Base Building

By Andrew Hibbert

In books, magazines and online you will find many plans, lasting around 12 weeks, to prepare you for an endurance race. At the start of this plan will be a line saying something like "before starting this plan you should be used to running 30-35 miles per week." This is because the plan covers only one part of your training, called "sharpening". Before sharpening a period of "base building" is needed. Without building a solid base, the later phases cannot be done effectively and you will either not reach your peak performance in the race or, worse, get injured.

During base building the main training objectives are to increase endurance, of several kinds, and condition the body against injury. (Improvements in speed typically peak in 8-12 weeks of targeted training before falling again and so this is especially part of the sharpening phase.) Equally important at this time, however, are planning your training and experimenting to determine what works best for you, so I will discuss them before the main types of training.

Take time to plan your training

Planning will consider your past, present and future training. In your previous training, what has helped you to improve and what caused setbacks or was less than ideal? What is your current condition and training load? This evaluation is key - it will tell you where you are starting from and help you plan what you want to change. You will be helped by a training log so if you don’t have one you would hopefully start one. If you do have one you can think about what extra information you wish you had or what you have been carefully recording but don’t actually need.

After the self-assessment you will be in a position to decide your next goal, which should be achievable but challenging and measurable. It might apply to one or a series of races. Even better, you can set two or three levels: what is your dream goal, what you would be happy with and what you would be satisfied with. Your main goal race will ideally be over 6 months away to allow time for base building and sharpening. In addition to this main goal you might also have particular training goals of things you want to improve.

Experimenting in your training

To achieve these goals you might want to incorporate new aspects to your training. Each time you do this is an experiment and these experiments will be part of your base building. They will again make use of your training log. How do you respond to doing a moderate run the day after a hard run? How about 2 days after? Do you find a day off or a gentle recovery run better after a tough session? These experiments will help shape how you fit your training into the week and what training you do. A further piece of experimenting will come in short races. Your preparation, race strategy, clothing, nutrition and recovery can all be varied to suit you.

Components of base building

What are the main training techniques you can use in these plans and experiments? On a short scale, your week will incorporate several types of training. In rough order of priority I have listed them below. These are particular sessions in addition to steady or easy running. Not all of them necessarily need to be done every week, and the lower priorities might not be run at all. Note that this is based on a goal race around half-marathon to marathon distance; different goal races will use different base building.  As this is base building, a good approach is to finish each session feeling like you could definitely have continued if necessary.

  1. Rest – if you don’t recover from your sessions enough you are at risk of over-training and injury.
  2. Long runs – these will often be around 50% longer than your typical run and run at a steady pace. With the club you could join the Sunday long runs or Wednesday club runs.
  3. Conditioning – this is your injury proofing. Any advice you have received after an injury will come into this. The two main parts are strength (achieved for example by specific exercises, gym/circuit sessions or hill sessions such as at Greenwich, Hampstead or Primrose Hill) and flexibility (such as yoga or thorough stretching, which is best done after a gentle warm up). These are separate sessions, stretching after a tough session will be much less effective than a specific stretching session for improving flexibility.
  4. Race pace running – for half marathons or marathons it helps to be used to your current race pace, both to get used to maintaining it and to help with not setting off too fast. It will also help you to run efficiently. This could be done for all of a short run or just part of a longer run.
  5. Tempo running – This is designed to increase the speed that you can run aerobically. It is typically running at your 10 km to 10 mile race pace, run as intervals or continuously, but the same goals can be achieved by faster running in carefully planned intervals. Coached sessions with the club include Monday at Paddington, Tuesday at Paddington, Bermondsey Spa Gardens or Parliament Hill Track as well as the hills sessions mentioned above.

In addition, racing is useful for experience, to track progress and for the sheer fun of it. Cross training is also a good idea, particularly for conditioning, variety and if injured.

Increasing training as you improve

On a longer scale, training can be broken into cycles often lasting 3-4 weeks, with the last week being a recovery week. For this week, you might drop the distance (but not the pace or number of runs) to 75% of your normal weekly distance. This will help you to adapt to the previous few weeks training. During the other weeks of the cycle the distance run will probably be gradually increased unless you already run your goal training distance. A common rule is to increase the distance run in a week by no more than 10%. This increase should not be applied every week; it takes time to adapt to the increase.

Instead of increasing the distance run in a week, you may feel you would be better running more runs in a week or increasing the number of tough runs (like tempo, hills, speed or races) in a week. Only one should be changed at a time so: if you run more often in a week, each run gets shorter so that the weekly distance is the same and if you add a tough run, you are replacing an easier run. Again, these increases are best not added every week.

Through these gradual changes and experiments you can move from your current training level towards your target base training. As you progress through these increases you should monitor how you are responding to your training. Base training should be at a level that could be maintained for years, building up as your fitness builds. By building a strong base you will be in a great position to put together a sharpening plan and peak for your goal performance but this phase, which often requires patience and restraint, comes first.

©Andrew Hibbert 2008