It’s hard to believe it, but yes, summer is right around the corner. For many of us that means the summer racing season that you may feel under prepared for is looming. If you haven’t managed to dust off the winter cobwebs yet, don’t worry, you still have time to get in a proper buildup for your summer racing season. Whether your finish line is the Peach Tree Road Race, your local summer track series, or a fall marathon, everyone should begin at the same starting line. Over the last several months I’ve discussed some specific training topics, but this month I want to get back to the basics of starting a training program, from the couch up.
The same start line does not mean everyone begins with the same fitness or running background. It means the principles of the process should be the same for everyone, and your background and level of fitness will dictate how those principles apply. Let’s start with a short history lesson that dates back to the 1950s in New Zealand, with a man named Arthur Lydiard. I could write a book on the legendary coach, but he’s already done that several times far better than I could hope to, so I’ll make my point brief. Lydiard forever transformed the way distance runners train. His focus on aerobic development, volume based training, and periodization revolutionized the sport. Lydiard took an 800m / 1500m runner by the name of Peter Snell and turned him into a 3-time Olympic champion. Part of his training regimen was logging 100+ mile weeks, something unheard of at the time especially for a middle distance runner. Snell is just one example of many in a long list of Olympic medals won and world records set by Lydiard coached athletes.
Base Building Phase
Lydiard popularized what we now commonly refer to as the base period. This is where we will focus our attention this month. The early stages of any buildup are always the hardest part. You know that part where every run seems hard, even if it’s slow. Understanding the importance of building a base can help you see the light at the end of the tunnel and stay committed through the get off the couch stage. The base building period should largely be made up of relaxed, conversation paced running. For the heart rate people out there, you should be looking at 80% or less of your max heart rate. There are several goals in the base building phase. Primarily, we are focused on improving our body’s ability to transport oxygen to the working muscles, basic aerobic conditioning. Conversation paced running helps develop capillary beds, improve oxygen carrying capacity, and improve mechanical efficiency through repetition, much the same way spending time at the driving range improves your golf swing. A less well known benefit during the base period is the development of strength in the connective tissue and the musculature, where most running injuries take place. The development of strength in the connective tissue and musculature is the foundation that enables our bodies to handle the more intense work later on in training without getting injured. More often than not it is the intensity that gets people hurt, not the volume, because people are eager to skip the boring base phase and get straight to the fast stuff. I don’t blame you, running fast is fun, but you can’t race fast if you can’t stay healthy.
Volume vs Intensity
The belief that increasing volume inherently increases injury risk is one of the biggest running myths out there. My experience, and that of Arthur Lydiard, says the truth is typically the complete opposite. For most people, running more will actually reduce your risk of injury by strengthening muscles and connective tissue, improving your ability to handle race specific intensity. The caveats are not dramatically increasing your mileage, making sure you do the vast majority of your running at a pace you can hold a comfortable conversation, and not increasing volume and intensity at the same time. What’s a dramatic increase? I like to break the year into two training segments. If you’re attempting to increase your volume from one segment to the next, a good rule is to bump your average weekly volume by no more than 10 miles from one segment to the next.
As much as I hate to admit this, the 10% rule is a good guide for increasing mileage from one week to the next, as long as you are running 20 miles a week or more – if you start at 5 miles a week and add 10% each week it will take 6 months to reach 20 miles a week. The 10% rule simply states you can safely add 10% more mileage from one week to the next. (Note: this is if you are reaching new mileage highs, if you’re getting back to volume you’ve reached before you can do it much quicker.) During all phases of training, including the build-up, using a “2 weeks up / 1 week down” format will keep you fresh and recovered week to week. Using this method, every 2 weeks of higher volume is paired with a week of lower volume. For example, the weekly mileage totals for a six week training block might look like this: 20, 22, 24, 27, 30. The down week allows your body to properly recover and adapt to the 2 weeks of greater stress.
Usually when runners decide to increase their mileage there is some catalyst that motivates them to do it. Unfortunately, the catalyst is usually a Rocky-in-the-Soviet-winter type of motivation that is paired with a spike in training intensity. Overloading your body with simultaneous volume and intensity increases is a recipe for breakdown, and I don’t want to tell you I told you so, but I will. Increase one at a time and make sure when you’re adding miles those miles are at an easy, conversational pace. You’ve still got time to be your best this summer, but remember there are no shortcuts to success in distance running. Even if you have to do some earlier races off just base work that’s okay, many people surprise themselves how fast they run with just a little increase in volume.
*This Article Originally Appeared in the April 2014 Issue of Running Journal