Ever heard runners talk about base training or “building a base” before they train for a big race? They’re talking about the period of time (maybe 8 to 16 weeks) focused on consistent, easy running. During this super crucial phase, they are building a good running foundation physically and mentally, without stressing over fast paces or long miles.
If you want to run a half or a full marathon this year, plan on building your base BEFORE you start your actual race training. Let’s talk about the WHY of base training and some tips to make it work for you.
Why Train To Train?
Wait, so “base training” is training you do BEFORE you start actually training for your race?
Does that sound redundant?
Isn’t 4 months of marathon-specific training enough?
To be fair, I’d never heard of base training in my early running days with Team In Training. We went from “couch to marathon” in 4 to 5 months…but our goal was merely to finish the race, and we walked a lot. If they would’ve told me I needed to spend 3 months running consistently before I signed up to train for the marathon, I probably wouldn’t have made it to the first practice! Just being honest.
Now, 8 years later, I see the obvious benefit (and damn near necessity) of base training. Why?
Because your body can’t adapt to frequency, distance and speed all at the same time.
At least, not without a much higher risk of injury. Think about it. Your body has to learn how to run and recover to run again pretty quick before you can start throwing a lot of high mileage at it without it breaking! So as you grow as a runner, you’ve got to focus on one adaptation at a time:
- New runners need to get “comfy” with running consistently.
- Beginning marathoner’s need to adapt to running longer distances.
- Experienced runner’s want to learn to run their marathon faster.
It takes time for your physical body to get used too higher levels of activity. Before you can run a fast marathon, your body must first be able to run long with “relative ease” (e.g. without crashing from the effort into sickness/injury). Before you can run long, your body must first be able to run frequently with relative ease. Base training is the first step, the training before the training, for all levels of runners.
Base training gets your body fit for race-specific training
so you can crush it instead of merely survive it.
Because generic marathon plans available online are typically:
- only 4 months in length,
- have you average 25-30 miles per week overall (peaking at 40+), and
- have you run at least 4 days out of the week, but usually 5 or 6.
These numbers vary based on experience level, but still…it’s a lot for a body to accomplish even if it has a good foundation to start with. And if it doesn’t? Well, think of marathon training as building a tower. You’ve got to build the first floor before you build the second, and so on, yeah? By the end you’ve got to get to 26 floors plus a 385 yard flagpole. Do you really want to build that without digging out a solid foundation first?Build a good running foundation BEFORE you train for a marathon. Why? Read this: Click To Tweet
Plenty of people finish marathons without base training first. However, those folks are at an increased risk of disappointment! They battle mental/physical training fatigue plus sickness/injury all through training. They are lucky to complete 80% of their training runs and frequently miss their desired paces. So yes, they might finish building their tower…but it kinda leans a little to the left. Instead of celebrating a strong marathon finish or a personal record, they settle for celebrating another finish, another medal, and hopefully avoiding big injuries.
Tips for Building a Good Running Foundation
Spending a few months building a solid running base can seem wearisome. Everyone wants to run faster, like yesterday. Everyone wants to get on with the super sexy high mileage runs of real race training. That’s the “fun” part. That’s Instagram-able. BUT…simply because base building isn’t focused on increasing mileage or race-specific speed work doesn’t mean it has to be boring or devoid of any structure.
TIPS FOR NEW RUNNERS:
If you run less than 15 miles a week or less than 300 miles a year, your body is considered new to running, at least for the sake of distance and marathon training. Your body will greatly benefit from base training simply because of the increased frequency of running! You’ll see lot of progress in your base training phase. Lucky you! Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Run for minutes instead of miles. This way it doesn’t matter how fast you are or are not. Plus, it makes it much easier to PLAN for 4 or 5 runs a week when you know exactly how long they’ll take you! And failure to plan is planning to fail so.
- Shoot for 150 minutes a week to start. That breaks down to 5 days a week of 30 minutes or 6 days of 25 minutes. Running frequency is your number one friend when it comes to your body learning to adapt to running. Plus, this gets you in the habit of setting aside time for training on 5 or 6 days of the week.
- Run Strides once a week. Strides are short (maybe 50 to 100 meters or 15 to 20 seconds) and fun! They remind me of run-play as a kid. To run a stride, gradually run faster and faster until you hit about 80% of your top speed and then gently slow to a stop. Rest to get your breath back and do it again 4 or 5 times. Doing this in the middle or at the end of a run is a great way to start working on finding a higher gear.
TIPS FOR BEGINNING MARATHONERS:
If you average 15+ miles a week and are training for your first marathon or two, then I’m looking at you. I know you want to run a fast marathon (who doesn’t?), but your body is going to benefit most from adapting to running long first, without a focus on speed. Here is how you can make base building productive:
- Build your long run slowly. At first you can shift your 15 to 20 miles around so that you’re hitting 6 or 7 of those miles on your weekend long run. This way your body can focus on adapting to that one long run and then recovering.
- Shoot for a few 8 to 10 mile long runs. You’re going to want to spend about a month running over 20 miles each week. If you’re “comfortable” with that distance by the end of your base training, you should be in good shape to start marathon-specific training.
- Run Fartleks & Try Tempos. Fartleks are speedwork without pressure and a great way to “work on getting faster” during base training. Also, experimenting with a couple “Tempo” miles toward the end of your long run can be a worthwhile diversion. Do this by holding a steady pace that is comfortably hard, or 80% of your max effort. To start, add one or two tempo miles to a distance you’re already comfortably able to run. Both Fartkles and Tempo Runs can give you a taste of what you’ll need to focus on when you’re ready to train for marathon #3!
TIPS FOR EXPERIENCED RUNNERS:
So you’ve done a few marathons and regularly run 20+ miles a week on average, often more. You’re probably no stranger to double digit long runs. For you, base training is about coming back from time off (recovery after your last big race or maybe even injury) and you know it’s going to set you up for success for your next big race. Try these to up your game:
- Fold in supplemental body work. Incorporate stability and balance exercises into your warm up and add core strength and flexibility work to your cool down. This is a great time to introduce plyometrics or speed & agility drills. All of this supplemental work helps your body run more efficiently, avoid injury, and challenge those fast twitch muscle fibers in a new and powerful way.
- Practice long runs with short Tempos. During base building you have no need to stress over hitting training paces, but you do want to keep your mental stamina strong. If you run an easy 8 miler one weekend, repeat it the next with a tempo run for miles 6 and maybe 7. Remind yourself you can hold a steady, increased effort at the end of a long run to build confidence going into your next marathon training cycle.
- Prioritize rest and easy runs. There’s a good chance you’re eager to jump back into 30 mile weeks and speed work. Don’t. Ease back into it and take your rest days seriously (no spin class). If you’ve got 3 miles of easy running on deck, make sure it’s easy. Run with a slower friend, make a running playlist full of songs that’ll keep your pace under control, or heaven-bid, find a treadmill and set the pace to “force yourself” to run easy.