The Base Phase: Starting a Training Cycle on the Right Path

Here’s a visual of how any good training cycle should be composed:

See the bottom there?  A nice big base of aerobic fitness.  It’s kind of a big deal for a whole host of reasons:

  1. Improving your running economy
  2. Improving your cardiovascular endurance
  3. Building general strength
  4. Preparing your body for speedier workouts closer to race day

There are a number of other good reasons, but I think we can all agree that having a lot of miles logged when it’s time to start focusing on speed is a good thing.

In my mind, another big benefit of have a dedicated “base phase” for any training cycle (for all distances, not just for longer races) is that it builds variety into your plan.  There are a couple of reasons why variety helps.  First, it will lead to fitness gains simply through the act of planned variability.  Our bodies naturally adapt and become more efficient at anything we do with repetition.  So, if we always follow the same weekly plan without variability, over time our bodies will complete that weekly plan with increased efficiency…or said differently, with less training stress.  Training stress is what leads to training improvement.  Second, the variability is a natural preventative for overuse injuries.  If we don’t take breaks from the track (or wherever you run your intervals and other speedy workouts), we’re just asking for a repetitive use injury like ITBS, runner’s knee, shin splints, and the like.  Elite runners periodize their training for good reason: It gives them an added training benefit while helping prevent a potential training risk.

So, what does a good base phase look like, and when should you go through one?  Here are 5 keys to success.

Allow 2 months or more of base training before using the last 8-10 weeks before your goal race for the “race specific” phase.  This is the reason why most marathon training plans are 16-20 weeks in length…about half is for base building, then the final 2 months are focused on race pace.  For me, the same goes for any race.  Working backwards from race day, allow about 2 months for race-specific work (track intervals, tempo runs, race pace runs, and strides), then add a base block on the front of that.  That gives you a sense of how long the entire “cycle” should be for that goal race.

Focus on increasing the total “time on your feet” during base training.  You can start from any existing weekly mileage (including zero) entering a base phase, but the end goal should be to increase your mileage as much as you can while staying healthy.  The biggest mistake I see a lot of people make is trying to consistently add 10% in miles each week.  That might be right for you, it might not.  I prefer to shoot for adding 20-30 minutes of running each week, and at all levels capping the total running time in a given week at 10-11 hours.  This works a lot better in terms of injury prevention than saying: “I want to get to x miles, so I need to add y each week whatever it takes!”  The goal is to build economy and endurance, and total time-on-feet is the best method.

Add one thing.  During your base phase, you can add a new training wrinkle to make yourself better.  This is when I try to refocus on core, strength, flexibility, etc.  My rule of thumb is to add one new thing in each new base phase, but not more.  If you give your body too many new stressors, you risk injury or burnout, which is what the base phase is intended to be just the opposite of.

Allow 20-30% of your weekly mileage in the long run.  This is a Lydiard concept that I have always fully embraced.  A good long run is the cornerstone to setting yourself up for successful workouts in the later training phase, so you need to get a big chunk of miles each week in a single run.  This range (20-30%) is a good fit for people, regardless of their total mileage each week or the distance they are training for.

Allow 1-2 days a week for harder (but still aerobic) effort.  When I am building training plans for people, they will have 1 or 2 of the following “aerobic workouts” during base phase weeks:

  • Fartleks:  Start with cycles of 1 minute moderate effort and 3 minutes recovery, then change the ratio each week until you are running 4 minutes moderate/hard to 1 minute recovery.  These should be run by feel, not by target pace.
  • Hills: Another Lydiard building block.  Find a hilly route and run it at an easy pace once a week.  The hills build leg and core strength as well as giving you a HR boost without working your fast-twitch muscle fibers too much.  I like to have a hills day every week during the base phase.
  • Progressive Effort:  Run a normal easy route, but ratchet up the intensity slightly each mile so that you finish at a moderate clip.  These should be run by feel, not target pace, as well, and shouldn’t ever get into the true “sprint” of a finishing kick.
  • Races:  As much as every couple of weeks, short races are a great way to track progress as well as provide some much needed pace sharpening.  These shouldn’t be approached as “A” races, simply as a substitute for another effortful day that week.  Run these races for fun.

At the end of a base phase, you should feel fit, strong, and ready to hone your pacing skills to meet your race goal.  When you are planning your next training cycle, be sure to build in some time for a dedicated phase focused on base miles.

About Caleb M.

Caleb Masland is the founder and head coach of Team Wicked Bonkproof, a group of regular people who like getting after it one mile at a time. Caleb has enjoyed some moderate local running scene successes in his own right, but his number 1 mission is to get other dailymilers running faster and smarter by sharing what he has learned along the way. When he's not traveling for his career as a Technology Consultant or spending time with wife and son, you can find Caleb on the roads and trails around Boone, NC. Caleb has an unreasonable longer-than-longshot dream of running in the 2020 Olympic marathon trials, and all he has to do is turn his 5k pace into his marathon pace to achieve it!
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