Is Your Concept of Base Training Wrong? Why the Base Training Phase is More Than Just Lots of Easy Running
If you’ve been running for a few years, you’ve probably encountered the term base training before.
Perhaps you read about it in a magazine or someone in your running group mentioned it as a reason for their poor performance: “oh, I’m in my base phase, so I don’t have any speed”.
While most runners think they comprehend the concept of base training, few actually understand how to implement it correctly thanks to some long-standing misconceptions about how a week of training is structured during the base phase.
Moreover, a new appreciation for how the body adapts and responds to training has emerged in the last decade that has reinforced some of the original, yet misunderstood principles of how to approach the traditional base training phase.
In this article, we’ll take a look back at the history of base training as it was originally intended and compare how it’s commonly views today. More importantly, we’ll look at some of the common misconceptions of base training, how they came about, and then provide a more modern approach to maximizing aerobic development in the base phase.
Background on base training
The concept of base training was popularized by the legendary coach, Arthur Lydiard.
At the 1960 and 1964 Olympic games, Lydiard coached athletes (Murray Halberg, Peter Snell and Barry Magee) dominated the distance events, winning six distance medals between them. Their training was revolutionary at the time and sparked a transformation in how coaches understood training.
Specifically, Lydiard had his athletes – even middle distance runners like Snell – running 100 mile weeks in what he called the “base training” phase.
The goal of base training is to develop a runner’s aerobic potential to its maximum before implementing anaerobic training.
While it wasn’t as widely known in the 50’s and 60’s as it is today, Lydiard understood that distance running events were primarily aerobic and that by developing the aerobic system to it’s maximum, his athletes could dominate thanks to their superior endurance.
Moreover, Lydiard believed (and was correct) that more than 4-6 weeks of intense anaerobic training was unnecessary because after 6 weeks of anaerobic training, improvements reach a point of diminishing returns and the risk of burnout (caused by the lowering of blood pH) increases.
As evidenced by the six medals won at the 1960 and 1964 Olympic games, the concept of base training worked. As such, Lydiard’s influence and training methods spread across the globe and became ingrained in how coaches approached the training of distance runners.
Misconceptions about base training
Unfortunately, as the concept of base training spread, many misconceptions about how to properly implement emerged.
As with any training method, not all coaches agreed with the exact approach and so they tweaked and changed some of the concepts to better fit their training philosophy. Normally, this wouldn’t be a big issue since those who believed in Arthur’s way of training could just go back and follow his principles exactly.
That’s where we run into two problems.
First, Lydiard didn’t believe in writing general, one-size-fits-all training schedules, which are prevalent today (as a coach, I can definitely understand his hesitation). As such, he didn’t clearly document a specific, template schedule to follow. Much of what we know now about the base training phase comes from his lectures and schedules of the athletes he coached. As such, there is a lot of room for interpretation.
Second, Lydiard wrote two books, Run to the Top and Running the Lydiard Way, that somewhat contradicted each other in regards to whether you perform “workouts” during the base phase. For whatever reason, most coaches and athletes took away that you shouldn’t be doing any workouts during the base phase.
This concept became the prevalent approach to base training – lots of easy, slow miles and no workouts. It’s probably what you think of when you contemplate how to structure a base phase.
Unfortunately, that’s not what Lydiard intended and it’s not what recent developments in training science have found to be ideal.
A new way to think about base training
In reality, Lydiard’s base training phase included two workouts.
The first was a fartlek workout, which ranged anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes of harder running with a long recovery between each repeat. The pace of the repeats was anywhere from 5k to half marathon pace, depending on the length of the repeat and the recovery between. The effort was designed to be moderate and run by feel rather than pace. Lydiard was a big proponent of running by feel, a concept absent in training these days thanks to GPS tracking devices.
The goal of the workout wasn’t to run hard – in fact, Lydiard discouraged against running hard enough to accumulate lactic acid. Rather, these sessions were meant to “turn the legs over” and provide a change of pace. It may seem like semantics, but there is a difference between this type of workout and what we usually think of as speed work (which is running VO2max intervals and running as hard as you can).
Lydiard’s fartleks help maintain efficiency by stimulating the central nervous system and activating more slow twitch muscle fibers. More importantly, they help reduce injury by gradually introducing speed into a training schedule. Many runners get hurt when they try to run at speeds their muscles, tendons and ligaments aren’t ready for. These base phase fartleks help prepare those muscles for the harder workouts after the base phase.
The second workout staple in Lydiard’s plan was the steady state run. Like the fartlek, this steady state run was designed to be a moderate effort – not hard. From my understanding, Lydiard’s interpretation of steady state was current marathon pace (notice the subtle difference between goal or “dream” marathon pace).
While some of his star pupils eventually ran one hour steady states at marathon pace in their base training, Lydiard’s “run by feel” approach would probably suggest you start with 20 to 30 minutes at a little slower than marathon pace and slowly build as you get stronger.
Putting the new concept of base training into practice
When we examine this more modern and accurate view of base training, it’s apparent that the idea of base training as “lots of easy miles” is widely inaccurate. Each week for Lydiard’s most accomplished runners included a fartlek session, a steady state run, and a long run.
However, the most important concept is that none of these workouts were hard. Because they ran by feel and always trained to their current fitness, each workout for Lydiard’s athletes was a moderate effort. As such, you should tailor your workouts in the base phase to match your fitness level.
If you’re a beginner, perhaps you can start with just 30 seconds of running at 8k pace with three to four minutes jog rest as your first fartlek and your initial steady state might be just 20 minutes. If you’re a more advanced runner, you can build from there, but always keep in mind the goal of the workout – moderate effort.
Moreover, each workout helped stimulate a different system. The fartleks help improve turnover, efficiency and neuromuscular function. Steady state running improves your aerobic threshold. Long runs help build mitochondria, capillaries and myoglobin content. And of course, all those easy miles in-between help develop your aerobic endurance.
By working each energy system slightly in the base phase, you slowly build upon each component so that no particular energy system is left behind. You start at whatever fitness level you’re at and by the end of the training cycle, your aerobic development, speed, and threshold are at their maximum levels simultaneously, which leads to being in your best general fitness as you start the next phase in periodisation or begin race-specific training.
So, the next time you think about how you’re going to structure your base training phase, take a more modern approach and include a few fartleks and steady state runs. You’ll be a stronger, faster, and healthier runner for it.