In yesterday’s post, I mentioned how I was starting a base-building plan today rather than specific training for a spring race. Many runners spend their time either training for a race or maintaining fitness through less intense and lower volume workouts. While race training and an off-season definitely have their benefits, base building is often overlooked as runners schedule out their year. Base building, however, offers significant gains for runners as it primes the body for race training, works as injury preventions, and helps you get faster without wearing down your body in lots of intense workouts.
Almost all runners have done base building at some point in their lives, as most people go through a base-building cycle when they begin running and build their fitness. If you’ve been sidelined by injury, then you likely went through a base-building period as you returned to running from the injury. However, base building isn’t just for new runners or those coming off of injury; even seasoned marathoners or super speedy 5K-ers can benefit from four to eight weeks of base-building.
What exactly is base building? It is just as it sounds—training dedicated specifically to increasing your running base, which includes increasing your body’s tolerance to the physical stress of running, increasing your endurance, and creating a base off of which you will build your more intense race-specific workouts.
Base building gained popularity in the 1960s thanks to the prominent running coach, Arthur Lydiard. Lydiard famously had his athletes, even his middle distance runners, run 100 mile training weeks in preparation for specific training. Lydiard’s runners then went on to dominate the 1960 and 1964 Olympics.
I am by no means saying you should go out and run 100 miles in one week—for most runners, that would be a one-way ticket to injury and burnout. However, what we can learn from Lydiard, and what modern exercise science has verified, is that running is a primarily aerobic sport, and therefore a runner must have a highly developed aerobic system to succeed in the sport. Even if you are focused on the 5K or decreasing your mile time, keep in mind that the 5K is 84% aerobic and racing a mile is 80% aerobic.
Base building increases your aerobic base. With a strong base and 4-6 weeks of intense race-specific workouts, you can run anything from mile race to a full marathon, and run it well.
Base building builds an aerobic base and increases your endurance because the emphasis of a base-building cycle is on high frequency and high volume of running. Essentially, this means that you run as many days as you would in a training cycle, and you log an increasing number of miles per week, sometimes to as many as you would in at the peak of a training cycle. So let’s say that you want to train for a half marathon, and plan on running five days a week and building up to a peak week of 40 miles. You would then run five days a week in base building, to get your body used to that frequency, and run anywhere from 30-45 miles per week. This way, before you begin the specific half marathon training, you have a lot of endurance and therefore can focus at getting faster specifically at the half marathon through tempo runs and mile repeats.
What distinguishes base building from training is the lack of race-specific workouts. For example, you will not run 12 x 400m at 5K pace or an eight-mile tempo run in base-building. However, this does not mean that base building consists solely of easy running. True, many of the miles should be done at a comfortable pace, because you are running a high number of miles (relative to your own fitness). You do not want to completely neglect your anaerobic systems, leg turnover, or VO2max, so you do want to include some runs with faster paces.
Unlike specific race training, your faster-paced workouts in base building will be more effort-based than race-specific workouts. Most of your harder workouts will be fartlek runs, hill repeats, or steady state runs. Fartlek runs are effort-based intervals run for time, such as running 10 x 1 minute hard with 1 minute easy recovery in the middle of a 5-8 mile run. Hill repeats are exactly as they sound, where you run up a hill for a prescribed time (30 seconds to 2 minutes), jog down, and repeat as many times as needed. Steady state runs are the slower cousin of tempo runs. While tempo runs are somewhere around 10K to half marathon pace, steady state runs are 20 to 60 minutes at your current marathon pace.
Base building also helps you increase endurance by including a weekly long run. While you need to gradually build up to it, many base-building plans will include long runs of 10-14 miles in the later weeks of the plan. Even if you aren’t planning on running a half or full marathon, these longer runs build a strong running body that wards off injury and benefits even 5K runners.
So what does a base-building plan look like? First off, it should begin at a level appropriate to your current running fitness. I’ve been running 15-29 miles per week in my off-season, so I’m looking at starting my base building at about 30-32 miles per week. From there, your base building should gradually progress and increase your weekly mileage at about 10-15% per week. Eventually, my base building will reach about 45 miles per week, which prepares my body well for 45 mile or higher weeks in half marathon training. Each week will include a fartlek workout or a tempo workout and a long run (8-14 miles). The other three days will consist of easy running in the range of 4-8 miles. I also want to add in one day dedicated to yoga and strength training.
If you’re constructing a base-building plan, focus on increasing one run into a long run, making one run into a fartlek, hill, or tempo workout, and gradually increasing the length of your other runs. If you’re a beginner, run three or four days a week and lengthen your easy runs from 3 miles up to five miles. If you’re an intermediate runner (like myself), build your easy runs from 5 miles to 8 miles. If you’re more advanced, consider increasing your easy runs up to 10 miles.
I got my base-building plan out of this month’s edition of Competitor magazine. If you’re looking for a plan, Hal Higdon has ones for beginner, intermediate, and advanced runners.