The Importance of Base Building for Runners
In every sport, athletes must first learn fundamentals. Then, they continue to drill, drill, drill until they becomes second nature. These drills become more advanced as athletes progress, but the practice of fundamentals remains.
Running is no different.
Recently I said in order to run faster, you need to, well, run faster; however, every training cycle starts with base building for runners. The goal of base training is simply to develop your aerobic strength. This is best done by increasing your weekly mileage with a greater volume of miles at an easy pace. Additional workout variations will help to bolster your injury resistance and prepare you for upcoming speed work.
Benefits of Base Building for Runners
In addition to building injury resistance and boosting your overall health, base training has many benefits and physiological adaptations that will help you later in your training cycle.
One of the more obvious adaptations that is a result of easy running is the strengthening of the heart. Just like any other muscle, the more you work your heart, the stronger it becomes. According to coach Jack Daniels, the best way to do this is by doing a lot of easy, steady running. If you keep the intensity low, you stave off discomfort and fatigue for a greater period of time allowing you to run longer.
Running easy also promotes the development of capillaries and mitochondria in, and around, muscle fibers. Capillaries are small blood vessels which help transport blood, oxygen, and nutrients to muscles and remove waste products.
Mitochondria are the microscopic power plants within muscles. Given enough oxygen, mitochondria are able to produce all the energy required to keep you moving by breaking down fat, carbohydrate, and protein. When you have consistent, progressive training, your body adapts to the stress of low intensity runs by increasing the number and size of mitochondria.
These adaptations tie together nicely: a stronger heart means you can pump blood more efficiently, the movement of which is aided by the increased amount of capillaries. This blood contains oxygen and nutrients which fuel the mitochondria in your muscles. The more mitochondria you have, the more power (and speed) you can produce!
Don’t worry, there was a reason for this scientific tangent!
Base Building Workouts
If you are new to running, focus on consistency — running three or four days a week for the next three to four weeks, at least. Once you understand how running fits into your schedule, how your body reacts to training, and you start to love the process (believe me, you will!), begin adding mileage or time to runs. Then, add in an extra day, or some of the work listed below.
If you have been running for awhile, here are some ways you can modify your runs to get the most out of your base phase and set yourself up for success later in training:
Strides are short sprints that last 25 to 35 seconds, with a full rest in between. They should be done at about mile race pace — not quite all out, but near your top gear. Strides should be done two or three times a week after your scheduled run by doing the following:
- Ease into the sprint over the first few seconds. Do not immediately jump to full speed as this increases the risk of injury
- As you reach your top speed, focus on running tall and staying relaxed while holding the pace for 20 to 30 seconds. Keep your head up and be deliberate with your stride with high knees, a long and strong back kick, feet under your center of gravity, and a controlled arm swing
- Ease down into an easy jog or walk to catch your breath — you should not be winded when you start your next stride!
Strides will set you up for more strenuous training in the future, loosen you up after a long run, and help develop your running mechanics. Start with three, adding one more every week or so, (if you’re feeling good) topping out at six. Make sure the overall workout stays at an easy level.
Hills are great for building leg strength and injury resistance. New runners should start by making sure to run a hilly route or playing with the incline on a treadmill. If you have a solid training base, try incorporating hill repeats or hill sprints into your weekly training.
Hill repeats are exactly what they sound like: find a hill, run up, come back down, repeat! On the way up, push the pace a little to challenge your heart and legs. Use the down hill as your recovery time, jogging slowly or walking.
Hill sprints are much more intense (think strides but on hills). After a scheduled easy run, find a steep hill and run up at near maximal effort for 8 to 12 seconds, followed by a full recovery of two to three minutes walking or very easy running. You should not be winded when you start your next sprint. If you are new to hill sprints, start at 8 second sprints.
With great benefits come potential risks. Running up hills places a greater strain on your calf muscles and achilles tendon. Start with no more than two or three repeats or sprints per session with no more than two sessions per week to allow for adequate recovery. Progress by adding in one repeat or sprint every-other workout. Focus on form, just like when doing strides.
Fartleks are “unstructured” speed workouts. The great running coach Arthur Lydiard varied fartlek sessions to last any where from 30 seconds (strides) to five minutes, and utilized long rest periods. The repeats were run any where from 5k pace to half-marathon pace depending on the length and speed of the repeat and the length of the recovery (the faster and/or longer the repeat, the longer the recovery).
He stressed that the run should not be hard enough to accumulate lactic acid in the blood stream and that these workouts should be used to help “turn the legs over” and provide a change of pace. Fartlek sessions help reduce the risk of injury by gradually adding speed to a training cycle. This helps to strengthen muscles and tendons before moving to harder speed sessions later in training.
Build Your Base!
Base building for runners can be super-charged by incorporating strides, hills, and fartleks into your training. It will also vary your training, build strength, and provide a solid base upon which you can progress your training to more advanced and race specific workouts. Starting with the basics will also help prevent injury, keeping you on the road and training towards your goals and PRs!