How To Build Up Your Running Base

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Whether you’re a new runner or an experienced runner returning from injury, building up your running base will probably be the first thing on your to-do list. It’s also a great way to get ready for race season.

Base training—also known as the foundational training period—is something every runner goes through. Without it, your running will stay stagnant, and you’ll probably lose motivation much quicker, too.

Your running base is the foundation all your hard work will build. So, if you’re a beginner, coming back from injury, or looking to improve in the offseason, let’s dive into building up your running base. We’ll cover why you need it and how to build it.

What Is a Running Base?

We all know that when you build a house, you start with a strong, solid foundation. If you start building on an unfinished or weak base, everything you build on top of it will be compromised… And there’s a chance it will fall in a strong wind!

The same is true of your running base. It’s the fitness foundation you must build before getting into a proper running training program.

It’s typically a slower-paced, moderate-distance training program that lays the groundwork for becoming a strong runner. Along with running, we highly recommend adding strength training as well.

Once you have a solid aerobic and neuromuscular running base, you’ll be ready to start training for more serious running races. With a good base, you’re much more likely to be successful with whatever training program you choose and have less chance of overdoing it!

However, it’s also important to note that base training isn’t just for complete newbies. If you’re coming back from injury or transitioning from a different sport to running, you’ll need to build your running base up to a solid foundation again before going forward. Even experienced runners should build up their base in the off months to get ready for race season.

Why Is It Important to Build a Running Base?

Sure, you can throw yourself into a training program to run a half-marathon with little to no running experience. But should you? Probably not… Because your body won’t know what’s hit it!

Building your running base eases your body into running. It gets your muscles used to running, gets your joints accustomed to a little more impact, and gives your cardiovascular system a chance to learn how to handle regular running.

This is how you build that strong foundation. Without it, you’re doomed to fail almost any running training program you begin, simply because your body hasn’t built up that underlying level of fitness yet.

Not only will it be harder to stick to training programs, but you’ll also be more likely to injure yourself if you leap right into a training program without a base.

How Long Does It Take to Build Up Your Running Base?

Depending on your current fitness level, it can take between 6 and 12 weeks to build a decent running base. You’ll need to assess this yourself, but if you have the time, we recommend doing 12 weeks of base training before moving on.

The time you put into it will be proportionate to the benefits you get from it. If you do a quick 6-week base training program as a new runner, you’ll feel better at week 6 than at week 1.

But will you be ready to dive into a more strenuous program? Only you’ll know, but if you’re serious about becoming a runner and competing in races, we highly recommend not skimping on your running foundation and going for 12 weeks from the start.

Benefits of Building a Running Base

Considering skipping your base training? Don’t do it! Here’s why spending time on developing your running base is a really good idea.

Builds Up Your Cardio

Whether you’re new to running or you’ve taken some time off and gotten a little out of shape, you know that feeling in your chest when you really get into a run!

If your cardiovascular system isn’t fit for running, you’ll find yourself huffing, puffing, and burning lungs, even on shorter runs.

Taking the time to slowly increase your mileage gives your body the time and space it needs to adapt to these new activity levels.

Lower Chance of Injury

If you’re not used to running, jumping into a serious training program will wreak havoc on your muscles, tendons, joints, and bones.

Running is high-impact, and even if you’re wearing super-cushioned shoes, your body is likely unprepared for that level of impact. Part of building a running base is to help strengthen your muscles and joints so they can deal with the shock.

One of the great things about base training is that it’s easy training, so your muscles and joints have plenty of time to rest.

This is the best way to build strength and endurance without the risk of developing an overuse injury, which can easily happen if you start a training program without first building a solid base.

May Increase Fat Burning

You may have heard that HIIT is the best way to smash fat, but don’t underestimate the humble long run at an easy pace.

Most of your base training is in the “fat burning” heart rate zone. You might burn fewer calories in the same time as HIIT, but base training does something even better.

Consistent training in this zone gets your body used to accessing its fat stores to burn for energy.

Not only that, but it ultimately trains your body to become better at storing glycogen, which will serve you very well when you do start running races.

Develops Mental Strength

Base training doesn’t just prepare your body for what’s ahead. It prepares your mind too… Which is extremely important, as your mind can be your own worst enemy in a sport like running.

As a new runner or one looking to build up fitness again, base training is structured so that it’s easy to progress if you stick to the basics.

Seeing yourself improve day after day is very motivating. And when your base training is done, you’ll realize that you can run for longer, breathe easier, and even push the pace a little… Which is the perfect mindset to start a new training program for your next running goal.

When Should You Use a Base Running Plan?

New runners should definitely start with a base running plan. You can also use a base running plan if you’ve been sidelined for months and have lost your fitness.

However advanced runners can also utilize base training plans in order to maintain fitness levels or bridge the gap between summer and winter training. Base training is the perfect way to stay fit and active whenever you aren’t actively training for a race.

How to Build Up Your Running Base

Okay, decided that building a running base sounds like a smart plan? Here’s how to get started.

Assess Your Current Fitness Level

Figuring out your current fitness will help you determine how long you should do base training. If you’re out of shape, then 12 weeks at a minimum is recommended. Don’t kid yourself here—you’re not competing against anyone else!

If you’ve been out of action because of an injury, illness, or other reasons, but your fitness is still okay, 6 weeks of base training is a good idea. Those with good general fitness but aren’t “running fit” can also go for about 6 weeks.

Set Realistic Goals

Once you know where you stand, you can set appropriate goals. Base training is mostly about mileage, but if you’re a fresh-faced newbie, it’s unrealistic to aim for 40 miles a week, for example.

Total beginners can start with 1 to 2 miles or 20 to 30 minutes at a time, 3 to 4 times a week. If that’s still a bit tough for you, we suggest using a run/walk approach until you can run without stopping.

Experienced runners, you can base your mileage on your last successful training plan if you haven’t been out of it for too long. If you’ve lost quite a bit of fitness, start by halving that number and splitting those miles throughout your week.

For example, if you were hitting 40 miles a week before taking a break and you’re confident to continue at that, you can structure your week something like this:

  • Monday: 8 miles
  • Tuesday: 6 miles
  • Wednesday: Rest
  • Thursday: 5 miles
  • Friday: 6 miles
  • Saturday: 12 miles
  • Sunday: 2 miles

On the other hand, if you’re not feeling as strong as you used to, you may prefer something like this:

  • Monday: 5 miles
  • Tuesday: 3 miles
  • Wednesday: Rest
  • Thursday: 2 miles
  • Friday: 3 miles
  • Saturday: 8 miles
  • Sunday: 2 miles

Create a Training Plan

Got your goals? Now’s the time to structure a training plan that works for you. There are various elements to a good base training plan—do your best to incorporate them all, because each has its purpose and advantage.

Include Different Types of Runs

Once you know how many days a week you’re running, figure out what kind of runs you’re doing on those days. Decide what runs you want to do when, and put this on paper or into an app so you have a rough idea of a schedule.

Upfront, new runners don’t need to switch up their run types. Stick to easy runs, with one longer run per week. If you’re a little more advanced and want to include tempo runs, fartleks, strides, or progression runs, you can do so, once a week each.

Strength Training

Some runners forget about strength training and focus entirely on running. This isn’t a terrible thing, but including strength training can make a HUGE difference, especially to your muscular strength.

Try to hit the gym (or do some bodyweight training) at least once a week, if not twice. Focus on legs and core, but don’t neglect the upper body. One leg/core day and one upper body day per week is ideal.

Understand that you may need to do a run and a strength training session on the same day. It’s not a problem, but make sure you structure it so it’s manageable with your own work/life schedule.

Cross-Training

It’s not entirely necessary to do cross-training during a base training plan, but it can help accelerate your fitness gains. Once or twice a week, do a cardiovascular activity other than running.

It can help give your “running muscles” a bit of a break without wasting a day of exercise. Cycling, swimming, rowing, jumping rope, stair climbing, and the elliptical are a few great choices.

You can switch out one run with a cross-training session, at least in the beginning. Cross-train for the same length of time or distance you would run.

Prioritize Rest and Recovery

This could be the hardest part for some. Resist the urge to just “do one more run” or push yourself further than necessary. Get into the habit of seeing your rest days as important as the activity, if not more so.

You should be resting from running for 3 to 4 days a week if you’re completely new. Don’t try to run every day! Alternate between running, strength training, and cross-training, to give your body plenty of time to recover from each activity before doing it again.

As you build up your fitness levels, you’ll end up running more and more often. But make sure you have at least one full day of rest every week—that means NO running, NO cross-training, and NO strength training. Just recovery.

Start Slow

Don’t even think about pace. Just do your base runs at an easy pace, where you can still hold a conversation. If you’re using a smartwatch or heart rate monitor, stick to your fat-burning zone.

If not, you can use the scale of perceived level of exertion. Aim for a 2 or 3—that means that on a scale of one to 10, you’re only pushing at 20 to 30 percent of your maximum.

It’s a good idea to measure it because it can be very easy to accidentally push too hard or up your heart rate too much and overtrain.

Increase Mileage Gradually

You don’t have to increase your mileage every week. You can increase your overall mileage by 5 to 10 percent per week if you feel comfortable. If you ran 10 miles last week, aim for 11 miles the following week.

You can split that extra bit however you want throughout your week. In the example above, we could add 0.5 miles to our Monday run and 0.5 miles to our Thursday run, or add 1 mile to our long Saturday run. Whatever works for you.

Also, if you don’t feel ready to increase your mileage, then do another week at the same mileage as the last. There’s no right or wrong—it’s all about building endurance gradually.

Stay Hydrated and Fuel Properly

Don’t ruin your base training by eating junk! Stick to a healthy diet loaded with unprocessed foods, lean protein, leafy greens, whole grains, and fruit.

Your diet can make or break your overall fitness, so if you’re serious about getting fit, optimize your diet and your training plan.

Hydration is part of it. Drink water often throughout the day to prevent dehydration. Drink every 20 or so minutes during your run, too!

Track Your Progress

Use an app or a running journal to keep track of how well you’re progressing. This can be very inspiring—seeing how your mileage, time, or weight has improved can really give you a motivation boost like nothing else!

Take a Fitness Test

This is a great way to see how you’re improving and getting closer to your goals. You can find fitness tests online; some smartwatches have built-in fitness tests.

Choose one only. Doing it at the beginning of your base training, halfway through, and at the end, so you can see the progression.

Find a Running Buddy or Join a Running Club

Sometimes you’re going to need a push, and a running buddy can be that push. Grab a friend who wants to get fit, a family member who’s willing to run with you, or join a running club so you’re surrounded by like-minded people.

Stay Consistent

Don’t give up on your base training. Consistency is a superpower! Stay the course, power through, and you’ll see the rewards at the end of it.

Listen to Your Body

Base training might be basic, but your body needs time to adapt. Pay attention to how you’re feeling. Assess your cardiovascular system, your digestive system, your muscles, and your joints.

How’s everything feeling? If you’re feeling ill, in pain, or bad in any way, reassess your training and decide if you need to rest. Remember, there’s no time limit on base training—if you need to take a break and get back into it later, do so. Within reason!

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.