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How To Build Up Your Running Base

If you have started running—particularly if you’re training for a race—you may have heard the phrase “running base” or “building up my base.”

But if you’re new to running, you may not know what it means. That’s what this article is for.

We’ll discuss what your base is, the history behind it, and practical steps you can take as a runner to build your base during training and the off season.

We all know that the most important part of a house is the foundation. It’s the same for running. With good base fitness, you’ll set yourself up for success.

What is Base Training?

Base training is also called the introductory or the foundational training period. In other words, it’s helping to establish a foundation and give you something to build from, just like a builder would do for a house.

Base training is what prepares runners for harder, race-effort workouts that come later in the training cycle. Basically, it’s giving you the miles you need before you level up to more difficult runs and workouts.

Typically, it takes 5 to 12 weeks, depending on the length of your specific training program. It also can vary depending on your physical fitness level and your level of comfort with running certain distances.

What is the History of Base Training?

Base training has been around over fifty years, and is now used regularly by runners and other endurance athletes across the world. Back in the 1960s, New Zealand runner and coach Arthur Lydiard realized that if you started building fitness before going into interval training, the intervals would go better.

His thought was that prefacing interval training with running would build your aerobic system, allowing you to improve your performance in the interval training phase. His system would allow you to race faster and to peak on time, which his athletes became famous for.

Lydiard used a pyramid as his training philosophy. At the bottom of the pyramid was the base of the aerobic development period. As anyone who has tried to make a human pyramid knows, the bigger the base, the higher the peak. This was Lydiard’s philosophy.

Although base training started in New Zealand, it is now popular throughout the world. Many runners and coaches use this idea of a pyramid for training and know that to do well, having a substantial base is very helpful.

What are the Main Goals of Base Training?

Now that you know who came up with the idea of base training originally, you might be wondering what are its main goals.

Build Aerobic Efficiency And Steadily Increase Mileage

This first goal was Lydiard’s original reason for using base training. He wanted to build up the aerobic system before moving into more challenging workouts. As with many things in life, you build aerobic efficiency through practice.

Steadily increasing your mileage allows you to avoid injuries, since you aren’t overdoing it. The easy mileage begins to improve your aerobic system. As you run more, your body gets used to it and becomes more efficient, especially around your aerobic threshold.

Improve Musculoskeletal Durability/Muscular Strength

Anyone who has seen a bodybuilder knows that it takes time to develop that muscular strength and to look like that. And it’s the same for running. You make your leg muscles stronger by using them, allowing them to break down, and then heal again, becoming stronger.

To improve durability and strength, you have to work the muscles. Slowing building up your base is the way to do it. It’s like laying the foundation and then slowly adding bricks until your muscles are super strong and ready for more challenging workouts.

Improve Your Ability to Burn Fat

As you run more, your body will be able to burn fat more. This will help spare your carbohydrate (glycogen) stores, meaning that you’ll be able to run and burn what you want to get rid of (fat) and keep what you want to save (fuel).

Improve the Endurance of Your Fast Twitch Muscle Fibers and Your Brain

You have to work your fast-twitch muscles in order to increase their endurance, and the same goes for your brain. When you first get into running, even doing a mile may seem exhausting. But as you build your base, it will become much easier, physically and mentally.

Create a Tireless State Mentally

Finally, Lydiard believed in trying to create a “tireless state.” This just means that your body is used to running, so you don’t really experience fatigue anymore. Since mental fatigue is what causes people to not be able to run farther (not physical attributes), this is important.

The more you do something, the more it becomes old-hat. It is easier to tell yourself to run 10 miles when you’ve been regularly running. While the run might not be easy per se, you know you can do it because you’ve done it before.

What are the Basic Phases of Base Training?

Remember three words when considering running base training: base, strength, and speed. You’re trying to get a good number of miles along with some cross-training and without forgetting speedwork.

It should be all three of these things. There’s never a time of year when you’re just building up your mileage, or you’re just doing speedwork. Endurance should be the main goal of base training.

Focus on high mileage and building the long run as well as aerobic workouts and runs. Base training is not just slow runs. You can (and should) incorporate fast segments, but those fast segments should not be too hard.

Just think of it as laying the foundation of a house or a pyramid. Build up the distance, speed, and cross-training that you’ll need in order to have the peak that you want at the top. Building a base of 3-5 miles doesn’t work if you want to run a fast marathon.

Instead, you’ll need to match your base training to whatever that peak goal is. The faster and longer you want to run at the peak, the more miles you’ll want at the base.

How Can I Build My Base?

You can increase your base in a variety of ways. First, start with wherever you’re comfortable for a long run and then increase the length by about one mile every 1-2 weeks. In no time at all, you’ll go from a 3-mile long run to an 8-mile one.

Additionally, add 1-2 more runs every 2-3 weeks over 2-3 months. In other words, you don’t have to be running every day when you start your base training. You can even start from one run a week and build up from there.

Make sure that you’re also increasing your weekday runs in addition to your long runs on the weekends. Add 1-3 miles to weekday runs every 1-3 weeks as you are comfortable to add more.

Finally, while adding miles is great, subtracting is also important. In fact, easing back every few weeks can help you improve, when done strategically. For example, every 4-5 weeks, you’ll want to cut your distance back to ensure that you’re recovering and not increasing your risk of injuries.

What About Strength Training?

While base training is definitely about building up the miles, another important component is building strength. If you’re new to strength training, just start with the basics. Begin with bodyweight strength exercises for the first 2-4 weeks.

These can include push-ups, pull-ups, planks, crunches, etc. Basically anything that you can do with your body at home. After 2-4 weeks, start adding resistance bands, a medicine ball, and light weight workouts.

Then once you’re comfortable with these types of workouts, you can move onto heavier or high rep workouts. Ultimately, it’s important to pick what makes you comfortable and you will realistically keep doing.

How Do I Add Speed?

Although base training isn’t focused on speed, it’s important not to forego it completely. Some examples of speed workouts you can use during base training include progression runs, where you gradually speed up every mile until you get to tempo pace at the end.

You can also do fartlek workouts, where you include pickups of 30 seconds to a few minutes with 30 seconds to three minutes of recovery. Since fartlek means “speed play,” you can do whatever strikes your fancy that day.

Tempo sessions are also great for improving your body’s tolerance and ability to buffer lactate. This will allow you to hold a faster pace for longer, which is what base training is all about.

What if I am Injury-Prone?

If you’re prone to injuries, you need to be very strategic about how you build your base. Use cross-training like cycling, elliptical machines, stair climbing, pool running, and so forth to perform the harder effort, mid-week workouts to maintain fitness.

Fill in the rest with easy effort runs so that you aren’t putting your body under as much stress when you pound the pavement. Running on softer surfaces like grass or sand is another way to minimize the impact of running.

What is an Example for a Week’s Schedule?

Since running is such an individual sport, you’ll have to figure out what works best for you personally. However, here is a sample week’s schedule that you can look at to get an idea of what base training might look like for you.

Monday: Easy Run (60 minutes)
Tuesday: Cross-Train (45 minutes) [strength training and low-impact cardio]
Wednesday: Aerobic Workout (40 minutes) [run 3 x 4 minutes medium effort with 2 minutes recovery, warm up and cool down for 10 minutes each]
Thursday: Cross-Train (30 minutes)
Friday: Easy Run (45 minutes)
Saturday: Long Easy Run (75 minutes)
Sunday: Rest Day

As you can see from this schedule, you’ll want to include several easy runs, a couple of cross-training days, an aerobic workout day, and at least one rest day. However, where they fall during the week is what works best for you and your schedule.

Final Thoughts

If you don’t remember anything else from this article, remember the shape of a pyramid. Base training is important if you want to hit that peak. Rather than jumping into a hard training program, give yourself a base to start from.

Building a base will help you make clear improvements in your speed, endurance, and overall performance. To reach high, you’ll want to build out that base, adding plenty of variety to avoid any injuries. Good luck on reaching that peak goal!

Rachel Basinger
The Wired Runner