How to Build a Better Base

How to Build a Better Training Base

We are all familiar with the phase “base building”. But what does it actually mean to build a training base – and how do you effectively build one? To build an effective training base, it’s important to think broad and multifaceted, not just easy running.

Steve Magness argues in The Science of Running, “The multifaceted base means that instead of creating a base of just aerobic running, we are establishing a metabolic, neuromuscular, and structural foundation.”

Unless you are an absolutely beginner (running for fewer than six months), you want to ditch the notion that base building is only easy running. Developing a multifaceted training base produces better results in both base training and specific training. Both speed development and strength training play a role in building a better base. Small deliberate doses of faster running develop a speed base. Resistance training develops a foundation of durability and strength.

If base building is a beer, easy running is the water and grains. Strength training is the yeast; some think you can get away without it, but it is essential for a viable finished product. Speed development is the hops; an appropriate application enhances the finished product (while too much ruins the beer).

In order to build a better base for running, you must focus on developing your aerobic, speed, and strength foundations.

How to Build a Better Training Base

Build an Aerobic Base

Even though base building focuses on multiple facets of fitness, aerobic endurance is the primary goal. Running primarily easy miles (paced below your aerobic threshold) bolsters your musculoskeletal system, improves your endurance, and increases your workload capacity. When specific training does commence, you will be able to handle more intensity (harder workouts) and maintain peak fitness for longer.

In order to build your aerobic base, the protocol is simple in theory: run easy for almost all of your runs, run more than normal, and include a weekly long run. In practice, this does take discipline, particularly for fast-twitch runners, those who struggle to slow down enough on easy days, or those who enjoy speed workouts.

For beginner runners, building an aerobic base focuses on adapting to running. You will not try to push your mileage levels yet; instead, you want to allow your cardiovascular and musculoskeletal system the opportunity to adapt to running. Running easy is a skill to be learned; novice runners can also spend the base phase learning how to run truly easy. The calibration of effort is a vital part of base building.

Experienced runners can use base building to increase their mileage. If you can safely handle more mileage, the base phase is the ideal time to increase it. (For more on how to safely increase your mileage, reference this blog post.)

Build a Speed Base

A speed base does NOT equate to gut-busting intervals sessions. Step away from the track. The purpose of a speed base is to develop neuromuscular fitness, not anaerobic fitness. VO2max workouts do not build a speed foundation. If anything, undertaking hard interval sessions without building a speed base first undercuts your training potential.

The purpose of a speed base is two-fold. First, it is to improve running economy. The goal is to make you more relaxed at faster paces and to recruit fast-twitch muscles more seamlessly. Second, it is to develop top-end speed before training speed endurance.

Very short intervals – strides, 30-sec mid-run surges, and hill sprints – optimally build your speed base without compromising aerobic base development. Incorporate these once or twice per week into your runs during a base building phase.

Short fartleks with generous recovery intervals further develop a speed foundation after several weeks of strides/surges/hill sprints. These should be truly effort-based and feel like “gentle pushes” rather than exhausting efforts.

Build a Strength Base

The base phase is the ideal time to build strength. When a majority of your runs are easy, it does not really matter if you are sore or heavy-legged for them.

Building a strength base accomplishes multiple outcomes. First, you strengthen your body against injury, which is valuable for both building miles and later increasing intensity. Second, you improve your power output, which much like speed development allows you to run faster with less effort. Finally, it adapts your body to the demand of lifting and creates a habit, which makes it easier to keep strength training through higher-intensity specific training.

Any strength training is better than no strength training. However, if you want to truly maximize your performance, lift heavier weights for few (5-10) reps once or twice per week. This does not mean going to the gym and doing heavy Olympic lift. What is does mean is picking up a weight that feels heavy for you, rather than sticking to light weights and high reps.

Duration Matters with a Base Phase

Do not rush through your base period. The body takes time to adapt; rushing base training sacrifices those adaptations. Experienced runners should devote four to eight weeks per year to base building. Novice runners or those returning from an extended break (injury, postpartum, or simply time off) will benefit from a longer period of base training.

Repeat base phases throughout your running career, at least once per year. The larger the base, the higher you can peak!

The Runner’s Round-up Link-Up

Runners' Round Up

I am honored and excited to be joining Mile by Mile, Confessions of a Mother Runner, Runs with Pugs, and Coach Debbie Runs to host the weekly Runner’s Round-Up link-up. Each week, join in a link-up for running posts.

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What do you focus on when building a base?

How often do you spend building a base each year?

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6 Responses

  1. In some ways I feel like I’ve spent the majority of this year doing base building 🙂 This was my focus back in January when I started running more after backing off in December, in preparation for a May half-marathon that never happened. I like the focus on mostly easy runs with strength and a little bit of speed, so I’ve kind of continued with it since I haven’t been training for anything. I love your beer analogy!

  2. I really like the analogies you used. Agree that base building is so important and many people rush through it obviously leading to problems. Having had so many injuries the last few years, I feel like I am always base building. Thanks for sharing and welcome to hosting the link up great to have you

  3. You always explain things so well! I’ve basically been in base building mode since March when my first races were canceled. Of course now that I have a couple of virtual races on the horizon it’s so hot that I’m having a hard time getting beyond it!
    Thanks for joining us as a Runners’ Roundup Co-host. We’re happy an honored to have you!

  4. Welcome to the link up! Of course, now I want a beer!

    This is great to keep in mind! I’m not a beginner, but I am coming back from absolutely nothing, so this is something I am noting. I’ve been running for just under six months, so it might be time to mix things up to get that base back.

  5. Thanks for the great tips on how to build a base, Laura. I thin most runners concentrate on building an aerobic base and neglect the speed and strength. I am working on adding those 2 components now. Love the comparison to brewing beer! I think it’s something most runners can relate to!

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