Building a Base: Are You Ready to Train for a Race?
You’re a successful couch-to-5K graduate and you’re ready to train for your first 10K. Or you’re a running veteran who hasn’t raced in years, but just entered a half marathon. So what’s the best way to go about this? Should you dive into a new training program, head first, and hope for the best? Or should you rather err on the side of caution and prepare your body for the rigors of training before jumping in?
Here’s everything you need to know about base training and how it can benefit you.
What Is Base Training?
First things first, though. What exactly is base training? Well-known running coach, Jenny Hadfield, likens base training to the foundation of a house. Its purpose is therefore to support the demands (both in mileage and intensity) that come with following a formal training plan. It helps to prepare both body and mind for the rigors of training and racing without risking injury.
So, in short, base training can be described as ‘training to train’.
The Benefits of a Solid Aerobic Base
It has been said that the difference between good running and great running is a solid aerobic training base. And with good reason. According to two-time Olympic marathoner, Ed Eyestone, the repetitive, low-intensity nature of base running builds a strong physiological foundation that will support hard future training and racing. This foundation includes the following:
- An increased blood volume
- Improved glycogen storage
- Stronger connective tissue, muscles and bones
- And the increased formation and development of capillaries in the body
Which is certainly worth putting in an effort for.
Then and Now
In the days of legendary running coach, Arthur Lydiard, base training was mostly about clocking long, slow miles and not much else. This approach has, however, since been adapted to benefit athletes even more. While ample slow mileage is still the main focus of base training, more and more coaches are adding light speed work, strides and weight training to the base phase as well. According to Olympic marathoner, Jenny Spangler, the true purpose of base training is to prepare yourself physiologically, mentally and emotionally for the hard training that lies ahead. Says Spangler: “If you go from regular mileage all the time to all of a sudden, ‘let’s get on the track,’ you’re more prone to injury, and I don’t think you can get as much out of yourself”.
Spangler recommends once-weekly fartlek and hill sessions, respectively, combined with strides after two weekly easy runs as part of a good, high-mileage base phase. And while this is certainly a good recommendation, it should be noted that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all base training strategy.
While agreeing with Spangler in principle, former Olympian Bob Kennedy followed a slightly different approach to base training. With the emphasis also on high mileage, Kennedy would incorporate a weekly threshold run and interval session to his base training. And, similar to Spangler, he’d incorporate strides after his easy runs.
The Ideal Base Training Strategy for You
So which approach will work best for you then? High mileage with some fartleks and hill sessions thrown in like Spangler? Or, like Kennedy, high mileage interspersed with threshold and interval work? The answer is that it depends on you. Ask yourself the following questions:
- At what level of running are you?
- What is the distance and route profile of your goal race?
- What does your body best respond to?
- Are you based at altitude or sea level?
- What type of training do you enjoy most?
The key is to experiment and find what works for you. And, of course, to be consistent. Just remember that increasing mileage remains the main focus of base training. Fartlek, hill and/or threshold sessions are just supplementary, so don’t go all out. Gauge your effort by feel, rather than hitting certain paces. Coach Hadfield furthermore suggests that you balance out hard and easy sessions, so that you don’t go into full-on training mode and overly fatigue your body during base training.
And, as far as base training mileage goes, it’s important to work at steadily increasing your mileage over time. (Presuming, of course, you’re not injured or over-trained. If you are, spend enough time resting and recovering before commencing base training.) Steadily (no more than 10% per week) increase your mileage over, for example, four-week blocks, with a reduction in mileage every fourth week. And what should your weekly mileage be, you ask? Once again, it depends on your unique situation. What type of mileage is your body used to running? It’s best to start there and gradually work your way up. Because jumping to 100 mile weeks when you’re used to 60 or 70 will only lead to frustration and injury. Also remember to keep your pace conversational, and your effort no higher than 60 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate.
Last, but not least, remember to add strides (or quick, short bursts of speed) to at least two of your weekly easy runs.
How Long Should Base Training Last?
For how long should you keep up with base training before officially starting your training program? Once again it depends on where you’re at and what your aim is individually. For seven-time U.S. champion, Alan Culpepper, a typical base training period would last anything from 12 to 15 weeks. Ed Eyestone recommends a minimum of one month of base training in order to reap significant physiological benefits from it. Coach Jenny Hadfield, on the other hand, recommends a period of six to 12 weeks of base training. So play around and find what works for you.
Keep It Structured
And while all of this sounds very flexible and unstructured, it’s important to add structure to your base training regime. According to Culpepper, base training does not entail simply running as easy as you want for days on end. Instead, schedule a weekly long run, from which you steadily build your mileage, and run at a solid pace for most of your other runs. In addition, add at least two sessions of either fartlek, threshold or hill training per week, and remember to add strides to at least two weekly easy runs.
Just remember that ‘structured’ does not mean ‘hard’. Keep your long runs at an easy pace and don’t go all-out with your other workouts.
The Bigger Picture
So if you’re ready to take your running from good to great, take the time and invest in a good, solid aerobic base. Not only will it take you to the start of your official race training program ready to roar, but it will also benefit your running in the long run. Says Kennedy: “Running is a continuum. It builds on itself. And it doesn’t build on itself just from the beginning of the season to the end of the season, it builds on itself over years.”