Whether you’re hoping to crush a time goal, lose fat or simply enjoy a consistent running routine this year, you’ll benefit from devoting a month or two to base training. This focus on logging easy-effort miles develops a solid aerobic foundation that you can then maintain or build on (with tempo runs or speedwork). ‘Putting in those miles creates changes in your body that go all the way down to the cellular level,’ says running coach and exercise physiologist Janet Hamilton. During base training, you enlarge your heart chambers, build mitochondria (your cells’ power stations), strengthen tendons and other connective tissues, and also expand your glycogen-storage capacity. Those invisible metamorphoses make you better able to handle – and benefit from – more intense workouts later on. ‘You’re training to train,’ says running coach Dennis Barker.
A good base for a new runner might be 10 miles per week (including a three-mile ‘long’ run), while experienced runners targeting half marathons or longer might aim for 30 or more weekly miles. If you’re a racer, solid base fitness preps you for faster finishes. Base-building has mental benefits, too: ‘You’ll feel stronger, which ups your enjoyment of any run,’ says Hamilton. Here’s how to build your base – and how to strengthen an already solid foundation.
1/ Get started
All runners should build mileage gradually – never exceeding 10 per cent increases from week to week – and should vary the length of their runs. Hamilton recommends one long run (30-40 per cent of total weekly mileage), two medium runs (20 per cent) and one or two easy, short-mileage runs (10 per cent) per week. Rein in your pace and save high-intensity speedwork for later: even moderate-intensity runs should represent no more than 10-15 per cent of your weekly mileage.
If your joints ache with the mere thought of running four or five times each week, swap out your easiest run (or runs, if you’re planning five workouts per week) for cardio cross-training. ‘It takes some stress off your legs while still building aerobic fitness,’ says 2008 Olympian Amy Yoder Begley, now a running coach at the University of Connecticut, US.
Begley recommends non-weight-bearing exercises such as cycling or aqua-jogging, which give your joints and muscles a break from running’s impact forces while still challenging your heart and lungs. In her training programmes, every 10 minutes of cardio cross-training equals one running mile. ‘But they have to be quality cardio sessions; you can’t just be out for a stroll,’ says Begley. Cycling workouts, for example, should use a fast cadence (above 90 rotations per minute). Make sure you keep a midweek long run, about 75 per cent of the length of your longest run – so if you’re logging 15 miles at the weekend, your midweek ‘long’ run should be 10 or 11 miles. ‘Your goal is quantity, not quality, so don’t worry about pace,’ says Barker. But build in good recovery after each longer run.
2/ Build up
If you have already been consistently logging solid mileage for months, there’s still room for you to shore up your base before diving into more intense training. You can try adding a midweek longish run or running doubles (that is, going out twice in one day). Logging two longer runs each week builds your capacity for distance, which is especially beneficial for runners targeting marathons later in the year. When work or family commitments prevent hours-long workouts during the week, occasional doubles can be an effective way to enrich aerobic capability. Start by breaking up a normal mid-length easy run into two sessions: one in the morning and another in the afternoon or evening. ‘Do no more than two doubles per week for the first two weeks,’ says Barker. If your body handles the additional sessions without much complaint, try adding a mile or two to one or both of the sessions. Doubles are typically the realm of advanced runners, says Barker, so listen to your body and back off if anything hurts.
3/ Choose your cross-training
How (and when) to reap the most benefits from cardio cross-training
Cycling: Great if you’re doing hills (equivalent to a moderate-to-high resistance setting on the spin bike). Don’t do it the day before or after a long or tough run.
Swimming: Since it taxes non-running muscles, swimming is a good cross-training option any day, even the day before or after a tough running workout.
Rowing: This glute strengthener is fine anytime. New runners may feel some post-workout muscle soreness or fatigue, but it’ll diminish as you adapt.