlarge your glycogen stores in muscles and the liver. The result is fatigue resistance, making your easy runs feel like a walk in the park. Whether you are preparing for a 5K or a marathon, long runs are indispensable.
Keep in mind that long runs count as hard workouts despite an easy pace. Thus, the day before and after long runs should either be easy runs of shorter durations or off/cross-training days. One long run per week has stood the test of time, but even biweekly is better than no long run at all.
Improve Your Muscular Strength
Now that the endurance base is covered let’s turn to strength. Even as a marathoner, you engage in interval training that includes 5K race pace and faster to improve aerobic capacity (VO2max) and running economy. That means the majority of your powerful fast-twitch fibers are being recruited. You can’t expect to perform well at an interval workout – such as 5x 1000m at 5K pace – if your fast-twitch fibers have been dormant in the weeks prior.
One method to recruit your fast-twitch fibers during the base period is strength training. If you have access to a gym, then Olympic lifts like squats and deadlifts are good options. (Start light and under professional guidance if you are a beginner.) But there are also a plethora of bodyweight strength exercises that will do the job. Whatever your strength routine, twice a week is a good number to aim for.
Additionally, you should include short hill sprints twice a week during or after an easy run. The beauty of hill sprints is that they recruit more muscle fibers than sprints on flat terrain, yet the landing impact is greatly reduced. Sprint 50m uphill (6 – 10% grade) in a powerful but controlled manner. Think 90 percent of your maximal effort, or 400m race pace. Start with 2 repetitions with walk-backs and add one per week until you arrive at 4 to 6 reps, depending on your training level.
Train Your Central Nervous System
Once you have established a foundation of strength, you can work on your mind-muscle connection to get fast. This is also referred to as neuromuscular training. Keep in mind that the purpose of neuromuscular training isn’t to bathe in lactate with long and painful intervals. Leave that to VO2max training in later training stages.
Again, neuromuscular training for distance running doesn’t require a dedicated session. You can easily include it into a Fartlek run in the form of 100 – 150m strides at 1500m race pace. Don’t run repetitions too fast for too long, as that builds up lactic acid, which can undermine your aerobic base by destroying aerobic enzymes.
Base training can last anywhere from 4 – 12 weeks. What follows are the fundamental period and the race-specific period.
Fundamental period: Whereas the base period features highly polarized training at the opposite ends of the intensity spectrum, the fundamental period transitions your training to more race-specific efforts. That includes developing your VO2max and lactate threshold. The long run for half-marathon and marathon runners includes add-ons at faster paces in this training phase.
Race-specific period: The icing on the cake is the relatively brief period of race-specific training. Here you sharpen up for the demands on race day with highly specific training for your chosen race distance. This also includes the taper period before your race. If you follow all the steps in the right order, you stand a fair chance for a new PR or a seasonal record.