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The Basics Of Base Training For Runners

A proper base training phase is more than just long, easy mileage.

A proper base training phase is more than just long, easy mileage. 

Base training is not a new concept for most experienced runners, but it is one that’s often misunderstood. Perhaps you’ve read about it in a running magazine, or someone in your running club recently used it as justification for their poor performance.

“Oh, I’m in my base phase,” he explained. “So I don’t have any speed.”

While most runners think they’re well versed in the ways of base training — believing it is a period consisting of just long, easy miles — very few actually understand what it is and how to implement it correctly into their training program due to these long-standing misconceptions. In the last decade or so, however, a new appreciation for how the body adapts and responds to training has emerged that has reinforced some of the original, yet continually misunderstood principles behind base training.

RELATED: The Beauty of the Base Phase

In the following pages we’ll take a historical look at base training and dig deeper into how the concept is understood today. Also, we’ll look at some of the common misconceptions of base training, how these misconceptions came about, and examine solutions to help runners maximize aerobic development in the base phase.

Base Training Background

Base training was popularized by the legendary coach, Arthur Lydiard of New Zealand. At the 1960 and 1964 Olympic Games, Lydiard-coached athletes (Murray Halberg, Peter Snell and Barry Magee) dominated the distance events, winning six distance medals between the three of them. Their high-volume, periodized approach was revolutionary at the time and sparked a transformation in how coaches understood training. Specifically, Lydiard had his athletes — even middle distance runners like Snell — running high mileage weeks in what he called the “base training” phase.

The goal of base training is to develop a runner’s aerobic potential before implementing anaerobic training in the form of interval work. Lydiard understood that distance running events were primarily aerobic pursuits and that by developing the aerobic system to its maximum, his athletes would have the endurance to dominate their competition. Lydiard also believed (correctly) that more than 4 to 6 weeks of intense anaerobic training was unnecessary because after six weeks of anaerobic training, improvements reached a point of diminishing returns.

As evidenced by the six medals won at the 1960 and 1964 Olympic Games, base training obviously has its benefits. Lydiard’s training methods eventually spread across the globe and influenced how coaches approached training for middle and long-distance events.

Misconceptions About Base Training

As the concept of base work and high-volume training spread, many misconceptions about how to properly implement it into a well-rounded training program emerged. Not all coaches agreed with the specifics of Lydiard’s approach, so they tweaked certain elements to better fit their training philosophy. Normally, this wouldn’t be a big issue, but  two problems emerged.

First, Lydiard didn’t believe in writing general, one-size-fits-all training schedules which are prevalent today, and as a coach, I can definitely understand his hesitation. As such, he didn’t clearly document a specific template schedule to follow. Much of what we know now about the base training phase comes from his lectures and schedules of the athletes he coached. As such, there is a lot of room for interpretation and as a result, confusion.

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Second, Lydiard wrote two books, Run to the Top and Running the Lydiard Way, which somewhat contradicted each other in regard to whether you perform faster workouts during the base phase. For whatever reason, most coaches and athletes didn’t believe that athletes should be doing any specific workouts other than just running during the base phase.

This concept became the prevalent approach to base training: lots of easy, slow miles and no workouts. In fact, it’s what most runners today consider a base phase. Unfortunately, that’s not what Lydiard intended and it’s not what recent developments in training science have found to be ideal.

A New Way Of Thinking

In reality, Lydiard’s idea of base training phase included two workouts.

The first was a fartlek workout, in which pickups ranged anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes of harder running with a long recovery interval between each repeat. The pace of the pickups was anywhere from 5K to half marathon pace, depending on the length of the repeat and the recovery in between. The effort was designed to be moderate and run by feel rather than a specific pace. Lydiard was a big proponent of running by feel, a concept that’s virtually absent in training these days thanks to GPS watches.

The goal of the workout wasn’t to run hard – in fact, Lydiard discouraged against running hard enough to accumulate lactic acid. Rather, these sessions were simply meant to turn the legs over and provide a change of pace. It may seem like semantics, but there is a difference between this type of workout and what we usually think of as speed work, or running a set of intervals or a hard tempo run at a specific pace.

Lydiard’s feel-based fartleks help maintain efficiency by stimulating the central nervous system and gradually introducing faster running into a training program. Many runners get injured when they try to run at speeds their body isn’t ready for yet. These base-phase fartleks help prepare the body for the harder workouts that come after the base phase.

The second workout staple in Lydiard’s plan was the steady state run. Like the fartlek, this steady state run was designed to be a moderate effort – not hard. Based on my reasing, Lydiard’s interpretation of steady state was current marathon pace — not goal or “dream” marathon pace. There is a big difference!

While some of his star pupils eventually worked up to one hour steady state runs at marathon pace in their base training phase, it’s advisable to start with 20 to 30 minutes at a little slower than marathon pace and slowly increase the volume and the effort as you get stronger and develop fitness.

Putting Base Training Into Practice

It should be apparent by this point that the idea of base training as most runners understand it — lots of easy miles — is widely inaccurate. Lydiard’s based phase included a fartlek session, a steady state run, and a long run — none of which were all that “hard”. Because Lydiard’s runners ran by feel and always trained in relation to their current fitness level, these workouts equated to a moderate effort. As such, you should tailor the workouts in your base phase to match your fitness level.

If you’re a beginner, start with just 30 seconds of running at 8K effort with three to four minutes jogging recovery as your first fartlek. Your first steady state workout might be just 10 to 20 minutes. If you’re a more advanced runner, you can build from there, but always keep in mind that the effort should always be moderate.

Each of the workouts during the base training phase helpe stimulate a different system. Fartleks help improve turnover, efficiency and neuromuscular function. Steady state running improves your aerobic threshold. Long runs help build mitochondria and further capillary development, and of course, all those easy miles in-between help develop your aerobic endurance.

By working a few different energy systems during the base phase, you gradually build upon each component, ensuring that no particular energy system is left behind. By starting at your current fitness level during the base phase, you reach a high level of general fitness before transitioning to more specific strength and speed workouts.