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You don’t have to be a runner for long before you begin to hear about something called “base training.” Experienced runners and coaches tell you that you need to build your “aerobic base.” But just what is this thing called a “base”?
In the 1930s, 40s and 50s, the dominant training philosophy was repetition or interval training. Scandinavian runners were doing “fartlek” runs. Fartlek means speed play so during a run, the runners would speed up then slow down then speed up again, repeating this for miles and miles. A typical workout would simply be prescribed as something like a “one-hour fartlek run.” It wasn’t structured so athletes ran as fast for as far as they liked on each repetition then recovered and did it again.
The Germans were much more regimented in their interval training and used heart rate to indicate when the athlete was ready for the next repeat. Runners would run their target pace then check their heart rate during the recovery interval and once the heart rate dropped to the right level, the next repetition could begin. This put the emphasis on the recovery “interval” and that word stuck as a description of this type of training – interval training. And we saw runners experimenting with large volumes of interval workouts like 40-50 x 400 meters and they would run them nearly every day (and sometimes twice per day).
In Britain, runners and coaches were doing intervals as well but there was a trend toward fewer but faster repetitions than the Scandinavian and German runners. Roger Bannister’s famous 10 x 400m at mile race pace (in his case trying to run them all in sub 4-minute mile pace) is a great example.
And in the US, a Hungarian-born coach, Mihaly Igloi was churning out champions while the athletes churned out a ton of short repetitions. And I mean ton of repetitions. Here is an example of Bob Schul’s training. Schul won the Gold Medal in the 5000 meters in 1964 and was an athlete of Igloi. (Note: The warm-up, recovery jogs and cool-down are omitted due to space constraints.)
It should be noted as well that these “intervals,” were not all-out sprints. They were controlled efforts and as you can see, they had to be in order to complete the massive volume of repetitions.
Bob Schul Training Log
|Morning||32 x 100m||32 x 100-150m||40 x 100m||32 x 100- 150m||50 min jog||40 min jog||10 x 100m|
|3 x 800m|
|4 x 300m|
|14 x 100m|
|Afternoon||10 x 100m||15 x 100m||15 x 100m||15 x 100m||15 x 100m||15 x 100m||Off|
|20 x 300m||3 x 800m||5 x 400m||16 x 400m||4 x 800m||10 x 300m|
|2 x 800m||12 x 200m||2 x 800m||3 x 800m||12 x 150m||2 x 800m|
|6 x 200m||3 x 800m||15 x 100m||8 x 150m||3 x 300m||4 x 400m|
|20 x 100m||5 x 200m||2 x 800m||3 x 200m||10 x 100m||10 x 100m|
|20 x 100m||20 x 100m||10 x 100m|
Source: Bob Schul – A Training Manual
While this type of training may seem crazy compared to programs of today, remember that at that time, there were not millions of runners training for road races, half-marathons and marathons so most of the training was being used by high school, college and a few athletes training for the Olympics.
That said, the idea at that time was that running a lot of repetitions was the way to the top.
In the 1960s, New Zealand athletes took the Olympics by storm. They won medals from 800 meters to the marathon and what was most shocking was that the medalists were all from the same town with the same coach. Naturally, everyone wanted to know all about their training.
The coach, Arthur Lydiard, was only too happy to share. Lydiard believed (after experimenting on himself) that if you prefaced interval training with running to build your aerobic system (and followed this with hill training to build strong, dynamic legs), you could improve performance in the interval training phase of training. This would allow you to race faster and most importantly, would allow you to peak on time (which his athletes became famous for).
The conceptual model of his training philosophy was a pyramid. And you guessed it, the bottom or “base” of the pyramid was his aerobic development period and thus the term aerobic “base” made its way into running vernacular.
Source: Lydiard Foundation
To Lydiard, and this system informs the majority of training systems today, the runner could reach a higher peak performance if she made sure to build a large base of aerobic fitness before moving to race-specific training. Bigger base. Higher peak.
The Goals of Base Training
There are five primary goals of base training:
Goal #1: Aerobic Efficiency
Aerobic means “with oxygen” and in base training, one for the primary goals is to improve your ability to take in and utilize oxygen. The more energy you can produce (and the faster you can run) from your aerobic energy systems, the faster you can race. In the base phase, both your capacity to take in and utilize oxygen (called VO2max) and your efficiency at utilizing it (called Running Economy) are improved. (VO2max improves a lot in new runners and less so in experienced runners whereas running economy improves for all runners.)
Improvements in your VO2max and running economy delay the point where you begin to produce more lactic acid than you can remove (called the Lactate Threshold) and an improvement in your lactate threshold pace is a very good predictor of faster racing.
Improving your aerobic system is done in two stages. When you first begin running (or return to running), your body responds by increasing the number of red blood cells in your blood. You’ve probably heard that the red blood cells are what carry the oxygen through the body so having more red blood cells means that you can carry more oxygen – a very helpful adaptation. Another early adaptation is that the left ventricle of your heart (the one that pumps the blood out to your body) increases in volume. This allows it to eject more blood with each beat. More blood. More oxygen. Better performance. (Runners see this change as a lowering of their resting heart rate. Each beat sends more blood to the body so fewer beats are required than before to circulate the same amount of blood through the body.) There are a few more quick changes the body makes during base training but those are two of the most important early stage changes.
After you’ve trained for a while, there are some more foundational and structural changes that occur in your body to again, help improve your aerobic system. First, your body builds more capillaries around your muscle cells. Capillaries are the smallest arteries in our bodies and having more of them means you can get more blood to the working muscles. More blood = more oxygen. With base training, we see muscles that become enveloped in a network of capillaries.
Second, within the muscle cells, you build more mitochondria. Mitochondria are the organelles within the muscle cells where the energy is actually created from our oxygen-dependent (aka aerobic) energy pathways. More mitochondria = more energy. But the body is really smart in that it doesn’t just build more mitochondria, it also makes them bigger so they can produce more energy. And not only does it make them bigger, but it moves them closer to the cell wall so the transfer of oxygen from outside the cell to inside the cell (and thus into the mitochondria) is even quicker. Pretty cool, huh?
Third, within the mitochondria, the body adds more aerobic enzymes. Enzymes are required to make the energy pathways work so having more of them means the pathways can work better.
All of these changes, the early stage and the later stage changes, result in your ability to better utilize oxygen. Your VO2max will increase (particularly in new runners), your running economy will improve and your ability to delay the build-up of lactic acid (aka lactate threshold) will be pushed to a faster pace. All of these changes make you a better runner.
And importantly for performance runners, these adaptations mean that when you do begin speed training, you can run faster in the speed training sessions and recovery more quickly during the recovery intervals and after the workouts. This is why coaches, taking a cue from Lydiard, really like when a runner has a good aerobic base. The athlete can get more from their race-specific workouts and that leads to better performances.
Lastly, it’s important to realize that in the later changes mentioned above (capillaries, mitochondria, enzymes) you are building new you. In other words, you are actually creating new structures in your body and as such, these require time and patience. Consistent training month after month and year after year results in pretty incredible performance improvements simply because the aerobic system is built as described above.
Goal #2: Musculoskeletal Durability
Runners get hurt far too often because the musculoskeletal system simply can’t handle the training and so another goal of the base phase is to improve injury resistance. This occurs in a couple of ways.
First, the consistent and frequent running in the base plan challenges the musculoskeletal system to better handle the stresses of running. And since in the base plan the intensity of the running is low, the muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones and fascia actually have time to recover and adapt.
Second, base training includes regular long runs and often 1-2 longer runs during the week. In fact, in Lydiard’s original schedule for experienced runners, the goal was to get in three long runs each week. Now, when he says, “long runs,” he means runs over 90 minutes (more on that in a bit). The point is that in base training, regular long runs (usually performed on the weekend) as well as some longer runs during the week, provide a larger fatigue challenge to the legs.
Over time, the legs grow stronger so you can better handle these long runs and as a result, can better handle any fatigue challenge in future training. (If you’ve done speed training, then you know that feeling when the legs fatigue late in a workout. Stronger legs from the base phase delay that fatigue so you get more from your speed workouts.)
This is an important point and bears repeating. Base training fundamentally is set up to help you handle and perform better in your race-specific phases. It may seem counter-intuitive but hopefully you are starting to see the process Lydiard outlined which I always summarize as “Do the training so you can do the training so you can finally do the training to achieve your goals.” You build the base so you can train faster.
Additionally, Lydiard had his runners doing a lot of their base training runs over hilly routes to provide even more leg strengthening and I’ve even heard of professional Japanese running teams that have their young athletes wear weighted backpacks and do multi-hour hikes in the mountains for the sole purpose of building up leg strength in preparation for their race-specific workouts. Training to train.
And speaking of non-running activities, most runners also use the base phase of training to do a lot of prehab work – core, strength, mobility, etc. Again, the point is that you are taking a period of training to focus on getting your legs more durable so you can avoid injury in the future and perform better in training and thus in racing. Do the training so you can do the training so you can finally do the training.
Goal #4: Increase Fat Burning & Glycogen Sparing
The bulk of the energy for distance running comes from our two oxygen-dependent (aka aerobic) energy systems. One system breaks down fat for energy (this is our most efficient energy system for distance running) and the other breaks down carbohydrate for energy. Since fat is our most efficient (i.e., we get the most energy with the least amount of negative consequences), a key adaptation for runners during base training is that they get better at burning fat for fuel. And this is a highly desirable adaptation.
Better fat burning is typically achieved by consistent training (remember the aerobic adaptations mentioned above?) as well as during the longer runs, particularly runs lasting over 90 minutes. It’s at this point in the run, after around 90 minutes, that the carbohydrate stores are running low so the body begins to burn even more fat for energy. Therefore, a big part of base training is getting in runs that purposely burn through your stored carbohydrates (called glycogen) and force more fat burning. That’s why Lydiard’s runners were trying to get in 3 runs per week of at least 90 minutes.
Another benefit of depleting the muscle glycogen stores is that it stimulates your body to increase the stores for the future. The body essentially says, “Okay, if you are going to keep doing this – burning through my carbohydrate stores, I’ll simply increase the fuel tank!” The result is a larger store of glycogen and again, this is critical for faster training and racing.
You can probably see how a bigger fuel tank would be very beneficial for longer distance runners, like half and full marathoners, as they would have more fuel on board and would delay or avoid the dreaded “wall” in their races.
But this is also very important for interval training. When you do speed work, repetitions at paces faster than 5K pace for most runners, your anaerobic (oxygen independent) pathways add more and more energy (adding to the energy provided by the aerobic pathways) to provide the power to run at those fast paces. The primary anaerobic pathway used is the breakdown of carbohydrate. Just like with the aerobic pathway described earlier, the body also has the ability to breakdown carbohydrate without oxygen (anaerobically). Having a larger store of carbohydrate from the base training means that when you do speed training and burn through your carbohydrate stores, you can run more in your speed workouts before those stores are depleted.
Athletes see this come to life in that they can simply do more volume of speed training. They don’t fatigue as early in speed workouts and therefore get a greater training stimulus. So again, the base training is working to help you in your speed training.
Goal #4: Fast twitch Fiber Recruitment
You may have heard of “fast twitch” and “slow twitch” muscle fibers. While new research has teased out that the blanket fast/slow terminology doesn’t quite fit with what we know now, in general the slow twitch fibers, which is what the majority of muscles are comprised of are really great at endurance. The fast twitch fibers, as you would guess, are really great at speed.
One of the most interesting ideas that Lydiard discussed when asked why in the world would a short distance runner (800 meters or the mile) do long runs, was the notion that toward the end of long runs, the slow twitch muscles, which have been doing the bulk of the work, get fatigued and once fatigued, the body then begins to recriut more and more of the fast twitch fibers to start helping out. As a result, the long runs were actually training the fast twitch fibers. One key adaptation is that the fast twitch fibers, which normally fatigue quickly, become more endurance-like.
Research has now borne this out and when muscle biopsies of great East African runners are performed, one key difference is that their fast twitch muscles fibers have a lot of endurance characteristics like slow twitch fibers. And as we’ve seen, if you have an athlete who can use their fast twitch fibers for a long time, it sure produces impressive results!
Goal #5: Tireless state
The final goal of base training is to achieve what Lydiard called the “tireless state.” By that, he meant a mind that was so used to running that it was resistant to fatigue. You may remember this from when you first started to run. Those first runs were accompanied by a strong urge to stop. The mind sent loads of fatigue feelings because it wasn’t used to running.
But, after a month or so, you started to feel pretty good running. You still got tired, but your brain was no longer screaming at you to stop. And over time, you got to where you could endure longer and longer runs. And, you sort of liked the mental challenge of pushing yourself.
This is exactly what the base phase of training is set up to do. It builds a brain that doesn’t complain too much. It endures suffering. And you guessed it, the reason you want this harkens back to Lydiard’s basic rationale for the base – a brain that can endure more will allow you to push yourself harder in the race-specific/speed training. Base training helping speed training.
Base Training – How-to
Now that you know the purpose, let’s talk about the actual training that is performed in a base phase. There has been a lot of confusion and misinformation on Lydiard’s base phase. You hear things like:
“You have to run 100 miles per week.”
“It’s all just long, slow distance.”
I actually toured with Lydiard on his last tour of the US, so I got a chance to really get to know him and his training system. Like a lot of blanket statements, they aren’t well-informed, so the “myths” of Lydiard training are often used without full understanding of the system.
Here’s the deal. The base phase is different for each runner. Yes, the principles and goals are the same, but the actual “mileage” varies based on the athlete’s needs.
For example, Lydiard’s pro runners used the following weekly rhythm in their base phase:
|60 minutes||60-90 minutes||60 minutes||60-90 minutes||30 minutes||60 minutes||120 minutes|
Source: Running to the Top
A range was provided on Tuesday and Thursday so the runner could modify based on how he was feeling. Feeling good? Run longer. Not feeling good? Run shorter.
For a newer runner, the Lydiard base week looks like:
|15-30 minutes||30-60 minutes||15-45 minutes||30-45 minutes||OFF or 30 minutes||15-45 minutes||30-60 minutes|
Source: Running to the Top
An intermediate runner’s base week might look like:
|30-45 minutes||60-75 minutes||30-45 minutes||60-75 minutes||30-45 minutes||45-60 minutes||90 minutes|
Variations on a theme
These examples include running for athletes who train 6-7 days per week. For those that run fewer days (often due to injuries or life schedule/time availability), an example of an intermediate plan would be:
|OFF or Cross Train||60-75 minutes||Cross Train or 30-45 minutes||60-75 minutes||Cross Train or 30-45 minutes||45-60 minutes||90 minutes|
This schedule would provide 4 days of required running, two optional run days and one day off from running.
So, as you can see, the base training can be adapted to whatever the athlete’s current training load is. Because the entire premise of Lydiard’s training is, “Do the training so you can do the training so you can do the training.” You don’t do more than you are ready for and you build up to higher loads based on your experience, injury history, recovery rate and time availability.
I want to mention this again because I also made the mistake of doing too much too soon when I first read Lydiard’s book when I was in high school. The entire system relies on doing the training you can do now and gradually yet steadily increasing it as your body adapts. In other words, don’t do what I did and jump from 40 miles per week to 100 miles per week. As you can guess, I quickly got injured. When I told him my story of reading his book and thinking I had to do 100 miles per week, Lydiard laughed and just shook his head.
So, the base training isn’t a set amount for every runner. It simply takes your current training rhythm and gradually builds it either back to your previous training load for runners coming off of a break or to new training levels for athletes who are doing their second, third or fourth base training plan.
Further, it’s about building up the long run and the mid-week longer runs to boost endurance. I mentioned it earlier but for Lydiard’s runners, the goal was to build up to where the athlete performed 3 runs of 90 minutes or more and included other runs to fill out the training week. For some experienced runners, this is very easy to do. For others, it may take several training cycles to build up to this level. Let me state that again. For some experienced runners, it’s very easy to do three runs of 90 minutes per week but for most of us, we would need to gradually build toward that.
Using the intermediate sample plan from earlier, the runner might use this weekly schedule during her first base plan:
|OFF or Cross Train||60-75 minutes||Cross Train or 30-45 minutes||60-75 minutes||Cross Train or 30-45 minutes||45-60 minutes||90 minutes|
But then the next time she did her base plan, she would advance the mid-week longer runs as well as the long runs to:
|OFF or Cross Train||70-80 minutes||Cross Train or 30-45 minutes||75-90 minutes||Cross Train or 30-45 minutes||40-60 minutes||90-105 minutes|
As you can see, it’s very easy to use the principles of base training and apply it to any runner. Just remember to build up over time, be patient and use commonsense. Since it’s recommended that you do a base phase at least once per year, you may need to give yourself 2-4 base plans to build to the ideal level.
Two Phases of a Proper Base
After learning from Lydiard directly, speaking with athletes that trained under him as well as experimentation with my runners, I like to break the base training into two parts: the mileage base (that was just highlighted in sample weeks) and the workout base. Here’s what I mean:
Mileage Base (first 4-8 weeks of base training):
The mileage base is the first part of base training. It is where an athlete is either building back up to a previous training load/mileage or is going to a new training load. A couple of examples are a high school runner finishing her cross-country season or an adult runner who just finished his goal marathon. Both athletes probably took some down time and are now ready to get back to training and the base is the first phase.
The focus on this first part (the first 4-8 weeks) of the base, the mileage base, is, as you guessed it, just on running mileage. It’s just about putting in the mileage at an easy pace and building back up to where you were before the end of your previous training cycle.
For example, a runner who normally runs 40 miles per week but just took some time off after a big race, should not just jump back into running 40 miles (the full training load). It would be better to spend a few weeks building back to that training load. This keeps injuries at bay and allows the body and mind to rejuvenate before beginning another race-specific training phase.
Here is an example of how the athlete might build back up to 40 miles per week during the mileage base:
|Week 1||Week 2||Week 3||Week 4|
|Week 5||Week 6||Week 7||Week 8|
|15-20 miles||25-30 miles||35-40 miles||25-30 miles||35-40 miles||40 miles||40 miles||30 miles|
*One very, very important note: Take a “down” week every 3-4 weeks across your training plan. A down week is a week where you reduce your training load by 15-25% to allow the musculoskeletal system and the mind to recover and rejuvenate for the next training segment. I have found the down week a life saver for runners and it has significantly lowered the injury rate in my runners.
I know what you’re thinking, “Hey, I heard you should only increase your mileage by 10% from week to week.” That rule of thumb can be a good guide when going to a new training load but for athletes returning to their regular training load after a scheduled break, they can increase more quickly. (For our runner below, who is trying to go from a current training load of 40 miles per week to a new training load of 60 miles per week, the 10% rule is more applicable.)
Another use of the base phase is an athlete who wants to increase her training load. She can use the base phase as a time to experiment with the higher mileage without the added stress of hard workouts.
For example, say our runner completed 2-3 training cycles with a full training load of 40 miles per week and feels ready to build to a higher level (maybe up to a maximum of 60 miles per week). A few weeks of the mileage base will allow her to gradually add volume to each week till she reaches 60 miles. She would then be well advised to gradually re-introduce faster running (workout base, see below) and closely monitor how her body feels. When adapting to a new training load, you must be open to reducing the load if the body begins to complain (aches/pains).
Here is an example of how she might build from 40 miles per week to 60 miles per week in the mileage base. Note that because this is a new training load, I recommend a down week every 3rdweek (instead of every 4th) just to make sure the body has time to adapt to the new training load.
|Week 1||Week 2||Week 3|
|Week 4||Week 5||Week 6|
|Week 7||Week 8|
|40-45 miles||45-50 miles||35-40 miles||45-50 miles||50-55 miles||35-40 miles||55-60 miles||55-60 miles|
During this buildup in mileage, it’s advisable to focus on increasing the mid-week longer runs and weekend long run. So, if she’s been doing two 75-minute runs mid-week and then a 90-minute weekend long run, she can spend a few weeks building her mid-week runs to 90 minutes and her weekend long run to two hours. Again, this is just an example but hopefully, you see the pattern. Start where you are now. Gradually increase and focus on the goals of the base phase.
As always, be patient and listen to your body as you do the mileage base. Any aches/pains are a warning sign that you are progressing too quickly, and the body needs a little more recovery. Heed the warning and slow the ramp of your mileage.
Workout Base (last 4-8 weeks of base training):
The second phase of the base plan is called the “workout base.” Again, thinking about doing the training to do the training, the workout base is a way to get prepared for the faster running that typically follows the base plan. After all, it’s tough on the body to just run easy all the time (the mileage base) then suddenly begin doing intense workouts. It’s much better to give the body a little preparation so the faster running is easier to implement.
For me, that means working on three things in the workout base portion of the base plan:
building leg speed,
maximizing your aerobic efficiency and
testing your aerobic capacity/mental toughness.
Building Leg Speed
After you’ve completed the mileage base (which can take 4-12 weeks), it’s good to introduce leg speed training to your plan. Once or twice per week, it’s advisable to run short, quick “strides” to improve your neuromuscular system and get your legs used to running faster.
You’re probably familiar with “Strides” though you may call them windsprints, pickups, striders or stride outs. They’re not unlike the fast accelerations that experienced runners do right before a race. Strides work to improve your fast running technique by teaching the legs to turn over quickly. It’s really the neuromuscular system that we’re trying to develop here which is why they are short. They last only 50-200m because unlike sprint intervals, we don’t want lactic acid to build up during each stride. This inhibits the nervous system and interferes with the neuromuscular adaptations that we want.
Accordingly, after each stride, you must jog/walk easily for a minimum of 30 seconds and up to a minute and a half to make sure the muscles are ready for the next one. Not allowing for sufficient recovery after each stride is a common mistake. Take advantage of the longer recovery. It will allow you to put more effort into each stride which really helps develop your speed.
As you might imagine, the pace for strides is very fast but please note that this is not all-out sprinting. Run fast but always stay under control and use excellent running form (great chance to work on running fast with great form). You’ll be amazed at how much easier those first few workouts after doing the base plan feel and at how much your finishing kick improves in your upcoming races by doing these workouts in your base plan.
You can incorporate some strides or “pick-ups” during the middle of your run or at the end. To perform, run fast for 10 to 25 seconds then jog easily for 30 seconds to a minute and a half before beginning the next one. Begin with four strides and build up to ten to 20. And perform strides 1-3 times per week in the workout base.
NOTE: These are not heavy breathing workouts. They are simply short accelerations that prepare the body for faster running.
With my pro runners, we’d spend 8-12 weeks each year in the workout base. Once or twice per week, we’d add a stride workout to the mileage base plan. If we went to the track, we’d do “ins and outs” where they’d do a stride on the straight always and then jog the curves for recovery. We’d start with 8 laps and build to 12.
Here is a good sequence of leg speed training for the workout base:
Workout Base Week 1:
Stride Workout: 8 to 10 times 15 seconds starting at 5K and progressing down to Mile race effort with 1-minute recovery jog between
Workout Base Week 2:
20-30 minute Warm-Up + Stride Workout: 10 to 15 times 25 seconds starting at 5K and progressing down to Mile race effort with 1 minute recovery jog between + 20-30 minute Cool-down
Workout Base Week 3:
20-30 minute Warm-Up + Stride Workout: 15 to 20 times 15 seconds starting at 5K and progressing down to Mile race effort with 1 minute recovery jog between + 20-30 minute Cool-down
Workout Base Week 4:
20-30 minute Warm-Up + Stride Workout: 15 to 20 times 25 seconds starting at 5K and progressing down to Mile race effort with 1 minute recovery jog between + 20-30 minute Cool-down
As you can see, it’s nothing fancy but after your mileage base, if you include these leg speed workouts once (or twice for really advanced runners) each week, you’ll be amazed at how prepared you are for faster workouts. (Sound familiar? The base is to help you get ready for faster workouts.)
Maximize Aerobic Efficiency
I mentioned earlier about how base training (putting in the mileage and long runs) improves your aerobic efficiency but there is one workout that I use in the 2ndphase of base training (the workout base) to really challenge this system. It’s called the Steady State Run. A steady state run is a continuous run at between your 1:15:00 and 2:30:00 race pace – somewhere between half-marathon and 20-mile race pace for most of us.
For most runners, steady state running feels “easy-medium.” If you think of an easy run feeling “easy” and a tempo run feeling “medium-hard,” the steady state run lies in between. (You can put your information into the McMillan Running Calculator to get your exact Steady State paces.)
In the workout base, I like to start runners with a steady state run of 20-30 minutes and build to 50-60 minutes (sometimes longer for more advanced runners). Adding 10-20 minutes per week to the steady state works well for most runners but as always, the runner (or coach) must adjust based on how the runner is responding to the training.
Here is an example of the weekly progression in the steady state runs in the workout base part of base training:
|Week 1||Week 2||Week 3||Week 4|
|Steady State: 20-30 minutes||Steady State: 30-40 minutes||Steady State: 40-50 minutes||Steady State: 50-60 minutes|
With some runners, I like to insert a fitness test every 3-6 weeks in the base phase (particularly in the workout base phase). It’s a fun way to break up the training and gives a field test of aerobic fitness. This test can be anything you like as long as it challenges your VO2max.
For my pro runners, I like a set of 4-6 repetitions lasting around 5 minutes with 3 minutes recovery jog. This is a very typical Joe Vigil workout (another one of my mentors) and I find is a great test of fitness.
This can be run as a distance-based workout (like for my pro runners where we’d run mile repeats) or a time-based workout (like for my non-pro runners where we do it fartlek style with 5-minute repeats with 2-3 minutes jog).
Because it’s a test of fitness, I like the athletes to run more by effort than force a pace on them. That’s why I also like to provide the option to jump in a 3K-5K race as another option for the fitness test.
No matter what you choose, a fitness test every 4thweek (best placed at the end of the down week so the athlete is fresh) is a great way to see the improvement in the athletes fitness. It’s not uncommon even for experienced runners to see a 5-10 seconds per mile improvement from fitness test to fitness test. You can imagine how this gets the athlete excited about their training when they see these improvements.
One last note about the workout base part of the base plan. You can race really, really well during it. In fact, many runners are surprised that after “only” doing leg speed and steady state runs that they can race so fast. It just shows that when the building blocks are there (remember the goals and benefits of the base plan?), the bulk of your performance ability is already available.
When to do a Base Plan
I find the perfect time to insert a base plan into your training cycle is after your recovery from your previous season or a peak race. (See my article on Building a Training Cycle for full details on how to slot base training in.) For example, a high school runner who finishes her spring track season, would do a base phase during the summer to get ready for fall cross country. Likewise, a marathoner who ran a fall marathon, might do a base plan in winter before transitioning to race-specific training for a spring half-marathon.
The point is that at least once per year (though I prefer twice for most runners), you should take 4-12 weeks and work on your base. From year to year, what you’ll find is that you get stronger and stronger. Talk to experienced runners and you’ll find that that’s what most do. They take 4, 8, 12 weeks and do base training before they move to their race-specific training.
Hopefully, you see the value in a base plan, but I understand why many runners and coaches don’t do it properly. It’s not the most exciting training. And overcoaching is rampant in running today so coaches feel they must provide more exciting workouts to their runners. Or, they are managing a large weekly running club workout and feel bad just telling the runners to go run easy for an hour but in my opinion, that is often exactly what will help the runner go to the next level in their race-specific training phases.
My experience has been that athletes that include proper base training 1-2 times per year have longer and more successful careers than those that simply do race-like training year-round. I encourage you to look across your training year and see when some work on your base (using the mileage base and the workout base – you can try my Base Plans in the free trial of Run Team). Base training isn’t complicated but just as Lydiard found, it can produce an athlete that is very, very ready for race-specific training. If you can do better race-specific training, you can race faster and that’s what most of us would love to do.
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You can now try McMillan training plans for FREE! For a limited time, I’m offering a 14-day free trial of my training and coaching system called Run Team. Take a plan for a spin. Kick the tires as they say. If you like it, do nothing and your subscription will start. If you don’t like it, just cancel and you owe nothing. It’s a great way to experience training on what has been called, “The best training system on the planet.”
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Run Team is amazing. Watch the video and you’ll see what awaits you – training plans, coaching access, prehab (core, strength, mobility) and more!