Base Training Fundamentals: 3 Crucial Ingredients in Any Base Phase

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:

  1. Increase endurance – or a runner’s aerobic capacity
  2. Begin training the central nervous system (so the communication pathways between your brain and muscles are efficient)
  3. 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:

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:

  1. Increasing the long run by about one mile every 1-2 weeks
  2. Adding 1-2 more runs per week over 2-3 months
  3. 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.

Aerobic Workouts

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.

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

Jason deadlift

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:

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:

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Comments

  1. Hi Jason,
    I am running Berlin marathon in September this year, goal is to run around 4hrs, this will be my 4th marathon, I’ve previouly tun 3:55,

    My issue is I will only have 16 solid weeks to train as I have 7 week overseas holiday in April where I will have limited opportunity to run – I will try to run 2-3 times per week, but there is no guarantee I will get any consistent training.

    My question is, given Berlin is not until September, should I be building a base now (9 weeks until my first trip) I am already running approx 60km per week, long run between 16 – 21km.

    Do you see any benefit in me doing some longer runs now or is it possible I will lose all this base fitness whilst I’m away, therefore I’m effectively wasting my time?

    I was planning on doing maybe a 23, 25, 27, 29 & 30 over the next 9 weeks with a step back each week.

    Do you think this is worthwhile base training?

    I’d appreciate any advice

    Cheers,
    Megan

    • Hi Megan,

      Great question here! I actually think you should *not* be doing base training right now. You have a pretty good base already and from now through your trip in April, you’d be better served by actually training to run a fast race – somewhere between 5k – half marathon in length. Keep your long run preferably at 20km or longer to ensure you’re still building endurance and will be ready for marathon training (the schedule you outlined looks great).

      But in general, you don’t want to base train for too long. Here’s some more context: http://strengthrunning.com/2015/10/base-training-too-long/

      Running is cumulative so you never waste your time!

      • Thanks so much Jason – I really appreciate your response.

        I actually do have a half marathon coming up in April – the week before I go away.

        I will keep the long runs going as you have suggested.

        I will have a look at your other link as well.

        Cheers

        Megan 🙂

  2. Worldrunner says:

    Hi,
    I’m curious what you think about plyometrics. Should these be included in the base phase? Or at all?
    Thanks!

    • I think plyometrics are quite valuable but not during the base phase of training. They’re best for maximizing economy and fine-tuning strength so that you can really take advantage of the stretch shortening cycle of the gait. They also require a certain level of strength and coordination that you have to build up to, rather than jumping right into a challenging set of plyos (in other words, the injury risk is high!).

      For more on this topic, check out our strength training series at https://strengthrunning.com/strength/

  3. Jason,

    How do you know when you have done enough base training?

    I have suffered a i injury and want be at full strength until March my marathon is April 28, should I focus more on core strength workouts now? My goal is to run under 3 hours in April.

    • That’s a really tough question to answer because it depends on so many factors. But I think in general, one longer base period per year is a good idea (say, 8-12 weeks or so) with shorter base phases (maybe 4-6 weeks) before each training cycle throughout the rest of the year. This really means that there are going to be periods of time when you’re taking a break from “intensity” and focusing more on mileage/aerobic work. It’s a constant ebb and flow over time.

  4. Perfect timing on this article for me. Question: I followed your link for hill sprints and read that article too and you mention not to lean into the hill when running hill sprints. Does not leaning only apply for hill sprints or should you never lean into a hill (leaning into it is what I learned from my college coach). Love your articles, thanks!

    • Yeah it’s just not ideal form. When you tell a runner to “lean into” the hill, a majority of runners will lean from the waist (not good!). While it’s true that you want a slight forward lean in your running, that should come from the ankles, which is difficult to do for runners who lack the strength to maintain that position. Best to say “run tall” and let the lean take care of itself.

  5. Hi Jason,

    Great article. I had a tibial stress fracture in June 2017 and I have been slowly building my base by doing easy running 4x a week (30 miles, which includes a long run) with 2 weight lifting sessions. I have not been doing any speed work but I have been running strides after my 2 mid week runs. I was wondering if you have any suggestions of faster running that I could do to increase my speed & change my pace while reducing my risk of injury.

    Thanks

    • Hi Lynda, you’re in a unique situation. Whenever you’re coming back from a stress fracture, you should avoid the faster running and instead keep things really easy. But since you’re fully recovered now, you can start doing some easier sessions like fast finish runs, fartleks, or short tempo workouts. Just remember that fast workouts never reduce your risk of injury. They always increase it (but are necessary anyway).

  6. Base phase is everything! It’s the foundation for the whole competitive season. Tends to be overlooked and misunderstood. Great simple and easy to understand article. Thanks!