Base training (also called the introductory or foundational training period) is the first phase of a training cycle. It’s what prepares runners for the more challenging, race-specific workouts that come later.
There are many goals for the base training phase of a training plan:
- Increase endurance – or a runner’s aerobic capacity
- Begin training the central nervous system (so the communication pathways between your brain and muscles are efficient)
- Improve muscular strength to prevent injuries and smooth the transition to challenging workouts
I’m going to cover each of these goals below. But first, how do top coaches and athletes define the base phase of training?
Brad Hudson, coach to many elites and author of Run Faster from the 5k to the Marathon, explains the base phase as:
Priority number one is to gradually but steadily increase your running mileage…
Other priorities of the introductory period include establishing a foundation of neuromuscular fitness with very small doses of maximal-intensity running and beginning the long process of developing efficiency and fatigue-resistance at race pace with small doses of running in the race-pace range.
And Bob Kennedy, the former American record holder in the 5,000m, explains it as:
There are three basic phases to a training cycle: base, strength, and speed. The problem that most athletes have is that they think [the phases] are mutually exclusive. I think that the phase of training is defined by what you are focusing on during that phase.
But you always do a little of all of those things. There’s never a time of year when you’re just running mileage or you’re just doing speed. You’re always doing all of it, it’s just a matter of to what degree.
Greg McMillan describes Arthur Lydiard’s base training. Below is a paraphrase:
In his words, they performed a fartlek workout early in the week. He said the athletes were to change pace for 30 seconds to 5 minutes based on how they felt. Nothing was at a hard effort but it was used to simply provide some change of pace for the legs since most other running is at an easy pace.
He also talked about avoiding building up lactic acid during the base phase. So, I encourage athletes to include a fartlek-type workout once per week but like to keep it as just leg speed sessions (quick but controlled efforts lasting less than 30 seconds).
The leg speed sessions help them get very fast without stressing the anaerobic system. They then have a very good transition to the faster training later in the season because their leg turnover is so good.
Before we get into the three main components of a well planned base phase of training, what do we notice?
First, “endurance” is the main goal. This is prioritized by a focus on high mileage, building the long run, and mostly aerobic workouts.
Second, base training is not just slow running! Workouts are always included – even quite fast sessions – but “fast” does not necessarily mean “hard.”
Third, every coach knows strength is critical. You can get strong in a lot of ways:
- High mileage
- Strength training
What’s the best option here?
Trick question! They’re all valuable.
And each element of fitness – from your general endurance to neuromuscular coordination – should be included in the base phase.
Let’s first start by covering the goal of endurance.
Base Training Goal #1: Endurance
There are three fundamental ways to gain endurance:
- Run a lot (high mileage)
- Run long (the weekly long run)
- Run aerobic workouts (like a tempo workout)
Base training should include every one of these strategies.
“MILEAGE!” – my college cross country coach
Mileage, or the total volume of a runner’s workload, is one of the best metrics for success. Simply put, the more you’re able to run, the faster you’re likely to race.
To build a strong aerobic engine, gradually increase mileage during the base phase of training.
Focus on three metrics:
- Increasing the long run by about one mile every 1-2 weeks
- Adding 1-2 more runs per week over 2-3 months
- Adding 1-3 miles to weekday runs every 1-3 weeks
Fore more detail, don’t miss our weekly mileage planning video:
The end result should be a gradual, progressive increase in mileage that will help build endurance, injury resistance, and economy.
Run Long to Build the Aerobic Metabolism
The almighty long run has become nearly synonymous with endurance. To increase stamina, increase the distance of the long run.
Why? Well, the benefits are clear:
- Denser mitochondria (the “energy factories” of your cells)
- Denser capillary networks to deliver oxygenated blood
- More mental toughness and resolve
- Improved muscular strength
- Enhanced running economy (efficiency)
- More energy efficient
- You’ll race faster!
No base phase is complete without long runs. No matter if you’re a miler or ultramarathoner, a veteran or a total beginner, the long run is an absolutely critical component to successful training.
Keep the pace of long runs mostly easy and add about a mile every 1-2 weeks. But every 4-5 weeks, it’s wise to cut the distance back to ensure you’re recovering and not increasing your risk of running injuries.
It’s a common misconception that base training doesn’t include any faster running. As you can see from the coaches we quoted above, base training isn’t just all slow running!
Aerobic workouts have you run at or slower than your lactate threshold (which is your tempo pace). Like Lydiard said, you don’t want to go anaerobic (without oxygen) too often during base training.
Here are my favorite aerobic workouts:
Progression runs where you gradually speed up to about tempo pace at the end of the run is a valuable early-season workout.
Tempo sessions improve your body’s tolerance to and ability to buffer lactate (the byproduct of anaerobic cellular respiration). In other words, you can hold a faster pace for longer.
Fartlek workouts include pickups or surges of a few minutes with 1-3 minutes recovery. These are usually faster than the other two workouts mentioned, so use them only every 2-3 weeks during base training.
See more base training workouts in this video from our YouTube channel:
While aerobic workouts should make up the vast majority of your faster running, there should still be some “leg speed” sessions as well.
Base Training Goal #2: Neuromuscular Fitness
While they’re not the focus, neuromuscular workouts help maintain leg speed and neuromuscular fitness (the ability for your brain to communicate effectively with your muscles).
There are three great ways to do this during base training:
- Run strides 2-3x per week
- Run hill sprints 1-2x per week
- Run fartlek workout every 2-3 weeks
- Lift weights
Strides and hill sprints are best considered “drills” rather than “workouts.” They’re done in addition to your running – not as part of your running, like track intervals or hill repetitions.
Also, you don’t need to run more than three sessions of strides and hill sprints per week. That’s too much!
Fartlek workouts provide the “bridge” between short, fast sprints and more challenging workouts. Follow Lydiard’s advice about fartleks above and you can’t go wrong: fast, but controlled and not too hard.
Finally, we have weight lifting. Last month, strength coach Randy Hauer described lifting weights succinctly:
“Strength work is coordination training under resistance.”
By stressing the central nervous system with resistance (weight), you can recruit a lot of muscle fibers in a safe way. Unlike maximal intensity sprinting, the injury risk is a lot lower.
The effect becomes more efficient communication. Your brain can tell your legs, “run faster!” and they know how to respond. It’s powerfull stuff.
Don’t miss our strength training material here – it’s free to sign up!
Base Training Goal #3: Muscular Strength
The great thing about running fast and lifting weights is that they accomplish a lot of the same goals.
One of them is neuromuscular – they’ll help you achieve goal #2 above.
But another is actual muscular strength – indeed, running fast does actually make you stronger! As Randy said recently,
There are no fast, weak runners.
Both lifting and running fast recruit a lot of muscle fibers – they “use more of the muscle,” which is more effective at building strength.
Clearly, fast running and weight lifting should be included in base training – no matter if you’re preparing for a marathon or a mile.
If you’re new to strength training, here’s a simple way to get started:
- Begin with bodyweight strength exercises
- Add resistance bands and medicine ball workouts after 1-2 months
- Finally, you’re ready to lift like the elites with a proper weight training program
Once you start lifting regularly, you’ll actually feel “off” without it. You won’t recover as quickly and you’ll feel less powerful.
As pro Maggie Callahan told me recently, “Strength training is non-negotiable for me.”
Create the Perfect Base Phase
Just like a recipe, you now have all of the ingredients to plan an effective base training season:
- Gradually build your mileage and long run
- Run strides or hill sprints regularly
- Complete an aerobic workout every 7-14 days
- Run a faster fartlek workout every 10-14 days
- Include strength training to prevent injuries and tune the nervous system
If you put these ingredients into a coherent plan, you’ll get stronger than ever before.
A productive base phase of training gives you the foundation to run harder workouts – which always leads to faster racing!
Use our free resources to help plan your training: