Base training is a term that is bandied about quite a lot in running circles. If you're relatively new to running you may not know a lot about it.

In this blog article I'm going to try to explain a bit more about base training. And give some insight into my approach to it.

What is Base Training?

The concept of base training is to develop a general foundation (base) of fitness which you can then build upon.

Lets try and put this in context. We'll take the example of a runner looking to get better race performance - as it's something that most runners I work with want.

To use the analogy of jumping into a lake. You'd have much more potential to make the biggest splash by jumping in from a higher position than you would from just jumping in from the bank or jetty - right?

Well, if you want to be able to make a big splash in your target race (i.e. a personal best race time), it makes more sense to gain as much height (base fitness) as possible before you jump - into your race training.  

So following a well structured base training plan and getting some quality base training done before you embark on your specific race training - serves to raise your baseline fitness. Meaning that you will have a higher starting point and a solid platform to build up from when you do start training for your target race. Giving you a much better chance of making a big splash and nailing that PB come race day.

How do you build a decent base as a runner?

There are many ways to skin a cat as the saying goes. But with regards to base training for runners, there are two main camps/methodologies:

  • Traditional
  • Modern

Traditional Base Training

The traditional base training model popularised by coaches like Arthur Lydiard & Jack Daniels is often depicted as the base of a pyramid like this:

In this model the base training is usually about 6 to 12 weeks in duration - depending on the athlete and target race and consists almost entirely of easy/conversational pace running.

It is generally only after the base training phase has been completed that tempo, hill repeats and interval sessions get added into the mix. They are also usually added in phases. With the next phase of training after building the aerobic base concentrating on strength (tempo runs & hill-repeats) and speed follows after that.

The theory of this traditional model approach to base training is that lots of aerobic exercise - mainly easy pace running, dramatically increases the amount of blood the heart can pump (cardiac output). As well as increasing capillary density, mitochondria and aerobic enzymes. Which lead to better blood supply to key muscles and more efficient aerobic energy production. This is also why it's often referred to as 'aerobic-base-building'.

Lydiard and others also believed that this easy pace only approach lead to optimal VO2 Max improvements. And that avoiding higher intensity workouts and speed sessions during base training would stop runners being exposed to high levels of lactic acid. Something that he believed was damaging to the muscles.

The traditional camp also believe that lots of easy paced running reduces injury risk. As it builds strength and endurance in the leg muscles. So that they cope better when the harder more specific race training is added later.

Whilst the theory behind the traditional base training model does seem logical. And a lot of runners and coaches still use it and get some good results.  Unfortunately it has some flaws. Because some of the assumptions it's developed from have since been proven wrong. Such as:

  • Easy paced running is not the best way to improve VO2 Max.
  • Lactic acid does not damage muscles.
  • Lots of easy paced running is not the only or best way to improve capillary density and aerobic enzyme production. 
  • Muscle strength is specific to speed - meaning that strength gained at slow easy paced running does not prepare them well for running at faster paces.
  • Easy paced running is less effective at training the neuromuscular system. Which means the bodies ability to recruit and use muscles in a coordinated way to improve running efficiency and speed.

Modern Base Training

Improving the aerobic system (the "runner's engine") is undoubtedly very important for endurance runners. But there is no reason why other key aspects of fitness can not be trained at the same time.

The modern base training method takes a more holistic approach. As it works on improving endurance, strength and speed from the get go. This is done progressively to build a broad base of fitness and should take into account the athletes current level of fitness as the starting point. It is often depicted as a diamond or upside-down pyramid - like this:

Once the broad base of fitness is established. More race specific (& generally harder) training can be progressively added to help the runner hone their race day performance. 

Modern Base Training plus Race Training

In my opinion the modern method is superior to the traditional method for a number of reasons:

  • Efficient - working on multiple aspects of fitness at the same time means you get "more bang-for-your-buck" from your training.
  • Variety - another important aspect of base training is building a routine. So that there's more chance of taking consistent action and less chance of missing chunks of training. Doing the same old easy paced long runs over and over can lead to boredom for some runners. That in turn can lead to missed training. Having different types of run in your training plan helps spice things up and keeps things interesting.
  • Continuity - having a variety of runs in your training throughout your training cycle with a progressive increase in volume and intensity is arguably better than having a step-change from easy running to adding more intense workouts to the mix. You get more chance for your body to adapt. Sudden step changes in intensity could leave you more prone to injury.
  • Flexibility - working on endurance, strength and speed at the same time builds a broader base to work from. That in turn offers more flexibility. If you want to change your focus from marathon to 5k for example. You've already got some speedwork in the bag and are therefore in a better starting point than if you'd just been doing long easy runs. Plus you're better placed to perform better in dress-rehearsal or tune-up races too.

With the traditional method you would normally revert to base training after completing a race and start the whole cycle over again. Which is a bit of a waste of any speed and strength that you may have built up during the complete training cycle. Whereas with the modern method. You can just assess where you are currently and carry on building from there.

How should base training be structured?

In order to get the best performance out of yourself a training plan should be designed to move you from where you are to where you want to be. In progressive phases - so as to minimise the risk of overload and injury. Whilst at the same time challenging you enough to trigger the physical changes that you want. 

Whichever base training method you use it's worth bearing in mind the way that the human body reacts and adapts to exercise. It's a bit like taking one step backwards to then take two steps forward.

  • The exercise stresses the body and 'damages' it slightly (e.g. muscle tears). This causes an initial reduction in fitness. The one step backwards.
  • But with sufficient rest, the body will recover. The first step forwards.
  • Then the body will adapt through a process called 'supercompensation' in anticipation of the increased physical demands expected of it. The second step forwards. Which then raises the fitness level and ability to perform at a higher level.
  • With progressive loading that cycle is repeated to raise performance in steps to the target level.

The short video below illustrates this point.

So really any training plan needs to take the bodies natural exercise adaptation process into account. And should have an initial introductory phase, followed by a progressive loading, stabilisation and then a final recovery phase to allow the body to gain the most from the training.

There also needs to be adequate recovery included throughout. Because that is when the improvements actually happen.

This is exactly how I've structured my 8 week base training plan and indeed all my training plans.

Why would you need a base training plan?

Base training is a great way to develop your general fitness and set you up really well to follow on and train for a specific race. The ideal scenario would be to work with a running coach to establish your current level of fitness, your goals and then have a complete training plan devised for you - including a base training element.

Unfortunately that is likely to be too expensive for many runners. Or maybe some don't really have a plan of what they want to achieve with their running and don't really have any target races in mind to train for.

But you can still follow a base training plan. You don't necessarily need to go on to run a race. You could use my base training plan as a tool to build your consistency, fitness and get some variety into your training. Put a spark and some enjoyment back into your running - if you've felt a bit flat or lack-lustre of late. Or maybe you want to test yourself a little bit but without having a specific end goals to achieve.

Some other reasons why runners choose to follow a base training plan are:

  • Changing from off season to getting ready to start a new racing season
  • Just as a tick over - maintaining fitness - between races
  • Better Race Performance
  • Coming back from injury
  • A beginner runner wanting to progress

About the author 

Coach D

Hi, I'm Dave. I'm a UK Athletics qualified and licensed Coach in Running Fitness (CiRF), Endurance Event Group Coach and Certified Running Technique Coach. I coach groups and individuals of all abilities both online and in person.

I particularly enjoy coaching beginner and improver runners in the 40+ age range.

I'm also a regular recreational runner and I've been competing in races from 5k to marathon distance for over 30 years.

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