By Ryan Warrenburg
Borrring. That’s the reaction most of us have to base training. It is after all, much more exciting to run fast and work hard. But for most people base training is the most important part of a training program.
Let’s start by outlining what base training is and what it’s not. There are some preconceived notions we need to dismiss right off the bat. Yes, base training does involve a good amount of easy, conversational paced miles. But no, it is not completely devoid of faster running.
Base training is the platform on which we build more specific training. And this means we need a foundation that lies in both aerobic volume as well as speed. The specifics of how we develop both of those elements varies greatly depending in the individual. Let’s first dive into the why and what before we get to the how.
The overwhelming majority of your runs during the base phase should be simply easy miles. The best way to think about easy pace is running done at an effort where you could have a conversation in full sentences without struggling to breath. For beginners this may include some short walking breaks to keep the intensity from creeping too high.
As you begin a training program easy running advances your aerobic fitness by improving your body’s ability to deliver oxygen to the working muscles. Oxygen transport is enhanced through increased capillary bed density and strengthening the cardiovascular system.
A less well known benefit during the base period is the development of strength in the connective tissue and the musculature. This is where most running injuries take place so the developing that strength is critical. Strength in the muscles and tendons is the foundation that enables our bodies to handle more intense work later on in training without getting injured.
Building up a strong base of easy, aerobic miles improves your general endurance. This in turn allows you to get more out of your harder workouts once they begin.
Speed During Base Training
Despite the stigma of base building being nothing more than slow, easy running, we do want to make sure we’re touching on faster running as well. It’s important to note that faster does not equal high intensity. You can run fast for short periods of time without it being hard.
For newer runners, or those who typically run low volume (think less than 30 miles a week) this is nothing more than some shorter strides a couple of times a week. To perform these simply finish your easy run and do 4-8 x 10-30 second strides, including at least once a week uphill. For more experienced runners the length and volume of these strides can be extended.
The strides and hills help strengthen the muscles and tendons, improve the efficiency of the neuromuscular system, and increase muscle fiber recruitment. These are all important benefits regardless of your preferred distance. And as long as they are introduced gradually, can be safely be implemented early in a training cycle.
How To Build the Base
The rush to intensity is often what gets most runners injured. People are eager to skip the 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. And it’s very difficult to stay healthy when you increase volume and intensity at the same time.
Training must progress gradually, both with intensity and volume in order to reduce the risk of injury. What is considered gradually increasing mileage? The real answer, like most honest training answers, is it depends.
Let’s begin here: I like to break the year into two periods of training where you would increase volume. 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. You may have more than 2 training cycles in a year, but anything beyond 2 is generally going to be a shift in focus rather than an increase in training volume.
It’s a bit cliché, but 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 says you can safely add 10% more mileage from one week to the next. However, this is only applicable if you are reaching new mileage highs. If you’re getting back to volume you’ve reached before you can do it much more quickly. Depending on the circumstances you could build back in just a few weeks.
For instance, if you’re coming back from a long injury break, you should stick more closely to the 10% rule. However, if you’re coming off an active rest break you can ramp up much more quickly.
Length of Base Phase
How long should you spend in your base phase? (All together now) it depends. The length of your base phase should correspond to both your long-term and short-term background.
What I mean by long-term background is that the newer you are to running the shorter your long-term background is. Therefore, you should spend more time in a base phase. On the other hand a more experienced runner, someone with a bigger long-term background, can spend less time building their base.
If you’re a brand new runner you would be well served by spending your first 1-2 training cycles in base training. The aerobic system takes the longest to develop. Laying that foundation of both aerobic and muscular strength will set you up for long-term health and success.
Elite athletes, like those on the the On ZAP Endurance team, generally spend very little time in a dedicated base phase. They have such an extensive aerobic background that they don’t get much adaptation out of purely base training. The exception being if they have missed significant time due to injury. Elite athletes, or those with deep backgrounds, can begin some light fartlek, marathon paced work, or more extensive hill work as part of the traditional base phase.
Short-term background refers to what you’re building back from in your most recent training period. If you’re coming off a longer layoff, whether from injury or apathy, you should spend more time building your base. If you’re building back from a short rest period or period of active recovery (some short easy running) you can spend less time in your base phase.
That turned out to be more long winded than I was planning so here is a quick recap of how to build your base:
- Do It.
- Take the time necessary to do it properly – you will be rewarded with health and fast times.
- Keep your easy runs easy.
- Include strides weekly, including at least 1 day uphill.
10. Vanquish the Competition. (After some other steps in the training process)